Oil Sands

Last updated: Jul 2009


Ethical Consumer launches a boycott of companies involved in oil sands extraction


The boreal forest is the largest on earth and contains the biggest source of carbon. It spans Russia, Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia. Beneath the Canadian boreal forest is thought to be the world’s second biggest oil reserves, and energy companies and the Canadian Government are working hard to extract it.

But extraction comes with a very heavy price. This ‘unconventional oil’ reserve is actually a mixture of sand or clay and bitumen, a thick and heavy form of petroleum. Not only is it three to eight times more carbon intensive to extract and refine than conventional oil, it also requires huge amounts of chemical thinners, natural gas and water, and produces a toxic waste product that is, in itself, an environmental disaster.

Even more importantly, the Canadian oil sands developments threaten to unleash far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the planet can possibly cope with, pushing us way beyond the point of runaway climate chaos. Ethical Consumer is launching a boycott campaign to raise awareness about the oil sands and to challenge their continued expansion.

As well as boycotting the products of companies profiting from the oil sands development, we are calling on people to contact oil companies, the financial institutions that invest in them and the British Government to voice their protest against the oil sands.


Climate tipping point

The oil sands (also called tar sands) of Alberta, Canada, are currently the biggest construction project on the planet and also have the highest concentration of capital investment. Already a million barrels of oil a day are being pumped to the United States, and every oil company you can think of is there, working away.

If all of the permits for extraction that have already been granted by the Canadian Government are fulfilled, we would see a hike in CO2 levels of around 65 parts per million in about 30 years. A fairly conservative estimate of what is required to push the climate beyond a catastrophic ‘tipping point’ is about 20 parts per million, so if this scenario becomes a reality, all of the combined efforts of individuals and nation states to tackle climate change will be wasted.

The industry claims that it is investing in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to prevent the release of unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but this technology has not even been proved viable, let alone currently operational.


Ecosystem destruction

After the oil has been extracted, where previously pristine forests and rare and sensitive wetlands existed, are devastated areas and toxic lakes known as tailing ponds. They’re so huge they can be seen from space, and there are no current plans to deal with them. Migratory birds die upon contact: in a single incident in 2008, 500 birds died after landing on one. Mutated fish have been found downstream.

Cancer rates amongst the aboriginal people that live downstream are reported to be far higher than ‘normal’, and there are a disproportionately large number of different types of cancer.[6] Should the dams break (is it only a matter of time?) this toxic waste will flow into the currently unpolluted Arctic Ocean, destroying all the ecosystems in its path in the third largest water basin in the world.

The chances that oil companies will act responsibly with regard to the waste product of their operations are slim, to say the least. In March 2009 CBC News reported that Suncor was facing 90 charges “ranging from knowingly falsifying documents to dumping untreated waste water into the Athabasca River”.[1]


Legal challenge

The Beaver Lake Cree Nation are directly challenging the oil sands. The 1982 Canada Act in Westminster, which provided the country with full independence from the UK, included a clause that allows the First Nation aborigine people of Canada the right to hunt and fish in their homeland in return for giving up their claims to land ownership. This right is de facto removed by the tar sands because animals and fish alike are dying. The Beaver Lake Cree Nation have found a powerful ally in the British Co-op Group, that is funding their legal battle to the tune of £50,000 and campaigning more broadly in the UK against unconventional oil extraction.

Some analysts claim that the recent drop in the price of oil has put the brakes on the oil sands developments, but others disagree. Jack Woodward, the lawyer representing the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in their fight against the oil sands, described the results as a blip in the development of the oil sands industry, but not much of one.[2]


Consumer action

The oil sands may be a long way away, but the oil companies working there, the banks that are making the developments a reality, and some of the companies that provide the machinery, infrastructure and services to the oil sands are right on your doorstep.

In September 2008, Greenpeace UK and the campaign group Platform published BP and Shell: Rising Risks in Tar Sands Investments, which highlighted the role of these two oil giants in Alberta. It also named fifteen banking groups that have played the most significant role in financing the oil sands. Of these, three have consumer-facing operations in the UK and so are on the Top Ten Boycott List: RBS, HSBC and Barclays.

The massive bail-out of the banking sector that occurred last year also means that, as taxpayers, we now own 70% of RBS. It is essential that we use this leverage to demand more accountability from banks, particularly with regard to the climate liabilities of their investments.

It is not practical to boycott specific oil companies because they are all currently investing in oil sands. However, the infrastructure which surrounds the oil sands is substantial, and many companies involved have other consumer brands. Ethical Consumer has been doing some digging of our own to find companies that are profiting from oil sands through the provision of infrastructure, machinery or services.

We are launching this boycott with a top ten list of consumer brands linked to oil sands madness. As more companies emerge we will be adding them to our boycott list on the website at www.ethicalconsumer.org/oilsandsboycott


Top 10 Companies to Boycott


1 Superdrug

2 Hitachi

3 Barclays

4 Nouvelle paper products

5 ‘3’ mobile phone network

6 Royal Bank of Scotland

7 Caterpillar

8 Liebherr fridges


10 Lycra


Superdrugand the mobile phone brand ‘3’ are owned by Hong Kong company Hutchison Whampoa, which also owns Husky Energy Ltd. In 2006 Husky had a total of 510,890 acres of oil sands leases and in 2007 signed an agreement with BP for a 50/50 partnership to develop the Sunrise oil sands project.[3]

Caterpillarand Hitachi both make trucks used in the oil sands. The vehicles have almost certainly been developed for this purpose, as the requirements of the vehicles are immense and project-specific. If you visit the Caterpillar website, you’ll see a trail of trucks the sizes of houses shifting 400 tonnes of oil sands each from the mines.[4]

Along with fridges, Liebherr-International AG also manufactures trucks for use in the oil sands. 

Koch Industries Inc is deeply entrenched in the oil sands industry, primarily through its subsidiary Flint Hills Resources. Another subsidiary company has constructed, and yet another one operates, a pipeline which carries oil from Alberta to Minnesota, USA. Koch has a very sketchy track record as far as environmental responsibility goes. In 2000 alone, “Koch was fined $35 million dollars for more than 310 spills into lakes, streams and waterways from its pipelines and oil facilities in six states in the USA”.[5]

Koch Industries is a huge company, the largest privately-held company in the United States. Its subsidiaries produce a number of household products, brands and materials, including Nouvelle recycled toilet paper, Lotus disposable paper products, and LYCRA fibres.


Take Action

You can contact the Ethical Consumer office (ring 0161 226 1919 or use our web form) for an Oil Sands Boycott Information Pack, or use the addresses below to write to the companies on the boycott list.

  • Superdrug Stores Plc 118 Beddington Ln., Croydon, London CR0 4TB
  • Hitachi Europe Ltd. Whitebrook Park, Lower Cookham Rd., Maidenhead SL6 8YA
  • Barclays PLC 1 Churchill Place, London E14 5HP
  • Nouvelle Paper Products Georgia-Pacific, 133 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, GA 30303 USA
  • ‘3’ mobile phone network Hutchison 3G UK Limited, Star House, 20 Grenfell Rd., Maidenhead, SL6 1EH
  • The Royal Bank of Scotland Group plc 36 St. Andrew Sq., Edinburgh EH2 2YB
  • Caterpillar Inc. 100 NE Adams St., Peoria, IL 61629 USA
  • Liebherr-Great Britain Ltd Normandy Lane, Stratton Business Park, Biggleswade SG18 8QB
  • HSBC Holdings plc 8 Canada Square, London EC14 5HQ
  • Lycra INVISTA, Three Little Falls Centre, 2801 Centerville Road, Wilmington DE 19808 USA


In the words Jack Woodward, “together we can stop this madness”.[2]


Links and further reading


WWF and the Co-operative Bank jointly produced the report: ‘Unconventional Oil: Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel?’ which is available at www.wwf.org.uk/filelibrary/pdf/scraping_barrell.pdf.

WWF also have web resources on oils sands at http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/changing_the_way_we_live/oilsands.cfm

The Co-operative Group Toxic Fuels campaign is atwww.goodwithmoney.co.uk/toxicfuels

‘BP and Shell: Rising Risks in Tar Sands Investments’ is available from www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/norway/press/reports/bp-and-shell-rising-risks-in.pdf.


Also campaigning are:








www.woodwardandcompany.com (Friends of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation)



1 ‘Ninety charges against Suncor surface a year later’, 11th March 2009, www.greenpeace.org/canada/en/campaigns/suncor-charges [viewed 14/5/09]

2 Public meeting, Manchester, 20th February 2009

3 www.huskyenergy.com/abouthusky/history.asp [viewed 14/5/09]

4 http://unitedkingdom.cat.com/cda/files/329220/7/cat_05ar_sec2.pdf [viewed 14/5/09]

5 ‘Enbridge, Koch, and Tar Sands Recovery: Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory?’, 30th January 2008, http://thepanelist.com/General/General/_20080130770 [viewed 14/5/09]

6 High cancer rates confirmed near Canada’s oil sands Fri Feb 6, 2009 http://uk.reuters.com/article/oilRpt/idUKN0646633720090206 [ Images: http://www.oilsandswatch.org/album/mining/projector.php?slide=index]


This article first appeared in Ethical Consumer 119, July/August 2009