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  • Ronnie Sade

'The Biggest Energy Project in the World’: Why Aren’t We Talking About the Athabasca Tar Sands?

Located in Alberta, Canada, the Athabasca tar sands are both the century-long home for numerous indigenous communities and ecosystems, and the biggest energy project in the world, currently producing 1.9 million barrels of oil a day. Large enough to be visible from space, and larger than the home country of some of the energy project’s largest investors - England- the landscape here has fallen victim to relentless industrial exploitation with poisoned water, deforestation and three to four times more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil extraction being produced. For these reasons, and more, we feel it’s time to discuss the West’s abuse of the Alberta tar sands.

Alberta Tar Sands

With Canadian oil refinement edging towards its peak in 2032, the Canadian state has taken advantage of a new opportunity to expand its projects to the United States via cross-country pipelines; further facilitating the supply of crude oil within the global market. These pipelines have proven to be highly problematic due to their leakage potential and chemical toxicity- just two consequences of the multi-dimensional environmental implications that come with oil extraction.

This energy project not only contradicts the Canadian government’s alleged commitment to environmental protection, but, by rebranding these projects as ethical methods of oil extraction, corporations such as Suncor and Syncrude claim that the tar sands and pipelines are the best way to put this land to good use; a prime example of corporate greenwashing and evidence of the role that has been given to energy corporations in their position as the solution to environmental crises. Are we happy that energy conglomerates are the ones proposing the solutions to the problems they are instrumental in causing? Look no further than the presence of the oil and gas sector at COP26.

On the flip side, there is also the pragmatic and fundamental problem that is being faced by every nation: how can we marry our climate targets with domestic energy demand?

What are the tar sands?

Tar sands are essentially bitumen oil - a substance similar to tar that is normally found to exist within the soil. In North America, the biggest tar sands extraction sites are found in Northern Canada. With the Canadian oil industry producing 2.5 million barrels of oil a day in 2014, this value is projected to reach around 6 million barrels a day by the year 2030.

Despite being one of the more unsustainable and environmentally corrosive forms of energy production, it has become one of the biggest industrial projects in human history, and makes Canada one of the largest oil-producing states in the world. It may sound surprising, but Canada is the biggest supplier of oil to the US, with “the third-largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela”.

Oil Spill

Why are tar sands so harmful to the environment?

Canada’s oil industry is one of the primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, making up 26% of it. This is largely attributable to the tar sands as, between 1990 and 2018, production has risen by 456% making the sector’s carbon footprint larger than those of Kenya and New Zealand combined.

Throughout the entire cycle of production the process is highly destructive. Using machinery which is hugely destructive and expensive, tar sands extraction and production require the indiscriminate stripping of an entire landscape, regardless of the residing wildlife, in order to get hold of the bitumen oil found in soil. Vegetation is cleared, animals are displaced, forests are cut down, and wetlands and rivers are either drained, or redirected. As the oil resides so deep in the ground, the water required to extract it is enough to provide a small city with enough water for a day.

The environmental harm, however, is not exclusive to the extraction zones. This is because the pipeline system used for transporting the tar sands is a grave threat to the areas it runs through. The product, bitumen oil, is also very corrosive- more so than conventional crude oil - and, therefore, threatens the structural integrity of the pipelines. This makes it very likely these pipelines will burst, greatly polluting large areas in the process, and making it nearly impossible to clean up.

A primary victim of these extractive projects is the Boreal Forest - a vital carbon sink. Not only does bitumen oil contain much higher carbon dioxide levels than any other oil, materials left in tailing ponds have cultivated dangerously high concentrations of arsenic, cyanide, and mercury. This not only infiltrates surrounding water systems but has interfered with natural wildlife as various species of ducks and birds must be kept away from the Athabasca River - one of the largest hosts of tailing waste ponds and big enough to sustain over 500,000 Olympic pools.

Due to the high leakage potential, the environments around the pipeline locations have been branded as sacrifice zones. These are areas - both wild and urban - which have been exploited by private corporations to such an extent that they are deemed unliveable for humans, animals, or indeed any life form that may suffer the consequences of continued ecological abuse. According to The Alberta Tar Sands Solutions website, a network made up of First Nations, environmental activists, and regional landowners, “Alberta has seen 28,666 crude oil spills since 1975, an average of 2 per day”. This has the potential to displace and cause disease for thousands of lives, both human, and animal.

According to Canada’s 2019 Changing Climate Report, due to these extractive projects, the country is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Scientific American states - “All told, producing and processing tar sands oil results in roughly 14 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than the average oil used in the U.S.''. Moreover, a study conducted at Stanford found that “oil-sand crude was as much as 22 per cent more carbon-intensive”. Canada has not only already surpassed its 2020 carbon emission goal, but due to the fact that emissions from this industry are expected to reach 100 million metric tons a year by 2030, Canada is also unlikely to successfully meet its Paris climate target. All in all, it seems that mitigating the damaging impacts of climate change are nowhere near possible if the extraction and production of the Alberta tar sands persist.

Impact of athabasca tar sands on indigenous communities

How are indigenous and other local communities being affected?

Projects such as the Alberta tar sands are part of a long history of environmental exploitation and colonisation, with corporations able to evade - through weak legislation - the ecological reality of their operations. This not only puts the earth’s climate and surrounding environment at risk, but also threatens the cultural integrity and livelihood of First Nations communities whose land is being repeatedly sacrificed for profit.

As such, the burden of environmental damages of these projects falls directly into the hands of indigenous communities who must come to terms with the destruction of their land, livelihood, and health. Tar sands extraction and production have been directly linked to drastic rises in cancer levels amongst First Nations communities due to the compromised toxic water systems, spikes in auto-immune diseases , and dangerous levels of air pollution. Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, executive director of Indigenous Climate Action also claims - “It’s had a huge impact on caribou, bison, moose, birds, fish, the water, the forest. It’s affected our ability to travel, to gather food from the land—it’s really overwhelming”. So, whilst many residents who surround these extraction sites and sacrifice zones are forced to carry the burden of tar sands development, corporate elites get to benefit from this industry from a distance and at little to no personal cost of their own.

Some companies, such as Syncrude, have even gone so far as to pacify potential resistors into employees. Claiming to be First Nations communities’ “employer of choice” and one of the more inclusive corporations involved in the extractive industry, Syncrude claims it maintains highly positive relations with indigenous communities through employment opportunities. However, their idea of providing employment is through formal agreements as opposed to official employment which is not only highly ironic and patronising, but greatly resembles historic patterns of colonial treaty-making that have long distinguished dealings between the Canadian government and indigenous communities.

Instead of respecting First Nations and their right to their land and culture, corporations continue to co-opt indigenous land, use it for private profit, and use indigenous labour to maintain it in the process. What this also does is give the public sphere the impression that these corporations are community-focused, generous and conscientious. However, the reality is that by distracting the public sphere with their claims of cooperation and complicity, indigenous communities are becoming less and less able to use their land for their own culture, lifestyles, traditions, and values as their land and lack of power is continuously taken advantage of by the private industry. Again, this can be compared to various other colonial practices of cultural genocide as the private sector continues to obstruct and ignore the First Nations’ culture and livelihood.

Who funds the tar sands, and who is making money out of them?

The Canadian government has been working very closely with Big Oil in its pursuit of expanding the tar sands industry and globally undermining environmentally protective legislation. A current target of this is the European Union and the EU Fuel Quality Directive - an initiative designed to reduce Europe’s overall greenhouse gas emissions through the use of low carbon transport fuels. Because tar sand oil produces almost 25% more GHG emissions than conventional oil, the EU aims to declare tar sands oil as a serious pollutant, and therefore greatly discourages the import of tar sands into the European market. Yet the Canadian government strongly opposes this due to the potential impact this would have on this segment of their energy exports.

Another primary proponent of the oil industry is the United Kingdom, specifically a number of UK banks and private corporations. Despite the fact that the UK is a very minor recipient of tar sand oil, a few primary investors in this extractive industry are Shell, BP and most notably, the Royal Bank of Scotland, the 7th largest oil investor in the world, HSBC, and Barclays; all five rely heavily on tax money to directly finance the climate crisis. Due to the influence of Shell, BP, and the Canadian government, the UK is currently holding off any major climate protective legislation that would in any way undermine the continued import of tar sand oil into Europe.

Canadian Hydropower

What source of energy could be used instead of tar sands?

With almost 800,000 megawatts of generating capacity, hydroelectric power makes up 22.3% of Canada’s energy mix and has been hailed as an important alternative source of energy. Considering the fact that Canada is already one of the largest hydropower producers in the world, could this be the solution we need to help stop the tar sands?

Ironically, two primary issues that accompany increasing Canada’s hydroelectricity generation is the impact this would have on the climate and indigenous communities. Firstly, with the building of dams, comes the release of major toxic chemicals, such as methylmercury, which contaminate and poison the surrounding ecosystem and wildlife that many indigenous communities rely on for hunting, gathering, fishing, and trapping. Considering the fact that up until now, many hydroelectric projects have been built within 60 miles of indigenous communities, what’s to say that the transition towards hydropower won’t replicate the damage done to indigenous nations by the tar sands? Another important consideration is the flooding potential the building of dams would have on agricultural land that many Canadians rely on for livelihood.

An additional concern is the relationship between hydropower and greenhouse gas emissions. A study conducted by Washington State University has found that methane emissions produced by hydropower reservoirs reach up to 25% higher than anticipated, due to the decomposition of plants that reside below the water. This has led many scientists to fear that if the construction of hydropower facilities do not consider the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change in their design, this could in fact generate electricity that warms the earth faster than fossil fuels.

Today, hydroelectric power falls under greater scrutiny as what was once coal’s greatest competitor is now going head to head with 21st-century sources of renewable energy such as solar and wind power. Karen Bakker, a researcher at the University of British Columbia claims that:

“These new technologies are the focus of rapid innovation and coming down in price and increasing in efficiency with much lower environmental impacts than hydropower. The question before us is not ‘do we build new dams to get off of fossil fuels?’ The question is, rather, ‘as we move off fossil fuels, which renewables do we pick?’”

Some other honourable mentions include geothermal energy, which uses the earth’s heat to produce heat. Not only does Canada’s geography host the necessary, if not ideal conditions for geothermal energy generation, but with its need for well-drilling, a transition to geothermal energy could provide thousands of unemployed oil and gas drillers workers who are looking to get back into the industry with a new more sustainable job. Additionally, researchers at Standford University project that by 2050, Canada will be able to transition its entire energy industry to solar and wind, in addition to various other renewable energy sources, if the Canadian government starts acting now.

Moving forward, if the Canadian government is to consider a major switch from the carbon-intensive tar sands industry, it would need to undergo some serious planning and restructuring when considering the future of its energy mix and how this impacts both its indigenous population and the climate. Some experts suggest that the most viable solution is a diverse range of energy supplies, with increased investment in wind, geothermal, and solar energy.

Is anything being done to stop the tar sands?

The effects of tar sands production and extraction do not exclusively reside in Alberta. Globally, a number of indigenous communities both in Canada, and areas such as the Pacific Islands, have banded together to fight these projects which, in addition to the impacts described above, have been linked to drastic rises in sea levels due to their impact on the earth’s climate.

Within Canada, indigenous communities continue the fight for their rights, with around 150 nations signing the Treaty Against Tar Sands Expansion. Other movements led by groups such as Greenpeace Canada, Braided Warriors, Indigenous Climate Action, and the Tiny House Warriors are all fighting to resist tar sands projects and the building of new pipeline systems, as well as advocating for climate action and the protection of indigenous land, cultures, and rights.

What can be done to help stop the tar sands projects?

A great way to support the protection of environmental and indigenous rights on a personal level is through staying informed and involved: joining organisations, signing petitions, attending protests, and raising awareness within your own personal community. Engaging with the organisations listed above are a great start, in addition to Environmental Defence, who are working hard to put pressure on corporations, and the Canadian government, to take accountability for their actions and end the destruction of the environment, the earth’s climate, and corporate colonialism.

An important part of this battle is fighting for the necessary legislation. For example, the implementation of a pollution cap would lower and limit carbon dioxide emissions. It is also important to put pressure on Alberta to see this through. Meanwhile, ensuring these projects are undergoing regular climate tests is vital. Climate tests put tar sands projects in the hot seat as they are measured against government policy such as Canada’s Paris Agreement climate targets, and limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Lastly, cleaning up the damage done by toxic tailing ponds would not only work towards restoring the Athabasca River and its surrounding ecosystems, but would reclaim the land that has fallen victim to the extractive industry.

Is there any hope? Have similar projects been stopped before?

Coming face-to-face with large corporations and governments in the name of climate justice can seem intimidating. However, thanks to the hard work and commitment of thousands of global climate activists, polluting projects have been stopped before. With enough support, commitment, and tenacity, there is hope.

To name just a few examples of where climate activists have won:

  • The Dakota Access pipeline would have facilitated the continued transport of crude oil from Alberta to Texas: Stopped

  • Brazil’s Formula 1 circuit that would have destroyed countless trees in the Cambouta Forest: Stopped

  • The Gothenburg Gas terminal which would have been the largest fossil fuel station on the Swedish coast: Stopped

  • See for more examples of the positive progress we can make.

Edited by Michael Anderson

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Meeloun Education
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