How Canada Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alberta Tar Sands

3 years ago ccwa 0

Canadian Oil FieldsThe Alberta oil sands have been the focus of much debate lately throughout Canada, the United States, and the world. Though most of the coverage in the US has focused solely on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, Keystone is just a small cog in the oil sands machine that is being developed at an extraordinary rate. A rather recent discovery, the Alberta oil sands deposits are immense, estimated to contain nearly 170 billion barrels of oil, making the region the third largest crude oil reserve in the world, behind only those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The Alberta reserves also stand among the costliest to develop and produce. Accordingly, capital investment in the oil sands has skyrocketed since the 1990s, growing from $1 billion in 1996 to nearly $16 billion in 2006. The development of the oil sands has been a growing public issue in recent years, involving stakeholders from the First Nations to environmentalists to corporations to governments.

The development of the oil sands not only has huge implications for jobs and revenue throughout North America, but also presents great potential impacts on health and the global environment. Current estimates predict the oil sands will add $2.1 trillion in GDP and 905,000 jobs to Canada’s economy over the next 25 years. This rapid development holds vast ecological consequences, and concerns abound that development in the region is outpacing reclamation, raising threats to wildlife, local populations, and the world at large. Although it is easy to brush off the oil sands development as Canada’s problem, it is important to remember that global forces ultimately drive energy demand. To that end, the United States is a major actor in the exploitation of the oil sands. The U.S. transportation sector alone makes up 2/3 of the demand for this oil. The Alberta oil sands are unique in that they present the opportunity for sustainably managing a vast, relatively untouched pool of resources. However, the Canadian federal government as well as Alberta’s provincial government have sent a clear message that the extraction of oil will be prioritized over the welfare of the environment and the people who have the most to lose from oil sands development.


What is at Stake: The Canadian Environment

2008_5145Northern Alberta, where most of the oil sands development is occurring, is a part of Canada’s boreal zone—a vegetation zone covered with woodlands, lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Half of Canada’s bird species and many mammals like wolves, caribou, and moose live in this boreal zone. Wetlands compose a major part of the Alberta Oil sands area and make up 65% of total mineable area. The importance of the wetlands to Alberta cannot be understated, as they contribute many special ecological functions. Principal among these functions is the accumulation of carbon and groundwater recharge. The largest class of wetland in the region that is being destroyed for oil excavation is “peatland,” which takes one to three centuries to accumulate. Peatland’s demonstrated value is in its carbon storage, and estimates suggest that the carbon storage loss caused by peatland destruction at current rates would equal seven years of carbon emissions at 2010 levels of industrial activity in the region. This holds huge implications, not only for land reclamation in Alberta, but also for global greenhouse emissions. Moreover, current government models for greenhouse emissions from oil sands production completely omit carbon emissions from peatland loss—though carbon emissions, at this point, seem to be the least of the worries of governments and agencies involved in regulating the oil sands.

In September, 2014, Alberta began phasing in a new, formal wetland management policy. Unfortunately, due to a decision made by the provincial government last September, 195 oil sands projects approved or underway at the time will be exempt from the policy until August, 2015. This exemption potentially threatens the loss of 300,000 hectares of wetland in that timespan. Attempts to formulate a meaningful wetland policy date back to 2005, when the Government of Alberta directed the Alberta Water Council to develop recommendations for the protection of the area. The Council eventually recommended a “no net-loss” goal to preserve the wetlands, but the provincial government rejected the Council’s suggestions over fears raised by oil sands stakeholders regarding costs of the policy.  The lack of a formal wetland policy over decades of oil sands production largely explains why Syncrude’s Gateway Hill project is the only project involving land being certified for reclamation, representing a mere .1% of the total area disturbed by mining.

The open-ended nature of regulatory demands and uncertain prospects towards successful land reclamation have driven low reinvestment rates in wetlands reclamation. These economic liabilities place pressure on the government to further relax regulations.  Even more problematic, land reclamation is self-reported by the industry and lacks transparency, leaving little accountability to the public. In the end, it is the citizenry of Alberta, not the oil companies, that must bear the price of these environmental cost externalities.

The land reclamation lag also poses serious concerns for wildlife in Alberta’s boreal region. Most alarming of these concerns is for the caribou population in the area. At current rates of land-cover change, boreal caribou will likely not persist for more than two to four decades without immediate and aggressive intervention. Despite warnings from environmentalists, scientists, and even government agencies in Canada itself, the government of Alberta and the federal government show no signs of stopping their wholesale neglect of the regional wildlife for the extraction fossil fuels. In May, Alberta began leasing seven plots of land that are crucial habitat for the survival of two mountain caribou herds totaling 1,700 hectares of the last remaining habitat for the species. This news came only a few days after a federal panel of scientists concluded that all of Alberta’s mountain caribou herds should be considered endangered, the highest threat level in Canada. The population of herds has declined by 60 percent over the last decade, mostly due to industrial development.

The Harper government, though, could not be upstaged by the Alberta’s provincial government in neglecting the environment. In June, Stephen Harper approved Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project despite 300 scientists calling the federal review panel that recommended its approval “flawed” and unscientific. Among the many reservations of the effects of the pipeline is that the large increase in the traffic of large vessels in the Pacific could pose a threat to humpback whales that reside there. The Harper government, though, made sure to remove the Pacific humpback whale as an endangered species earlier in April. The reclassification of the humpback whale undoubtedly cleared a major legal hurdle for the $7.9 billion Northern Gateway pipeline project that will transport oil from Alberta to British Columbia. Yet again, the federal government affirmed that profit will come before the environment whenever the conflict emerges.


What is at Stake: The World at Large

Green-House-Effect-1Unfortunately, the Alberta oil sands are not solely Canada’s issue, but a dilemma for the world as a whole. Carbon emissions from the oil sands are currently a real problem and are slated to worsen in the near future. As stated, emissions from peatland destruction are not currently factored into official oil sands CO2 emission estimates. In spite of that key omission, the figures are bleak. Currently, the oil sands produce 2.280 million barrels of oil a day, and they are on track to produce an excess of five million barrels of oil a day in the coming decades. With this, oil sands emissions are estimated by the Government of Canada to increase from 48 million tons in 2010 to 104 million tons in 2020. According to this projection, the oil sands’ GHG emissions would  cancel out all of the ground gained by other industries in this time period in cutting their own emissions. Canada’s current commitment is to reach GHG emissions levels 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, a commitment that they will not keep given the projected ramp up in oil sands production. While these emissions may seem small on the global level, they are globally significant, representing the main barrier to Canada meeting its national and international GHG commitments.


Development qua Ignorance; The Harper Regime’s War on Scientific Discourse

h83283379Noting the environmental consequences of oil sands development, it is fundamental to understand the mechanisms through which the federal and provincial governments have grounded their policies of environmental negligence. These governments have largely succeeded in their goals for irresponsible fossil fuel extraction by cracking down on scientific research and discourse apropos environmental issues. In the past five years, Stephen Harper’s federal government has dismissed over 2,000 scientists. Additionally, hundreds of programs and highly regarded research facilities have lost their funding. In 2012, the world-renowned Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), which provided scientific data on ozone depletion and climate change for scientists worldwide, experienced a drastic budget cut. Dr. Tom Duck, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at Dalhousie University who helped found PEARL, fears that the Harper government’s pursuit of oil and gas in the Arctic, which is becoming increasingly accessible due to climate change, led to the cuts in the research laboratory. These budget reductions led Duck and most of his colleagues to leave the country in search of other work.

This lack of reliable information may be the greatest obstacle to tackling Alberta’s environmental issues. Researchers have overwhelmingly noted the difficulty of assessing the impacts on groundwater in the Athabasca oil sands region, as few studies on the matter have been conducted and public data remains scarce. A study by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association noted that significant knowledge gaps have arisen with a lack of data on historical trends in wells and on the geology of the area. In 2011, Environment Canada and a team of independent experts concluded that the water monitoring system for the Athabasca region did not deliver data of sufficient quality or quantity to detect the effects of oil sands development. Though a new framework for water monitoring has since been produced—2012 is only a few decades late— the question still remains: how exactly were energy regulators able to approve five million barrels of oil production a day without the comprehensive information required to make those sorts of decisions? This case study on water management highlights the biggest problem surrounding oil sands development: the extract first, ask questions later (if at all) policy of these governments, which has led to wildly careless decision-making across the board.

These cuts in research funding and significant knowledge gaps have been accompanied by a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and government workers as well. Researchers who could once respond freely and quickly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media relations office that prevents scientists from speaking.  Canadian journalists have already noted multiple instances in which scientists have been prevented from talking about their own published research. Furthermore, Alberta’s Energy Regulator is restricting who can speak at official hearings to such an extent that one official hearing was actually cancelled because no one was permitted to appear. The Energy Regulator has the responsibility of holding public hearings on oil sands proposals and determining who has the right to appear. In one public hearing scheduled for a Kirby oil sands expansion proposal, seven First Nations, one private individual, and one environmental coalition applied for permission to speak. After three parties withdrew, the six remaining were denied. This hearing on an 85,000 barrel-a-day project was then canceled. This is only one example in a regime of governmental practices designed to limit free speech on public issues. When governments cut funding to scientific research on environmental issues and prevent discussion on proposed oil projects, it allows for their near complete control of both discourse and practice regarding natural resource management.


Reconstituting Sustainable Development; This Will Not Be Easy

Activists blockade Canada House, Trafalgar Square, London as oil executives, bankers and diplomats meet to plan the expansion of the tar sands industry. November 20, 2012Sustainable development in the Alberta oil sands means several things. Perhaps most importantly, it would mean developing the oil sands in a manner consistent with Canada’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions to 17% of 2005 levels by 2020. Canada is unlikely to reach that target due to the recent ramp up in oil sands production and both the provincial and federal governments have a major part to play in this. The Alberta government has a critical leadership opportunity in determining how and under what conditions the resource is developed. The federal government is responsible for overseeing the transport of the oil product across national and provincial boundaries and ensuring Canada reaches its emissions target for 2020. To this end, the federal government could enforce a comprehensive environmental assessment of all oil sands projects that would include their GHG emissions impact. Other governments who import Alberta oil are also responsible for ensuring the oil is developed in accordance to strict environmental standards. Among others, the European Union has failed in this respect. In June, EU policymakers proposed the elimination of a mandatory requirement to label oil from tar sands as more polluting than other forms of crude oil after years of lobbying from Canadian oil producers. Removing the “dirty” label from the oil sands makes it easier for Canada to ship crude oil from Alberta to Europe without restriction. A global commitment to resisting fossil fuel dependency is necessary to reach climate change goals, and the EU’s proposal is a major misstep in that regard.

Another major problem is the simple lack of accountability and transparency in governmental regulation of the oil sands. Access to data on environmental conditions and associated transparency is necessary for public confidence in environmental management. Currently, there are major deficiencies in environmental assessment practices in Alberta compared with international best practices established by governments and organizations across the world. If the province of Alberta more strictly regulated oil sands projects in the region, the negative cost externalities associated with oil sands projects could be better managed. Clearly, development cannot continue at the present rates. The government should also focus on protecting boreal land area to preserve the dwindling wildlife habitats. This could be achieved through a network of industry free protected areas. Research from the University of Alberta has shown that the province could permanently protect 40% of its public forests from industrial activity at a cost of only 3 to 7 percent of the net value of natural resource development.

For quite some time, decisions for Alberta’s vast oil deposits have been made with concern for the fiscal bottom line over the environment. Within a larger, national context, it is unsurprising that Canada recently ranked dead last for environmental protections among 27 developed countries. The Washington-based Center for Global Development assessed 27 wealthy nations, and Canada had the honor of being the only developed country with an environmental score that has actually decreased. The score reflects increased fossil fuel extraction and Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. Even with Canada’s diminishing environmental record, however, the global discourse has not stiffened against the country’s aggressive resource extraction. Last November, the International Energy Agency’s chief economist Fatih Birol downplayed the oil sands’ contribution to global warming, saying that the difference in extracting oil from oil sands compared to conventional oil was so small that it would be wrong to label the oil sands as a major source of GHG emissions worldwide.

Viewed individually, the Alberta oil sands do not represent a major source of carbon emissions, but they do represent a major source of untapped fossil fuel reserves that need to stay in the ground to prevent catastrophic global warming. Reducing worldwide carbon emissions will mean each country meeting its own standards. The Alberta oil sands represented a major test for Canada to responsibly develop a large deposit of fossil fuels. The recent news coming out of the country, however, suggests that it will not meet its emissions standards, and when individual countries fail to responsibly manage their natural resources, it becomes a planetary matter. In 2011, the aforementioned IEA warned that if fossil fuel infrastructure is not rapidly changed in the next five years, it will become impossible to hold global climate change at safe levels. For Canada, rapid changes have been occurring in fossil fuel infrastructure, just in the wrong direction. Sustainable development for the oil sands requires huge changes in discourse and practice from the ground up. The majority of forces in Canada and the world, however, are pushing for more rapid extraction of fossil fuels. Resisting that push is necessary for the global good, but it will not be easy.


by Todd Ives

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