Canadian Tar Sands – are we heading for an environmental disaster?

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment. – Ansel Adams, American photographer and environmentalist

In the Canadian region of Alberta lies the ‘single largest industrial project in human history’ (Tan, 2008). The Canadian Oil Sands or ‘Tar Sands’ as they are sometimes known, hold a potential two trillion barrels of oil, cover a land area the size of Florida and are the number one oil supply to the United States; they are vital to the energy security and independence of the US and are therefore closely presided over by the Canadian government. In addition to this the sands provide employment to many local people and are predicted to generate an economic value of US$1trillion over the next ten years (International Resource Journal, 2010). The Canadian government’s official website about the Oil Sands provides much information about the local region (including infrastructure, education, recreation and more) as well as detailed information about issues ranging from air quality to aboriginal peoples to new research. It also provides the picture above, showing Alberta’s vast forest, with the tar sands looking fairly small in the background. However this picture is in stark contrast to many other photographs of the region.

Pictures such as this one give a much more realistic and much more startling view of what the tar sands are actually like. The previously forested lands have vanished, transformed into an unrecognisable industrial complex.

Oil interest in Alberta became prominent in the last quarter of the 19th century, when several reports emerged detailing the potential amount of oil in the area (Huseman & Short, 2012). Combined with recent transport development, the oil sands suddenly looked like an excellent opportunity.  These reports elicited a government decision to sign Treaty 8, which in essence was designed to give aboriginal people more rights; conversely the new government message was clear – the oil was worth more than the people. Today Canada uses what Huseman & Short call a ‘colonial trick’; the Canadians argue that the treaty was signed under the British Crown and therefore they bear no responsibility. In short, the Canadian government have absolved themselves of any responsibility to aboriginal groups.

But the government should be concerned. The tar sands have had many detrimental impacts upon the environment and human health. Oil extraction here uses much more water than conventional oil extraction, causing an excessive amount of toxic waste water. 480,000 gallons a day are dumped into tailing ponds which cover an area of 12,000 acres and can be seen from space. It is estimated that production releases between 8-37% more greenhouse gases than normal oil extraction due to the energy required. The area has the second highest rate of deforestation in the world, second only to the Amazon rainforest and there are many toxic impacts upon the remaining boreal ecosystems. There has been chronic pollution of the lower Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca which has caused changes in water quality, meat quality and the availability of fish and game for hunting. In addition to this, rivers, wetlands and lakes are being drained to supply the huge amount of water needed for production. There are also impacts upon the local wildlife; there have been many reports of ducks and other birds being killed by the toxins in the water (on which they land) (Desmogblog, 2010).

In terms of human health it appears that more people in the area are falling ill with serious illnesses and deformities. John O’Connor, a local doctor, carried out research in 2006 which discovered abnormally high levels of leukaemia, lymphoma, lupus, colon cancer and Graves disease. He also found that a rare cancer of the bile duct was present in 5 people out of a population of 1,200; usually it only affects 1 in 100,000 people. He concluded that this was a direct result of an increase in carcinogens. The government disputed these claims, and the Alberta Oil Sands website claims only two cases of the bile duct cancer were found.

In terms of aboriginal groups there has been an unprecedented impact on their way of life, as well as their cultural and physical condition. They don’t have a say in oil mining and the tar sands directly threaten the livelihoods of First Nation peoples in the area.

The concern for the future is that the oil sands show no sign of slowing. In a recession climate where building the economy is vital, and where the ‘war on terror’ has become a ‘war for oil’, those who hold the oil hold the power. The Canadians seem to be disregarding the environment because the oil sands are paving their way to a more powerful position on the world stage. But from a governmental perspective, why wouldn’t they? In terms of who holds the most oil, they are second only to Saudi Arabia. By 2020 production could reach 4 million barrels per day, and as mentioned before, the next decade is predicted to bring $1trillion in oil sand profits.

In terms of environment, this is hugely worrying. By 2015 the sands are expected to emit more greenhouse gases than the whole of Denmark alone (Desmogblog, 2010). The Canadian government seem to be more behind the oil sands than ever and as I write, Canada is threatening a trade war with the EU, who plan to label the oil produced in the oil sands as ‘polluting’ (Carrington, 2012). Following on from their unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol (where their aim of a 6% decrease turned into a 30% increase), Canada looks more than ever like a huge environmental problem for the future.


Carrington, D. (2012) Canada threatens trade war with EU over tar sands. Available:    Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Desmogblog (2010) Top 10 Facts About the Alberta Oil Sands. Available: Last accessed 20th Feb 2012.

Huseman, J. & Short, D. (2012) A slow industrial genocide: tar sands and the indigenous peoples of northern Alberta. The International Journal of Human Rights. 16(2), 216-237.

The International Resource Journal (2010) Canada’s Oil Sands. Available:          sands.html. Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Tan, A (2008) Tar Sands – The Worlds’ Most Desctructive Project. Available:    Last accessed 20th Feb 2012

Picture Sources

  1. View of the oil sands –
  2. Canadian Oil Sands by Peter Essick –
  3. Industrial Wasteland –
  4. Flocks of ducks killed on tailing ponds –