Canada’s black gold and the environment’s dark future

Before and after? The Boreal Forest and a tar sands site in Alberta. Photo: The Co-operative on flickr.Canada is the second largest country in the world by total area and well-known for its dramatic nature, wildlife, and world renown hockey teams. However, Canada is also known for being the first nation in the world to have withdrawn from the Kyoto protocol on climate change and for having the world’s third largest oil-reserve known as tar sands. These ‘Tar Sands’ or ‘Oil Sands’ are described by some as a vital part of the Canadian economy, while others refer to them as ‘Blood oil’.

Under the Boreal Forest in the northern part of the Canadian providence of Alberta is an oil reserve as large as one sixth of Sweden’s total land area. The Boreal Forest, one of the world’s few remaining ancient forests, is gradually being destroyed as the world’s biggest industrial project develops. What used to be home to a majority of the indigenous people in Canada is now a landscape full of refineries, pipelines, and toxic lakes due to activities by the world’s leading oil companies.

The tar sands have often been described as one of the world’s most carbon intensive fuels. The reason is not only because the carbon dioxide absorbing Boreal Forest is destroyed when accessing the tar sands, but also because of the energy required to process and refine the oil. Tar sands consist of bitumen, a viscous crude oil, mixed together with water, clay, and sand. Extracting oil from tar sands is a complex process where the tar sand deposits are either mined, usually by open-pit or strip mining techniques, or by a so-called in-situ extraction. The in-situ technique is used for deeper deposits that are not possible to mine. Extracting oil with this technique means inserting enormous quantities of steam and natural gas to heat up and melt the bitumen to be able to pipe it up to the surface. Because of the great amounts of water and energy required to extract and separate the oil from other substances, oil from the tar sands are causing 5-15 higher greenhouse gas emissions than regular oil.

Canadas’ tar sands were for a long time considered to be too costly to exploit on a large-scale, but rising oil prices and falling production costs have years resulted in rapid development for the last twenty. While global production of conventional oil is expected to reach its peak, forecasts for the Canadian tar sands industry are optimistic and the output of 3.5 million barrels of oil a day is expected to at least double by 2020. Many countries welcome the idea of energy resources from a stable democracy such as Canada and the interest from foreign companies has steadily increased. The partlystateowned Norwegian company Statoil is one of the companies which, despite massive critique, is operating in Alberta today.

Tar sands are considered to be the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and the country has one of the highest emission rates per capita in the world, just after the US and Australia. The increased production of oil from the tar sands is seen as the major reason for which Canada decided to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol on climate change, the only legally binding international policy tool to deal with the greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012, Canada’s emissions were already 23% over the country’s Kyoto protocol target and are expected to grow even faster the next years. At the same time, a report made by Deloitte Canada states that the tar sands will be a crucial economic driver for Canada for the next 25-30 years and will contribute to an estimated 905,000 new jobs by the year 2035.

Tailing ponds from the tar sands sites are full of toxic runoffs that are harmful to the environment. Photo: powless on flickr.

In January this year a study showed that the production from tar sands has increased levels of cancer-causing compounds in the environment. The researchers found high and increasing levels of dangerous chemicals in lakes surrounding the tar sands. Today an estimated 11 million liters of toxic runoff flows daily into the Athabasca River near the tar sands deposits, which together with air pollution and forest destruction destroys natural animal habitats and affects native communities. In particular, indigenous people are experiencing the negative impact from the industries since a lot of Native American groups living in the surrounding area are highly dependent on the wildlife through hunting and fishing. These groups were also the first ones to raise questions about the health effects after having experienced so many new illnesses in the area.             

Because of the health and environmental impacts protests against the extraction of Alberta’s tar sands have been growing. Even if some value the economical benefits and the energy security that the tar sands represent, many Native Canadians dispute this because of the immense negative impacts saying the oil is best described as ‘Blood Oil’. The tar sands therefore not only raises questions about greenhouse gas emissions and natural resource dependency but also about the marginalization of the indigenous people and individuals ability to affect politics contributing to environmental degradation, diseases, and the global climate change. What the tar sands industry will mean to the future of Canada is still uncertain and the major question is, as so often before, how to find a balance between the fragile environment and the pressure for greater economic development.