In one of the most memorable conversations I had with First Nations elders in Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray in north-eastern Alberta, then even further north in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, former Salt River chief Henry Beaver called me out on my collusion with dirty oil before we finished shaking hands. When I stated that I was writing a novel on the tar sands and had come to do research, he asked me: “A tar sands novel: did you bike here? Did you paddle here?”
It was true: I had arrived by jet fuel and gas pedal to visit what The Guardian has called “one of the single biggest source sites of the carbon pollution that is choking the planet,”1 the epicentre of Canada’s notorious tar sands, the world’s largest industrial project, and arguably the world’s least sustainable. My carbon sins didn’t stop with a plane and a car; I was there in part to fly over the massive open pit mines and black-magic chemical upgraders in a helicopter.
I could have flown the 270 miles north from Edmonton to Fort Mac, but I wanted to see the highway recently crowded with folk fleeing the massive forest fires that in Spring 2016 forced a complete evacuation of Fort Mac, a company town of roughly 70,000 people that has just one road out. The multinational oil companies which The Guardian calls “arsonists” had “helped turn the boreal forest [around Fort Mac] into a flammable tinder-box.”2 Disastrously, that forest, which normally sequesters twice as much carbon as a tropical forest while filtering groundwater through its peat, has two rivers flowing into it, the Athabasca, which is the third-longest undammed river in North America, and the misleadingly named Clearwater. Those river waters were little help in fighting the 2016 fires that consumed nearly 2,300 square miles, roughly the size of the Maritime province of Prince Edward Island. The acres of lodgepole pine, poplar, larch and spruce were still visibly scorched when I flew over them a year later in June 2017
In—and I don’t use the term lightly—a genocidal example of geography becoming our climate-change destiny, the deep-throated Athabasca River flows north, not south. In every Canadian province and territory, north means native, with the urban population thinning out and the proportion of First Nations residents rising. Bile duct cancers also rose among the Fort Chipewyan First Nations residents who live north and downriver from the notoriously water-intensive petroleum “upgrading” facilities around Fort Mac.
The Black Science
Whether you call them the Alberta tar sands or, cue the marketing and propaganda, the oil sands, the common denominator is sand, from which liquid oil is extracted with hideous amounts of heat and by turning vast volumes of water into tailings ponds that are so poisonous they kill any bird who tries to land on them. That “sand” is actually more like a slab of pavement than anything at desert or beach. When my rented helicopter flew above the open-pit mines, reeking tailings ponds, and the devil’s pipe organs of the factory-sized tar sands “upgraders,” the pilot pointed out a different black than just the scorched forest floor. “See those black rocks running down to the river? That’s limestone with oil seeping out. Naturally.” Unfortunately for the health of Canada’s citizens, its democracy, environment, and global impact, most of what The Atlantic calls our possible “2 trillion barrels of recoverable oil” is more solid than liquid.3 The majority of Canadian tar sands production is devoted to transforming broken slabs of bitumen (which look a lot like the asphalt much of it will become again) into the liquid oil that still drives the global economy. Ninety-six percent of that oil is exported to the US, while the pollution remains behind.
In north-eastern Alberta, that oil sits beneath boreal forests The Walrus describes as “containing a quarter of the world’s wetlands, provid[ing] habitat to five billion birds,” and “a carbon sink twice as effective as any tropical rainforest.”4 Pursuit of tar sands oil initially requires the levelling of this forest, going beyond the normal eye-gouging clear cuts that are also an unfortunate specialité de la maison in Canadian forestry. Normally our world-leading approach to levelling three-hundred-year-old forests to turn them into toilet paper is still, however destructively, forestry for forestry products. To get at the buried treasure of bitumen, lungs-of-the-planet boreal trees are cut down, their stumps are ripped out, and even their water-filtering peat soil is removed. Everything above the oil-shot rock is what the industry calls “overburden,” so it is cut down and hauled away or even, to add to the funeral pyre, burnt in situ. Naomi Klein rightly calls the deforested landscape of the Sands “skinned alive.”5
Once the forest and its soil and have been scraped, hauled, pumped, or even burnt away, building-sized earth-moving equipment comes in to smash what looks like naturally occurring pavement in pit mines 100 metres deep, some of the biggest in the world.
One reason that tar sands oil comes with 31% more greenhouse gas emissions than standard North American crude is the fact that dump trucks the size of houses run twenty-four hours a day, seven days of week, ferrying slabs and chunks of bitumen-laced rock to the energy- and water-intensive “upgraders.” John P. Abraham, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, calculates that “If we burn all the tar sand oil, the temperature rise, just from burning that tar sand, will be half of what we’ve already seen,” an amount Scientific American pegs at “an estimated additional nearly 0.4 degree C from Alberta alone.”6
The War Room
As with most aspects of peak oil, the real black magic at the evil heart of the Canadian tar sands industry is political, not chemical. Only a financial shell-and-pea game of subsidy, globally low royalty rates, and lax regulations could make burning 2.4 barrels of cleaner-burning natural gas a profitable way to produce one barrel of oil. Even people inside the industry confess that’s not sustainable. Drew Zieglgansberger, a senior VP at the oil company Cenovus Energy, admits that the industry’s reliance on natural gas means, “We’re burning a cleaner fossil fuel to get a dirtier fuel.”7 Alberta investigative journalist Andrew Nikiforuk points out that this daily reliance on cleaner-burning natural gas burns “enough natural gas every day to heat four million homes,”8 and this in one of Canada’s coldest provinces.
To add political insult to genocidal injury, the Canadian and Albertan governments that do everything they can to support this oil industry aren’t even making much money, as far as the black biz goes. Nikiforuk finds Alberta’s royalty rates on oil to be “among the world’s lowest.”9 The royalty rate, that cut of the black dime a host government charges the extracting company, usually foreign, is so poorly monitored and rarely reviewed, let alone raised, that from 2001 to 2004, Nikiforuk found, the Alberta government actually made more money from taxes on video lottery terminals than it did from the sands.
With the petroleum industry’s standard dirty-hand-in-filthy-glove political arrangement, one party handled all of this cooperation and collusion for the predominantly foreign investors. Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party held uninterrupted power for nearly 44 years, winning 12 consecutive elections. No other provincial government has held power that long in Canada, providing predominantly American oil companies a reliable partner in indirect crime. For most of those elections, only around half of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot. But in 2019 Albertans elected Jason Kenney premier of Alberta with a strong majority and a voter turnout nearly 25% higher than just a decade earlier. Kenney spent $30-million dollars of public money to establish the Canadian Energy Centre, which he himself described as a “war room” designed to “effectively rebut every lie told by the green left.”10
As detailed in a Guardian article entitled “The Tar Sands Sell-Out,” the First Nations leadership around Fort McKay, 40 miles north and upriver from Fort Mac, decided on an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” relationship with the industry back in the late ’90s. Fort McKay First Nations chief Jim Boucher now chairs the Fort McKay Group of Companies, which has earned an average gross annual revenue of $1.7 billion since 2013. His declared salary in 2014 was $644,000. In 2018, the Energy Council of Canada named Boucher “Canadian Energy Person of the Year.” Teck Resources Limited, which is currently applying to break ground on a new open-pit tar sands mine that would be twice the size of Vancouver, uses Boucher as a poster boy on their site in an entry on “Powerful Leadership.” Another smiling petroleum millionaire asking us to hate the game, not the player, Boucher is entirely right to point out that none of that oil money would have flowed without Canadian governments working together to help oil companies. “The oil industry never would have come to town without the great encouragement of the Canadian and provincial governments,” he rightly says. “The biggest driver in seeing Suncor and Syncrude being built was public policy.”11
Luckily for Chief Boucher, now in his sixties, the federal and provincial governments did say no Richfield Oil’s 1958 proposal to “detonate a 9 [kiloton] nuclear explosion underground in the oil sands to liquefy [sic] buried bitumen making an instant oil field.”12 As a Vice Media article puts it, “The project had received all the relevant approvals from both the provincial and federal government, and once testing concluded, it would be game time for the bomb and Fort Mac would of [sic] been known as a boom town for a very different reason.”13 Although Canada’s pro-disarmament Secretary of State for External Affairs Howard Green eventually rebuffed the American pressure to pump oil with nukes, the American team went on to secure United States Patent 3409082 for a “Process for stimulating petroliferous subterranean formations with contained nuclear explosions.”
Bombs and genocide were on the mind of Mike Beaver, on an evening when he invited me to his family’s house for supper. A former chief of the Salt River Band in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, downriver from the tar sands and far too close to the proposed site of the new Teck mega-mine, Mike is a brother of Henry, the elder who skewered me with “Did you paddle here? Did you bike here?” In the most north I have been in Canada, in the near endless light of a late June evening, I did at least borrow a bike from my hotel to get there. Each of the three Beaver brothers I met, Henry, Mike and Raymond, had been chief of the Salt River First Nation. Henry said all the focus of their people should be in education, that a more informed Salt River Nation would be better poised to handle everything from, say, eschewing the short-term wealth of their provincial neighbours in Fort McKay to better fighting legal battles. Mike and Raymond were both interested in regaining tribal leadership. It’s not easy to bring up cancer in any home, let alone one where a stranger has invited you to supper. When I did ask, my voice as flat as the dinner table, if they had noticed cancer rates in the area rise along with oil production, Mike concluded his response with, “Just bomb us. At least that would be quick.”
Causing Undue Alarm
As Leslie Iwerks’s Academy-Award-nominated 2009 documentary Downstream and many a news article has observed, few people know the toxic reach of the tar sands more intimately than whistle-blowing physician Dr. John O’Connor. In the mid-2000s, the Ireland-born O’Connor had a regular practice in Fort Chipewyan, a remote community about 140 miles north of Fort Mac. Having lost his own father to the extremely rare bile-duct cancer cholangiocarcinoma, Dr. O’Connor was well qualified to diagnose the disproportionately high number of cases in Fort Chipewyan.
According to The Financial Post, “oil sands mines us[e] on average of about 3.1 barrels of fresh water for every barrel of oil they produce.”14 Alberta’s not-for-profit Pembina Institute notes, “Oilsands operators used approximately 170 million cubic meters in 2011, equivalent to the residential water use of 1.7 million Canadians. Most of the freshwater used comes from the Athabasca River.”15 Another report from the Pembina Institute warns that the waste-water left after “upgrading” creates tailings ponds full of “acutely fatal toxins, such as naphthenic acids.”16 Testing the blessings and curses of geography, Dr. O’Connor asks, “If we could reverse the flow of the [Athabasca] river, and the people in Fort McMurray had to drink the water that people in Fort Chipewyan drink, can you imagine what the reaction would be?”17 In a province and country content to give the tar sands industry, and their foreign owners, a million dollars a day in tax breaks, how did the public health authorities at the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada respond to Dr. O’Connor’s reports of abnormal cancer rates? By first ignoring him, then publicly accusing him of misconduct for raising “undue alarm.”18
It was easy, too easy, to blame Canada’s tar sands on our openly evil previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper. An oil-industry child elected in the sands financial epicentre of Calgary, Harper began his political career as a climate-change denier, calling Kyoto a “socialist scheme”19 before becoming Prime Minister and muzzling all federal scientists.20 Brazenly immune to optics, Harper’s government dropped the word “Environment” from the national weather site where Canadians check our weather and went on to burn science libraries.21 In 2015, when his three-term reign gave way to Justin Trudeau, he of the legalized marijuana and The Rolling Stone cover, many of us hoped the insanity would stop. Instead, each year Canada ignores the new annual global heat records and digs deeper to produce more oil. James Hansen describes Canada’s commitment to mining every barrel of sands oil it can get as “game over for the climate.”22
Still it’s hard for me to shake my on-again-off-again love for my country. Everyone I have ever loved has been Canadian. But now my country is killing its First Nations people directly and all of us, every human and most animals, as fast as it possibly can. And Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police are being petroleum thugs for hire, forcefully arresting protestors from British Columbia’s Wet'suwet'en territory for peacefully trying to block progress of the ludicrous Coastal GasLink pipeline. Canada has a government of the oil industry, for the oil industry and by the oil industry.
- “Fort McKay: the Tar Sands Sell-Out.” The Guardian, 28 May 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/may/28/carbon-bomb-canada-tar-sands-fort-mckay-town-sold-itself
- Lukacs, Martin. “The arsonists of Fort McMurray have a name.” The Guardian, 12 May 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/true-north/2016/may/12/the-arsonists-of-fort-mcmurray-have-a-name.
- Taylor, Alan. “The Alberta Tar Sands.” The Atlantic, 25 Sept. 2014. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2014/09/the-alberta-tar-sands/100820/.
- Grescoe, Taras. “Big Mac.” The Walrus, 16 Nov. 2013. thewalrus.ca/big-mac/. Accessed 22 Oct. 2017.
- Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon & Schuster, 2014.
- Biello, David. “How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?” Scientific American, 23 January 2013. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tar-sands-and-keystone-xl-pipeline-impact-on-global-warming/.
- Marshall, Christa. “Can Canada Clean Alberta’s Oil Sands?” Scientific American, 17 December 2010. www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-canada-clean-oil-sands/.
- P. 4.
- Nikiforuk 140.
- Gosselin, Pierre et al. “Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.” The Royal Society of Canada. Dec. 2010. p.19.
- Grant, Jennifer et al. Beneath the Surface: A Review of Key Facts in the Oilsands Debate. Pembina Institute: 2013. P.26.
- Grant, Jennifer, Simon Dyer and Dan Woynillowicz. Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation. Drayton
- Nikiforuk, p.101.
- Hansen, James. “Game Over for the Climate.” The New York Times, 9 May 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/opinion/game-over-for-the-climate.html