The Tar Sands Tanker Threat: American Waterways in Industry’s Sights

Issue Paper
December 07, 2016

Tar sands oil is one of the most carbon-intensive fuels in the world, and its production is especially destructive to the local environment in Northern Alberta, Canada. In 2015, President Obama rejected TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, which would have carried 835,000 barrels of oil per day. But that hasn’t stopped Canadian oil companies from devising new schemes to get their dangerous tar sands crude to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast and California.

The industry’s latest proposals require oil tankers and barges—up to 1,000 new vessels per year—navigating U.S. coastlines and rivers to get their tar sands crude to market. This news is especially concerning given new evidence about the behavior of certain types of tar sands oil in water. Unlike other oils, once spilled in water, tar sands crude—transported as diluted bitumen—quickly loses its ability to float, dispersing into the water column and eventually sinking to the bottom. When this happens, the damage is long-term, as the sunken oil introduces contaminants that persist in the environment for many years. A February 2016 report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that tar sands crude differs from other oils so drastically that responders cannot effectively clean up a waterborne spill.

The proposed infrastructure projects described in this report would facilitate increased oil production in Alberta that would generate an estimated 362 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year—the equivalent of the annual emissions of more than 76 million cars. Even without the serious threat of a spill and resulting ecosystem destruction, the climate impact of these projects is too high a price to pay. This is especially true in an age when renewable energy can more safely and sustainably fulfill our energy and employment needs.

As first steps to curbing this dangerous threat, NRDC recommends the following:

  1. Policymakers at state and federal levels should exercise their regulatory power to reject vessel response plans for ships transporting tar sands diluted bitumen.
  2. Policymakers at all levels of government tasked with spill response should take immediate steps to evaluate existing legal, policy, and research priorities related to the transport and environmental behavior of tar sands diluted bitumen.