Tar Sands: Canada’s Mordor
Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Canadian journalist. He is the author of Saboteurs and Empire of the Beetle. His book Tar Sands was honored with the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award.
BARSAMIAN: In Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, you write:“The Alberta tar sands could make Canada the world’s second greatest oil exporter by 2050.We are polluting our air, poisoning our water, destroying vast areas of boreal forest, and undermining democracy….” That’s quite a litany of charges. Before we get to them, let’s place the tar sands geographically.
NIKIFORUK: The tar sands are really a massive deposit of low-grade, junk crude in the northern forests of Canada that are located in northwestern Alberta very close to the border of the Northwest Territories. So this is a deposit of crude that at one time was light oil that has been badly degraded by bacteria. It’s now this really messy, clunky, heavy crude that is buried under the forest floor and that must be mined in order to bring it up to surface. Oil companies and geologists and scientists have all looked at this resource for nearly 100 years and said, “The day will come when we’re going to have to exploit a resource as extreme as bitumen.”
“Bitumen” is the word used to describe this kind of hydrocarbon. Bitumen is really a mixture of, again, this low-grade junk crude with sand and clay. And it’s quite a process to remove the sand and clay and water from this resource in order to get heavy oil.
This has been actually known for more than a century. Going back to the 1880s, there’s a federal report, which you cite in your book, calling the tar sands “the most extensive petroleum field in
Americans have always taken a very keen interest in this deposit. The whole oil economy began in the
And bitumen you say looks like black molasses and smells like asphalt. Not a particularly attractive quality.
No. Because it is this really junk resource in the sense that there’s lots of it, but it takes so much energy to pull it out of the ground. Then you have to upgrade it because it’s of such poor quality. You’ve got to get the sand and the clay and the water out of there, then you have got something called synthetic crude and that requires even more complex refining because it’s full of acids and tannins and sulfur and heavy metals. So it is what it is. It’s kind of a bottom-of-the-barrel resource.
And what about the environmental impact? Does it contribute to global warming?
The big issue with bitumen as a resource is that it is carbon-heavy and hydrogen-poor. So one of the things you actually have to do when you’re upgrading it into synthetic crude is you’ve got to take those carbon atoms out. You end up with these massive petroleum coke piles, millions and millions of tons, in the northern forest. Then you’ve got to put hydrogen in. And that hydrogen is coming from natural gas that has been cracked. So all along the way the production of this resource is much more carbon-intensive, 23 percent more, generally, than light oil or conventional oil. So it’s got a much bigger carbon footprint. It now accounts for 7 percent of
What’s really interesting to me is that when you look at the behavior of petrostates—and they’re very different from jurisdictions that don’t have all of this money from oil—one of the things they do is they take that oil wealth and they lower taxes. In so doing they immediately sever the very important and significant bond between representation and taxation.
If you’re not being taxed, you’re not going to be represented. The first thing they do is say, Okay, you don’t have to worry about taxes anymore. Oil and gas revenue is going to pay for everything. It’s going to build your schools and pave your roads and run your hospitals. So you have this incredible transfer of power and accountability from duly elected political officials suddenly to an entire industry. That’s very much a force at work in
When you do that, who are you accountable to? At the end of the day, those jurisdictions come to represent the resource or the developers of the resource. Which is why
The prime minister, who represents the Conservatives is from
He is also from the oil patch. He worked as a kid on the rigs. His father was an executive for Imperial Oil. He was an accountant. So Stephen Harper is as steeped in the culture of the oil and gas industry as George Bush was. The same pedigree, the same religious beliefs in the sense that Stephen Harper is a Christian fundamentalist. It’s interesting that the funders of fundamentalism in the
So are you saying that the extraction of resources, in the case of oil, is almost given divine sanction because if God didn’t want us to do that, he wouldn’t have put the oil in the ground?
It gives it a divine sanction. But there’s this very strange and odd connection between the power and the money generated by resource extraction and religious extremism. You go to
The war drums are beating loudly in Washington and Tel Aviv about a possible attack on tIran, which I think it’s fair to say would have catastrophic consequences on the price of oil. Now it’s over $100 a barrel. It may go to $200-$300 if that occurs. Wouldn’t a war be against the economic interests of
It would really screw up the works in many ways. But there’s a very strong lobby to keep oil prices high. The
I was interested to note, given the enormous amount of wealth in this province, that you say the government is running a deficit.
First Nations consist largely of the Cree and the Dene and also Métis. They’ve all been dramatically affected by this project. Just consider for a moment that the mining portion of the project will, when it’s fully developed, excavate an area the size of
All of the traditional aspects of aboriginal life in northern Alberta, whether it’s trapping or hunting or going out and harvesting bush food, they’ve all been disrupted and changed by this project. Many of the communities up there are incredibly poor. Some have made small fortunes in the scheme of things on the basis of oil wealth. So there’s also a great deal of dissension and just pure political dysfunction as a result of all this money and all these corporations.
What does the landscape look like in northern
You have lakes of mining waste that are extreme. The mining waste alone, which is in 20 different tailings ponds, covers an area of about 170 square kilometers. You could flood
The community of
And who are the workers?
The workers come from all over the place. Some of the workers come from eastern
Our labor laws are fairly good. They don’t always apply to temporary workers. We had an extraordinary case where a group of workers from
There are 12 major oil corporations operating in
Most of them have a piece of the action. If they’re not involved in the mining operations, then they’re involved in what I call the steam plants or what the engineers call in situ production, which is where you’re taking massive amounts of steam, injecting it into the ground at high pressure, and trying to melt the bitumen and then bring it up that way. Almost every major oil and gas company in the world is playing in what is called “
Talk about the impact on the environment. I know there was an infamous case a couple of years ago over the deaths of 1,600 ducks who had the misfortune of landing in one of these toxic waste pools.
That’s generally almost an annual event. These waste lakes are open in the spring because they’re quite warm and have so many salts and pollutants in them. So ducks and geese flying over them think, there’s a great body of water there that I can park my butt in for a while. And then they get coated in oil and they sink to the bottom of these ponds. This has been going on for 20 or 30 years.
That’s a very small environmental concern in the scheme of things when you have a volume of toxic waste on the landscape that, if it got into the
We have issues with acid rain. We have very serious issues with water contamination, either from the tailings ponds or from air pollution. This involves rather serious levels of heavy metals and oil, equivalent to an oil spill of 13,000 barrels every year into the
Talk about the Keystone XL project, which did get some attention in the
There are indeed. Right now in the U.S. Midwest, about 70 percent of the oil that goes to
But Keystone is a bit different. Keystone was proposed to get around a bottleneck in
TransCanada is the Canadian company proposing this pipeline. Americans got to see sort of the crude side of Canadians because we do stuff like this in
Your book Tar Sands has a map for 2019 of North America virtually criss-crossed with these pipelines, including one from
Another way to look at the whole tar sands development is that it is the world’s most energy-intensive hydrocarbon in that it takes just extraordinary amounts of energy to get it out of the ground, upgrade it, and refine it. As a consequence, this oil costs 10 to 20 times more than oil from the
The Keystone XL project, which has been proposed and is now on the shelf, apparently, was going to create something like 4,000 construction jobs. That’s not much.
No. And temporary. It would all be over within two years and then it would be probably less than 100 guys monitoring that pipeline thereafter. Pipelines are not forms of job creation. In fact, the oil and gas industry is probably the least labor-intensive industry in the world. I think .01 percent of the world’s population is engaged in oil and gas extraction, yet this industry accounts for more than 10 percent of the world’s GDP. So this is a very highly specialized, privileged, elite industry that is capital-intensive, not labor-intensive.
You contend that oil hinders democracy and corrupts the political process through the absence of transparent fiscal reporting. That doesn’t have to be. That’s not a law of nature.
No, it doesn’t have to be, but it tends to be the general experience. One exception to that is
And you call
The thing about petrostates is that there’s so much money and the governments are trying to reward all kinds of different groups and special interests at the same time that you have this incredible apathy that develops over time. Everyone sort of concedes that the government is so powerful, it’s all bloated with this oil money. As long as they spread a little bit of this money my way, why do I need to be involved in anything? You also see, too, Look, I’m not paying taxes. If I’m not paying taxes, I’m not being represented. So why the hell should I even take part in the political process and vote and exercise my rights as a citizen? Because petrostates don’t like citizens. They want clients or servants.
You have another book coming out that dovetails with Tar Sands.
It’s called The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. It’s a critical examination of how oil has changed everyday life: how it changed agriculture, how it changed city making, how it changed economic thinking, how it’s changed even our attitudes towards happiness and what happiness is all about, and, fundamentally how it really changed the
David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, (www.alternativeradio.org).