The Alberta Tar Sands

There is much information available to the public about the widespread devastation caused by the tar sands, the world’s largest capital investment project. The sole beneficiaries of the tar sands are (1) the wealth generated for Canadian and trans national oil corporations and (2) the steady supply of oil provided to the U.S., much of it for the military. What is puzzling is that given the ample data regarding the socio-political-economic-environmental damage, no one in the Canadian government or NGO sector recommends the immediate, complete, and permanent ending of this industry nor are the tar sands mentioned in Kyoto Plus (the proposal for a Canadian plan put forward by a broad Canadian environmental and social justice coalition).

Vivid descriptions convey the magnitude of environmental impact: Andrew Nikiforuk writes that “to make one barrel of oil from the sands, two tons of dirt must be dug up by monster trucks emitting nitrogen oxides (another serious global warmer) and then upgraded at facilities fuelled by natural gas. With all its boiling and steaming, SAGD [steam-assisted gravity drainage] creates nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as the open-pit mines. As a result, every barrel of bitumen produced from the tar sands creates, on average, three times more carbon dioxide emissions (187 pounds) than a barrel of normal crude (62 pounds).”

There is vagueness, inconsistency, even obfuscation regarding the GHG emissions of the industry though this information is essential. According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the mega-project accounted for 3% of Canada’s emissions in 2004 and by 2020 will account for more than 16%. The Polaris Institute’s figures are much higher, citing current emissions of 16%, rising by three or four times in the next decade. In 2005, the Pembina Institute reported that the tar sands released 37 megatonnes of GHG, compared with 23 megatonnes in 2000, and predicting a possible 164 megatonnes/year by 2015. Overall, Natural Resources Canada projects that Canada’s emissions will exceed 1990 levels by 36% or by 265 megatonnes by 2010. Recent climate science indicates that warming needs to be kept below 1degree C in order to preserve a habitable planet and to prevent major extinctions.

Yet statistics on the GHG emissions of bitumen mining do not specify whether there is inclusion of the emissions no longer sequestered and the additional emissions released by the denuded boreal forests and drained peat bogs that are part of the strip-mining and SAGD operations. Nor is it clear whether the emissions cited include the energy required in the mining process itself or in the refining, transporting, and end uses. Since the tar sands operation now requires immense amounts of natural gas (using “clean” carbon to extract dirty carbon), the emissions of the replacements used for natural gas in other sectors needs to be calculated and included in order to understand accurately the full GHG effects of the industry.

The water situation in itself is another reason to close the tar sands. Climate change poses such a dangerous threat to life partly because of its effect on water. Due to temperature spikes ranging between 2 and 4 degrees C over the last thirty years, most of Alberta’s glaciers have lost close to a third of their ice mass, reducing spring runoff into northern river systems. According to Dr. David Schindler, annual summer flows of the Athabasca River have declined 29% during a 30 year period and the river’s contribution to other streams and rivers has dropped 50%. This affects the Peace River and the Slave River Delta which is linked to the Mackenzie River system flowing to the Beaufort Sea. “The Alberta government has not yet accounted for climate change in its assessment of freshwater supplies, water licensing regulation, or water management plans for the tar sands region”(D. Schindler in T. Clarke, p. 165). It takes between two and five barrels of water to produce one barrel of crude oil from the tar sands and most of the water does not return to the watershed. Two-thirds of all the allocated water in the Athabasca River basin is designated for use by the tar sands industry and only 10% of this is returned to the river.

Approximately 90% of all the water used in the mining of bitumen is stored in tailings ponds which, as of 2008, covered 55 km2. These tailings contain salts, heavy metals, toxic hydrocarbons and pollutants such as naphthenic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). It is likely that carcinogens from the industry have resulted in a rare form of cancer in adjacent aboriginal communities, but the federal government has removed Dr. John O’Connor, the physician who reported and investigated this connection. Canadian governments at all levels disregard Aboriginal treaty rights, contaminate and deplete water, expropriate resources. Most disturbing is the utter indifference to the findings about rare kinds of cancer and autoimmune diseases in First Nations residents of Fort Chipewyan (for example, see Schindler et al).

The costly tar sands operations became economically feasible when the Iraq war disrupted access to inexpensive oil. At the same time, Canada progressively gave up sovereignty over its resources under NAFTA and under the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Both Liberal and Conservative federal governments have granted the tar sands generous subsidies and tax write-offs. Clarke reports that “in 1996, both the federal and Alberta governments agreed to a set of recommendations put forward by an industry-led task force that virtually granted the tar sands companies a long royalty-payment holiday”(p. 187-188). The Klein government in Alberta required that companies operating in the tar sands pay a royalty fee of 1% until construction costs are paid off, followed by a fee of 25% of net earnings. Russia, Bolivia and Ecuador collect 90% or more geared to the price of oil. Ottawa also grants 100% write off for tar sands projects prior to March 2007, followed by gradual phase out of subsidies until 2015. A number of early 2010 news reports indicate that Alberta is now running a record deficit of $4.7 billion, partly due to the low royalty rates and partly due to declines in natural gas revenues. Further, takeover of the tar sands by transnational oil corporations means that most of the profit is leaving the country. Overall, there is a shift in the Canadian economy from manufacturing to energy and resources with an attendant rise in unemployment.

Needless to say, the economic boom does not trickle down. The population of Fort McMurray grows at a rate of 8%/year, with an infrastructure for 10,000 people now serving 80,000 people. There are hundreds of homeless men and women and the crime rate has soared. The Parkland Institute reports that benefits are disproportionately going to the high income bracket. Since 1996, the homeless rate in Calgary has grown by 458%. Alberta still has the lowest minimum wage in the country. And in October, 2009, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach announced budget cuts, a wage freeze, selling bonds, and the targeting of health care because of a $7b provincial deficit. Working conditions at Fort McMurray are abysmal. Alberta applied for 100,000 Temporary Foreign Workers and over 25,000 work in the tar sands. This special status affords the workers no rights, no protections, no services.

Despite the appearance of ample energy resources, Canada does not have a strategic petroleum reserve and the federal government has long rejected a national energy plan. Canada does not meet International Energy Agency requirements of maintaining a ninety day supply of oil in reserve for emergencies. It is difficult to establish how much Canadian oil goes to the U.S. military as most of the information is classified. Clarke points out that in the United States, security/military needs override environmental considerations, thus ensuring continual U.S. support of the tar sands. Canada has also come to prioritize the military, now spending 27% more than in 2001.

This brief paper touches on the image and reality of the tar sands and of Canada’s disregard for human rights and for the physical limits required by climate change. Maude Barlow aptly describes the tar sands as Canada’s Mordor (from The Lord of the Rings). Responsible and rational policy would dictate the immediate and permanent termination of the entire tar sands industry on the basis of the climate change emergency alone which requires reduction to zero emissions and then to negative emissions within the shortest possible time. Science for Peace can contribute to this effort to shut down the tar sands by persistently bringing in the time frame of climate change and by reviewing interactions with human rights and health, economics, and natural resources such as water, forests, natural gas. It will be essential to keep this position paper updated. Disseminating facts has an effect: a 2010 front page news article reported “Tar sands snubbed by ‘green’ retailers: eco-campaign against Alberta’s oil hearts up with companies’ boycott” (Toronto Star February 11, 2010. p. A1).



Clarke, Tony. Tar Sands Showdown: Canada and the politics of oil in an age of climate change. Toronto: James Lorimer and Co. 2008.

Marsden, William. Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is bringing environmental Armageddon to Canada (and doesn’t seem to care). Toronto: Vintage Canada. 2007.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: dirty oil and the future of a continent. Vancouver: Greystone Books and David Suzuki Foundation. 2008.


For an extensive list of references, see bibliographies in Clarke and Nikiforuk. The following article by pre-eminent Canadian water expert, David Schindler, contains material pertinent to water contamination, government negligence, and health effects on First Nations people. The article is available at
David Schindler et al. Oil sands development contributes polycyclic aromatic compounds to the Athabasca River and its tributaries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences United States.


Oil Sands Watch The Pembina Institute research.

Tar Sands Watch The Polaris Institute research.

Indigenous Environmental Network

The Parkland Institute and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives : see many articles on Canadian energy policies and NAFTA.

Rainforest Action Network “Freedom from Oil” campaign

Recent Newspaper Articles

February 10, 2010 “Tar sands snubbed by ‘green’ retailers: eco-campaign against Alberta’s oil heats up with companies’ boycott.” By Mitch Potter. Toronto Star. p. A1.

February 10, 2010. “Oil sands revenue tops Alberta’s royalty stream.” Globe and Mail. p. B1.

February 10, 2010. “$4.7 billion: In a season of restraint, Alberta opts to spend. Province announces record shortfall in face of oil industry strife, suggesting tough choices ahead as Ottawa prepares forecast.” By Nathan Vanderklippe. Globe and Mail. P. A1.

January 26, 2010. “Royal Dutch Shell: Oilsands growth slowing.” Toronto Star. p. B6.

January 18, 2010. Gillian Mceachern and matt Price (Environmental Defence op ed) “Manufacturing in trouble? You can thank the tar sands: hitching the economy to dirty oil production turns our dollar into a petro-loonie, which hurts manufacturing.” Toronto Star. p. A11.