Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Oil sands of Alberta

Amy Boudreau

Whether or not the Alberta tar sands should be shut down has been in debate for years now. Groups like Greenpeace have been trying to raise awareness about this issue and they, in fact, recently came out with a movie named “Petropolis”(4), which gives the viewer an aerial sight of the oil sands’ mining site in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Many believe that the Alberta tar sands are a never-ending environmental disaster. One such person, Kumi Naidoo, made this opinion very clear in his emotional article “Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?”(August 27th 2010), found in The Huffington Post.

This mass reserve of oil is found underneath the Boreal forest in Canada, and is a mixture of oil (technically known as bitumen), sand, clay, and other minerals.(2) The land must first be clear-cut, and then the surface mining begins.(2) The oil sand is trucked to a cleaning facility where it is mixed with hot water and diluent, which will separate the bitumen from the sand.(2) The bitumen is then sent off for refinement, and the waste product is put in tailing ponds.(2) For bitumen deposits buried more than 75m deep, situ recovery is used.(2) For this, super-heated water is pumped into the ground, the bitumen separates and is brought to surface, leaving the dirt behind. This means no tailing ponds.(2)


As you can see from the picture, the surface mining is a pretty ugly process. Critics use photos and words like “tar sands” to paint a picture of desolation.(3) In the article Naidoo says “…it looked like the moon; that giant swaths of forest had been levelled only to be replaced with vast toxic lakes of chemicals or churning black pits of bitumen and industry.”(Naidoo, Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?, par.6) The phrase “tar sands” is in fact incorrect because tar is a substance made from pine wood or coal, where these “tar sands” are just oil sands. As well, only 2 percent of the oil sands can be mined because the rest is too deep.(3) When observing “Petropolis” I noticed that most of the shots where of different angles of the same thing.(4) Put all this information together and we come to the conclusion that activists use dirty words like “tar sands” and multiple photos of the same site in order to twist the perspective. Never once in the entire article did Naidoo correctly refer to the oil sands by oil sands, he instead opted to name them tar sands. At the end of the article Naidoo asks you to “…bear witness and act on what you see.”(Naidoo, Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?, par.17). A bias picture no doubt.

Naidoo makes the claim “Sadly, Canadian politicians have abdicated their responsibility for Alberta’s land, water and people.”(Naidoo, Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?, par.14). However the issue has been brought up to the government. The government supports the continued expansion of the oil sands of Alberta, according to the minister of the environment, Honourable Jim Prentice.(5) He made it clear that the oil sands must be developed in an environmentally responsible manner.(5) As well Senator Mitchell made a statement that if Canada had funded the carbon capture and storage, or CCS, technology, then it would be possible to operate the oil sands better.(6) In fact, the government of Alberta has put down an investment of 2 billion dollars towards CCS technology, and is currently developing the policies and regulations needed in order to move the development forward.(8) Carbon Catching and Storage, or CCS, is a new process which is currently being used globally.(8) Sites in North America, Norway, and North Africa have already been safely successful.(8) What happens is the CO2 is dehydrated and compressed into a liquid form, where it is then pumped into a porous rock formation about 1 to 2 kilometers below ground.(8)

When Naidoo went to Fort McMurray, he also went to a village downstream named Fort Chipewyan and met with community leaders. These leaders told Naidoo about the poisoning of the Athabasca River and how it is wreaking havoc on their communal health.(1) Naidoo says “the elevated rates of cancer in the community.”(Naidoo, Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?, par.10). I question how he came about this information. Nonetheless, assuming it was true, what is causing it? Without doing any further research, we would assume that the tailing ponds are responsible. However the government of Alberta has developed an action plan to reduce/eliminate the amount of leakage from tailings.(7) All tailing ponds must be constructed like the figure below, which will monitor groundwater and seepage facilities (see figure below.)(7) They have also released a statement in a fact-sheet that says “Comprehensive monitoring programs have not detected impacts from tailing ponds on surface water or potable groundwater”(Government of Alberta, Oil Sands: Tailings, page.1). In either case, what is the difference between this and distributed cosmetics that contain toxins?(8)


Naidoo makes a few comparisons. He compares Canada’s human rights treatment with that of South Africa, and says that First Nations are being ignored.(1) Too bad the oil sands industry is the largest employer of First Nations in all of Canada,(3) and Canada is nothing like South Africa. He also makes a comparison with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.(1) How can you even compare the two? He says “There is one difference though: in Canada there is no end in sight.”(Naidoo, Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?, par.17). Yes there is, when the oil runs out. The oil sands, just like the extraction of any other non-renewable natural resource around the world, will be done until it is depleted.

Oil sands have their failings, just like anything else. Nuclear leaves toxic waste, ethanol burns food, wind power kills birds and makes humans sick,(6) there is no perfect solution. Naidoo makes a heart-wrenching argument which I was initially convinced of until I did some further research. He uses words like “tar sands”, “dirty oil”, “destruction”, “violation”, etc. in order to evoke a certain emotion. For example, does the title of his article not make you feel a little guilty inside? Let’s not forget the (deliberate?) use of “tar sands” in it. His article provides no numerical data or quotes, only assumptions and observations turned into a well written bias view.

Naidoo, Kumi. (2010, August 27). Tar Sands: is this the real Canada?. The Huffington Post.


Government of Alberta. June 2010. Talk About: Oil Sands.


Debate of the Senate: Importance of Canada's Oil. 3rd session, 40th parliament, 147(60).



Prentice, Jim. The Speaking Points of the Honourable Jim Pentice. (2010, Febuary 1st). Environment Canada.


Debates of the Senate: Speech From the Throne. 3rd session, 4oth parliament, 147(13).



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