Oil sands in Alberta. Photo: Dru Oja Jay, Dominion/Flickr/Creative Commons.

Having been quietly developed in the past 40 odd years, the Alberta Tar Sands have recently seen the ugly glare of limelight, illuminating the devastating and leviathan scale of this mega project that is the fastest-growing source of Greenhouse gas, GHG, emissions in Canada. “The fact is, Fort McMurray looks like Hiroshima,” described by well-known Canadian recording artist Neil Young recently, “a wasteland.” Dominating an area of land comparable to England (149,000 km2), with a scale difficult to comprehend, it is the largest industrial project in human history.

The Governments of Canada and Alberta have been promoting a tripling of oil sands production by 2020, although this single strategic resource emits 20-22 percent more GHG than regular crude, from well-to-wheel.1 Prime Minister(PM) Stephen Harper told the Canada-U.K. Chamber of Commerce in 2006, “Canada’s emergence as a global energy powerhouse—the emerging ‘energy superpower’ our government intends to build…an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.”

Minister of Natural Resources has stated repeatedly “Oil sands development alone could inject as much as $3.3 trillion into the Canadian economy and support an average of 700,000 jobs per year over the next 25 years.”2

To achieve this, domestically, the government has sabotaged scientific inquiry by shuttering research facilities and firing scientists, dismantling environmental protection and monitoring, restricting public debate and consultation, and intimidated critical civil society, placing democracy at the feet of the oil majors. Abroad, Canada has become a global rogue nation, ruthlessly undermining climate negotiations and threatening trade wars. While the ‘resource curse’ thesis is regularly applied to Africa, wherein the wealth of hydrocarbons or mineral deposits in underdeveloped countries actually becomes an obstacle to real development, the current Canadian government’s single-pointed focus on policies of modern petro-politics, complete with industry collusion and indifference to impacts and dissent, has made the political climate quite grim.

Tar Sands

Discovered in the 1960s under Boreal forests, the Athabasca Tar Sands contain the largest proven oil reserves outside Saudi Arabia, an estimated 175-300 billion barrels. The least efficient source of crude, the EROI3 is so low that ’very heavy’ bitumen is only profitable when oil trades at +$100 per barrel, as costs of extraction are $60-80 per barrel.4 Between 3.2-4.5 times as carbon intensive as traditional oil, bitumen is either strip-mined, with two tons of earth moved per barrel or when too deep, via in-situ Steam-Assisted Gravity Drilling, requiring 1-5 barrels of water and 3 barrels of natural gas per barrel.5 These and related processes create 1.8 billion litres of unrecoverable tailings waste water per day, an estimated 5.5 trillion litres total, collected in unlined ponds beside the Athabasca River, and is so toxic that 1600 ducks died after landing on a pond in 2006.6 These ponds are under two investigations for releasing industrial waste called “process-affected water” (filled with organic and inorganic compounds, like toxic heavy metals and cyanide or mercury7) into the Athabasca River, used by downstream communities. About 350,000 litres were released over 10 hours in March 2013, and communities were not even informed of the incident in 2011 (only discovered through testing dead and deformed fish) and have not been provided details of the contaminants they have been exposed to.8

The contamination caused by the heavy metals released in the extraction of bitumen cannot be fixed by planting trees and laying sod, but will persist and accumulate in the flora and fauna for many hundreds of years; reclamations are virtually impossible.9, 10 Losses of wetlands, habitat, and the carbon sink of the boreal forest (second only to the Amazon in size) are concerns not fully understood. Wildlife have been heavily impacted: pollution altering migration patterns and health of numerous bird species, and caribou herds declining by more than 70 percent since 1996, resulting in systematic kill-offs to cull ‘problem’ black bears and wolves, but it isn’t helping, since they are not the problem – the latest plan is a 15 000 sq km cage.11

Toxic ponds keep accumulating, as do the +30 giant open-pits mines, but rather than fill them in at great expense, new proposals are to fill them with water so that in theory, when the toxins eventually settle, we’ll have a “new lakes district”. Is this really responsible recovery on the part of business or government? To date, no cumulative environmental assessments have been done for the tar sands, and only 40 percent of the reserves are being developed now, but there are 45 more proposals and one has yet to be denied.

Alberta’s Premier Allison Redford describes the tar sands as the “lifeblood of our economy,”and thus synonymous with the public interest. 12 Many locals defend the project, since oil and gas are the only economic opportunities developed in the region in the past 40 years, but whether benefits are accruing for the public good remains debatable, as this is not lasting, sustainable work and too little has been saved. Between 1995 and 2002, tar sands production increased 74 percent, yet due to what many describe as an outdated regime rule and poor collection, royalties have actually dropped 30 percent, making Alberta’s rates lower than Nigeria, India and South Africa.13

Indigenous Impacts and Alberta

Amnesty International reports that “By every measure Indigenous peoples across Canada continue to face a grave human rights crisis” 14. The history of colonial paternalism, marginalization and on-going lack of respect for the distinctive rights of Aboriginal peoples in Canada becomes existential for groups in the tar sands region. Facing the final conquest of colonization, ‘dispossession by contamination’ makes impossible any semblance of living off the land, although this is guaranteed by Treaties. As a local Chief said, they are forced to accept tar sands activities, though “the environmental cost has been great…[as] there is no other economic option; hunting, trapping, fishing is gone”15.

Independent research released in 2009 estimated that 12,000 tons of toxic particulate (Mercury, Arsenic, polycyclic aromatic compounds, heavy metals, and other carcinogenic toxins) are dispersed into the air and water annually from the bitumen up-graders of the two largest tar sands operators,16 but the report was undermined by Alberta government. Suppressed Environment Canada research from 2012 (which alarmingly required government spokesperson approval before being released to the public17) confirmed priority pollutants were bio-accumulating at rates 2.5–23 times over pre-1960 levels in lake bottoms up to 100km away.18 Downstream indigenous populations suffer increased respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, renal failure, lupus, diabetes and rare cancers, suspected to be caused by the pollution, and Provincial authorities confirm a 30 percent increase in cancers in the region from 1995-2006. 19, 20


NASA climatologist James Hansen stated “if Canada proceeds and we do nothing, it is game over for the climate,” because the carbon burden of tar sands (240 gigatons) is roughly equal to “twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use” in all of human history.21 Most provinces have stabilized their GHG emissions, but Alberta’s have grown 41 percent, with the oil sands representing about five percent of the national total – but by 2020, they will contribute more than 16 percent.22

Canada has become a notorious laggard and obstructionist at the past five years of global climate and environmental negotiations, as well as a tiresome bore promoting the tar sands. Current national emissions are at 23 percent over 1990 levels, which can account for being the first nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Accord23 and was the only country to weaken its climate target under the Copenhagen Accord. A report in the run-up to the recent COP18 Doha climate conference also described Canada as the developed world’s worst performer regarding policies and action on climate change in 2012, ranking 58 out of 61 nations, ahead of only Kazakhstan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.24 Ignoring the ‘green energy revolution’ Canada is last among the G8 nations, cutting all funding for energy efficiency, investments or research and development.25 While bitumen is becoming unpopular, the demand for cheap consumer goods made in Asia means an eager energy market, while more loosely regulated environments mean also exporting the pollution burdens. And we must also remember Canada’s activities open the door to other places in the world where similar deposits are found, such as Venezuela, Madagascar, and Russia.

Political realities in Canada – Why are we doing this?

The Canadian 2011 election that brought the Harper Conservatives to power was won with 37 percent (by about 6000 votes).26 It is not possible to touch upon the extent of neoliberal changes, but with dramatic cuts, the reasonable fear is that it will be nearly impossible to recover the lost competencies of a country once renowned for research and its exemplary system of governance; few citizens remain unaffected. While much of the rest of the world struggles to develop policy and regulations to ensure the precautionary principle and deliberative consultations for industrial projects, the Harper Government is deliberately dismantling Canada’s, whilst simultaneously increasing spending on their priorities.27

A recent report detailed how between 2011–2012, oil industry and pipeline lobbyists met with cabinet ministers and public office holders 53 times,28 yet met only once with an environmental organization.29 Moreover, a letter from December 2011 from petroleum, gas, and pipeline lobbyists to Ministers of Environment and Natural Resources unambiguously outlines industries wishes; as requested, five of the six acts that posed nuisances to industry were dismantled, particularly environmental oversight and regulations, and relative to Indigenous peoples and consultations. There has also been a major federal government advertising campaign ($9 million), promoting the oil sands as “ethical” and ”responsible resource development.”30 Academics and critics call for “a full independent public inquiry to investigate the influence the oil industry is having on the Harper government, turning Canada into a rentier state through lobbying.”31 Although the government made an agreement at the G20 to reduce such subsidies, tar sands projects have been actively subsidized with $2.8 billion annually.32 Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges reflects aptly: “Harper is sort of a poster child for corporate malfeasance and corporate power, just sort of dismantling everything that’s good about Canada, including walking out on Kyoto and this egregious assault on civil liberties…he’s the kind of species that rises to political power and is utterly subservient to corporate interests at the expense of the citizenry.”33

Rhetoric has polarized the debate, with internal federal documents from 2011’s international oil sands advocacy strategy’ characterizing industry associations, energy companies, Alberta, and business associations as ‘allies’, while Aboriginal groups, NGOs, media, and competing (green) industries were ‘adversaries’.34 Minister of Natural Resources wrote a provocative open letter in 2012: “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth…These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda.” 35

The tar sands are losing legitimacy from wide segments of Canadian society as the ´Social License´ is slowly being revoked, with Harper’s governance style increasing citizen’s cynicism and distrust. While the critics oppose tar sands, pipelines and super tankers, the dialogue addresses changing public preferences that articulate a desire to transition toward carbon-free, sustainable visions of the future. Many are committed to civil disobedience, uniting unions, scientists, civil society, average people, environmentalists, and indigenous people; indigenous elders, for instance, declaring they will put their bodies in front of bulldozers. The non-violent, national grassroots indigenous Idle No More movement rose in reaction to Harper´s broken promises to Chiefs after he altered the Indian Act unilaterally.36 Spokeswoman Pamela Palmater stated: “First Nations represent Canadians last best hope at stopping Harper from unfettered mass destruction of our shared lands, waters, plants and animals in the name of resource development for export to foreign countries like China. Why? Because only First Nations have constitutionally protected Aboriginal and treaty rights which mandate Canada to obtain the consent of First Nations prior to acting. We are standing up not only to protect our lands and waters, but we are also standing up to restore justice for First Nations and democracy for Canadians.”37

Recently, bands across North America signed the International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects, which reads: “our laws define our solemn duty and responsibility to our ancestors, to ourselves, and to future generations, to protect the lands and waters of our homelands and we agree to mutually and collectively oppose tar sands projects which would impact our territories, including but not limited to pipelines…and tanker projects.”38 The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations are currently appealing a Supreme Court rejection regarding monitoring and consultations,39 while the Beaver Lake Cree celebrate an April 2013 Court of Appeals victory which allows them to continue to trial against Canada for failures to discharge their fiduciary responsibilities ensuring treaty rights.40

Canada, and the world, are rushing towards a watershed moment in history when short-term risky economic gains are no longer a rational choice; in Canada, protections we thought sacred, took for granted, are suddenly under threat. Canada’s regulatory regime, science, and governance were once admirable, but in a less than a decade on this petro-holic resource-led trajectory, we’ve become a global miscreant. Slavery was justified as necessary by capitalism in the same way economic-driven climate change is now, but ultimately the moral argument to abolish it overcame non-instrumental justifications – civil rights, suffrage, and all other justice oriented advances against power all came about through the recognition of the non-negotiable nature of certain civic-driven moral arguments; This is particularly relevant in pluralist, post-colonial, vividly multicultural nations like Canada. The government of Stephan Harper does not represent the values, interests or views of the majority of Canadians – alterations under his rule have ignited indignation in a wide swath of the population and are a great example of why current democratic systems need re-tooling towards a more responsive, engaged, participatory ecological-citizenship. The last decade has been embarrassing … and wholly infuriating. In true Canadian fashion– many of us are sorry about the mess.

Larissa Stendie


About the author

Canadian Political Ecologist Larissa Stendie exists somewhere between being an international academic, activist and adventurer, specializing in issues of extractive industries, indigenous and environmental justice, and participatory democracy. She has been based in Oslo for the last few years finishing a Masters of Philosophy at the SUM Centre for Development and Environment, and working with the Arne Naess Chair Projects and The Lancet-University of Oslo Commission on Global Governance for Health.

An abbreiviated version of the article translated into Swedish was published in the Effekt issue 3-4/2013.




Oliver, (Honorable) Joe (2012, May 4): Minister of Natural Resources Official Statement on the Keystone XL Pipeline. Accessed 4 December 2012, http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/media-room/news-release/2012/51/6182


Energy Return on Investment, well explained by N.Hagens, 2008. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/3839


Canada in danger of booming tar sands backlash,” The Independent, 14.6.2012. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/canada-in-danger-of-booming-tar-sands-backlash-7848982.html


Mining vs. In Situ, Pembina Institute Report, 2010. http://www.pembina.org/pub/2017


Syncrude guilty in 1600 duck deaths in toxic pond,” Reuters, 25.06.2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/06/25/us-syncrude-ducks-idUSTRE65O68520100625


Ewart, S.(2013, April 3): “Oil spills disastrous for public relations,” Calgary Herald. Accessed 12 April 2013, http://www.calgaryherald.com/business/energy-resources/Ewart+spills+disastrous+public+relations/8181751/story.html?__lsa=b051-75d3


Cryderman, K. (2013, March 28): “Suncor spill site also had incident in 2011,” The Globe and Mail. Accessed 3 April 2013, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/suncor-spill-site-in-athabasca-river-also-had-incident-in-2011/article10541838/


Gov of Canada, Office of the Privy Council Memorandum, Pg 4. http://www.scribd.com/doc/82229219/PCO-Oilsands-memos


Save the Caribou – Stop the tar sands, The Co-operative, 2010. http://www.co-operative.coop/upload/ToxicFuels/docs/caribou-report.pdf


Premier Alison Redford on Alberta’s Oil Sands,’ video produced by the Alberta Government, YouTube channel `YourAlberta,’ published May 30, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtyfmrUVFMo&list=PL57354166730EA923.


Gilmore, D (2005, April): “Shifting Sands” The Walrus. Accessed 28 February 2012, http://walrusmagazine.com/articles/2005.04-alberta-tar-sands/


Amnesty International. (2012): Matching International Commitments with National Action; a Human Rights Agenda for Canada. Accessed 25 January 2013, http://www.amnesty.ca/sites/default/files/canadaaihra19december12.pdf


Adkin, Laurie (ed.) (2009): Environmental Conflict and Democracy in Canada. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press.


Oil Sands Development contributes to PACs to Athabasca River, Kelly, Schindler et al. 2009. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/52/22346.short, http://www.pnas.org/content/107/37/16178.long


Oil Sands Development: A Health Risk Worth Taking? D.J.Tenenbaum, Environ Heath Perspect. 2006 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2679626/


Cancer Incidence in Fort Chipewyan, AB 1995-2006. AB Cancer Board, 2009. http://www.ualberta.ca/~avnish/rls-2009-02-06-fort-chipewyan-study.pdf


Hansen,J.(2012, May 9): “Game over for the climate,” New York Times. Accessed June 23, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/opinion/game-over-for-the-climate.html?_r=0


Doucet, I. (2012, November 26): “Canada, the surprise ‘pariah’ of the Kyoto protocol” The Guardian. Accessed 28 november 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/26/canada-kyoto


Clare Demerse and P.J. Partington, “COP-18 Backgrounder”, Pembina Institute, November, 2012, p9. http://www.pembina.org/pub/2394


McKinnon, H.(2012, December 3): “Canada ranked worst performer in the developed world on climate change. Climate Action Network Canada.  Accessed 10 January 2013, http://climateactionnetwork.ca/2012/12/03/canada-ranked-as-worst-performer-in-the-developed-world-on-climate-change

Miller, Criz. (2013, April 29):”Canada, your emperor has no clothes,” Rabble.ca. Accessed30 April 2013, http://rabble.ca/news/2013/04/canada-your-emperor-has-no-clothes


Notably, “the two main fossil fuel industry associations have met with public office holders 367 percent more times than the two major Canadian automotive industry associations and 78 percent more times than both major mining industry associations since 2008.” Report released 27 November 2012. Accessed 2 December 2012, http://www.polarisinstitute.org/bigoilsoilygras


Greenpeace met with Joe Oliver in March, 2012


Government of Canada (2011, April 11):“Pan-European Oil sands strategy, internal memos” Federal Government documents. Accessed September 12, 2012, https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B_0MqnZ4wmcMYjY0NjY4Y2MtOWQzMi00NmU0LThhNWMtNzExN2EwYWI5N2Ex/edit?hl=en_US


Oliver, Honourable Joe (2012, January 9):”An open letter from the Minister of Natural Resources,” Natural Resources of Canada. Accessed 10 March 2012,http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/media-room/news-release/2012/1/3520.


Idle No More emerged in December 2012 in response to changing eight separate pieces of legislation related to First Nations that were bundled within Bill C-45 (which passed at 4am December 4, 2012), such as lowering the thresholds for surrendering territorial land back to the Crown or selling it to resource extraction corporations to ‘unlock the potential on reserve lands,’ so that See: Pam Palmater on CTVnews.ca, December 4, 2012. http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/marathon-vote-on-omnibus-amendments-takes-more-than-six-hours-1.1065389 and www.idlenomore.ca for more information.


Pamela Palmater, “Idle No More: What do we want and where are we headed?” rabble.ca, January 4, 2013. Accessed January 8, 2013, http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/pamela-palmater/2013/01/what-idle-no-more-movement-really#.UOdLK-5zFMY.facebook


The International Treaty to Protect the Sacred from Tar Sands Projects, signed 23 January 2013 in Yankton Sioux Reservation, South Dakota. Accessed 3 April 2013, http://www.protectthesacred.org/


(2012, February 23): “Response to Supreme Court of Canada’s rejection of appeal of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation,” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations and the Tar Sands[online]. Accessed 28 March 2012, http://acfnchallenge.wordpress.com/2012/02/


2013, April 30: Alberta Court of Appeals, Lameman v Alberta, 2013 ABCA 148, Appeal no: 1203-0169-AC. Accessed 1 May 2013, http://www.albertacourts.ab.ca/jdb_new/public/ca/2003-NewTemplate/ca/Civil/2013/2013abca0148.pdf