New film and report show the folly of £250 billion of tar sands investments

15 March 2010

The massive resources being poured into environmentally damaging tar sands

It is literally a matter of life and death that these enormous oil titans are re-steered to much more sustainable paths

These are the findings of a thought-provoking report by The Co-operative and WWF-UK, which puts into perspective the estimated £250 billion ($379 billion) the big oil companies are planning to invest in tar sands between now and 2025.

The report coincides today (15 March) with the UK premiere of Dirty Oil, a hard-hitting documentary film that outlines the impact tar sands extraction is having on the environment and the health of first nation Indians. The film, which is being distributed with the help of The Co-operative, will be premiered at 25 cinemas across the UK.

Narrated by Canadian actress and environmentalist Neve Campbell, the beautifully photographed documentary from the Academy Award Nominated director Leslie Iwerks goes behind-the-scenes and tells the tar sands story through the eyes of scientists, industry officials, politicians, doctors, environmentalists and indigenous Cree Indians.

Toxic Fuels CampaignThe ‘Opportunity Cost of the Tar Sands’ Report (PDF 562 KB), written by The Co-operative and WWF-UK as part of their

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The extraction and production of oil from the tar sands emits on average three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production and as a result has attracted considerable criticism from environmentalists and investors alike.

The report finds the money which oil companies want to pump into tar sands would also cover the cost of the Desertec Industrial Initiative which would link North African solar plants into a supergrid and supply 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity by 2050, or fund a Europe wide shift to electric vehicles.

The report highlights Shell and BP’s involvement in tar sands investments. BP is set to invest £6.63 billion ($10 billion) in its Sunrise tar sands project and also plans to spend another £1.62 billion ($2.5 billion) converting a refinery in Toledo, Ohio, to process the synthetic crude oil produced from the tar sands. Meanwhile Shell is spending £8.7 billion ($14 billion) to expand the Athabasca Oil Sands Project (60 per cent owned by Shell) to raise its capacity to 255,000 barrels per day.
Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals at The Co-operative, said: “The sums of money being invested in tar sands developments are enormous and difficult for the average person to grasp. This report puts things into perspective and demonstrates not only the scale of the problem, which could take us close to the brink of runaway climate change, but also the opportunity being lost.

“It is literally a matter of life and death that these enormous oil titans are re-steered to much more sustainable paths.”

Colin Butfield, WWF-UK's head of campaigns, said: "The world is currently heading for a real climate change crisis which can only be headed off by a real drive for clean energy. But if Canada extracts its probable reserves of 315 billion barrels of oil from tar sands, this will undermine the drive for clean energy - and almost single-handedly commit the world to dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This would contribute to dangerous climate change, destroying ecosystems and habitats around the world. We cannot afford this to happen.
"This report has thrown up some quite staggering statistics in terms of how that money could be spent trying to save the planet rather than destroy it. The $379bn question is will the oil companies listen? For the planet's sake, they have to. After all, if this kind of investment in tar sands continues, it’s not just a grave threat to the boreal forests, wildlife and communities in Canada."

Notes to editors:

  • The Co-operative’s Toxic Fuels campaign aims to stop the expansion of tar sands developments. As part of the campaign it is supporting the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, a small indigenous community in North East Alberta, whose ancestral lands are being threatened with destruction by expanding developments. In response, the Beaver Lake Cree have commenced a legal challenge against the Governments of Alberta and Canada to enforce recognition of their constitutionally protected treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather plants and medicines throughout their ancestral lands, protecting their environment and halting new tar sands developments in the process. The Co-operative has provided the Beaver Lake Cree with considerable support for their legal challenge throughout 2009. See our tar sands website
  • The Co-operative Asset Management has co-filed shareholder resolutions for the Shell and BP AGMs this spring. The resolutions call on the companies to report on the risks associated with tar sands projects and their plans to address them, citing financial risks, high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental damage and indigenous community impacts. The Co-operative has joined Fair Pensions and a coalition of investors, environmental groups, unions and church groups to campaign in support of the resolutions, and is mobilising its members and customers to contact their pension providers to ask that they back the resolutions at the AGMs. Go to the campaign website
  • Canada currently has accessible tar sand reserves of 174 billion barrels, second only to Saudi Arabia. Current tar sands production in Alberta, Canada stands at 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. The Canadian Government has granted licenses to increase production to 7.0 million barrels oil per day. Every major oil company currently has operations and expansion plans in Canada’s tar sands.
  • If all of Canada’s probable tar sands reserves were exploited, it would result in emissions of 183 Gt CO2, equating to an estimated increase in atmospheric CO2 levels of between 9 and 12 parts per million. This could have dire consequences, global atmospheric levels are already past 430ppm CO2e and exceeding 450ppm CO2e significantly increases the risk of 2ºC of warming and runaway climate 
  • In addition to the climate change risks, the extraction and production of oil from tar sands also risks a local ecological disaster. It destroys vast swaths of pristine boreal forest, produces huge quantities of toxic waste and pollutes the air and water, with profound consequences for local wildlife and indigenous communities.