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 being?


“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 America.”


Americans have always taken a very keen interest in this deposit. The whole oil economy began in the U.S. The Americans were truly the first pioneers of petroleum. As a consequence, all the world’s major oil companies all started largely in the U.S. Then you had British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell trying to catch up. One of the issues they always had was they kept on finding fields, depleting them, and then worrying about where they were going to the get their next batch of oil from.


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 Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and soon will surpass all emissions from transportation fuels in the country. That’s a big footprint.


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 Alberta, as it is in Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana, and Alaska. The first thing all of those states did was to lower taxes and run on oil revenue.


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 Louisiana, Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming are considered so extreme and different from the rest of the U.S., just as Alberta is in Canada.


The prime minister, who represents the Conservatives is from Calgary, was a member of parliament. But his father—


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 U.S. have been, since the 1900s the oil patch. It was a California oil company that was the first publisher of a document called “The Fundamentals,” which really serves as the basis for Christian evangelical fundamentalism in the U.S.


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 Saudi Arabia and who did oil enrich there? They, again, enriched this fundamentalist cult, the Wahhabis, that have this lock on Saudi society and politics, and economics. In the same way that you go to places like Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, and Alaska where you find defenders of rapid resource extraction, particularly oil and gas who have this religious ideology to go along with it. Much like slaveholders did in the 19th century in the U.S. It was called divine providence, and the idea was, God has given us the right to do what we’re doing.


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 Israel and the U.S.?


It would really screw up the works in many ways. But there’s a very strong lobby to keep oil prices high. The U.S. really hasn’t looked hard and long at what’s really going on in Iran. Iran is a petrostate, has been for 50-60 years. And it has all of the characteristics of a petrostate in that the government is incompetent and not terribly smart about how it goes about doing business.Its primary aim seems to be to subsidize its people with cheap oil. As a consequence of that, it’s really mismanaged its oil fields so poorly that the revenue stream from oil is dropping in Iran.


I was interested to note, given the enormous amount of wealth in this province, that you say the government is running a deficit.


Yes. The Alberta model for resource development is to give lots and lots of money to the developers and very little to the owners of the resource, which happen to be the people of Alberta. We have among the lowest royalty rates and the lowest corporate taxes in North America. We charge less for our oil and gas in Alberta than Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska, and Montana, which is why oil and gas companies and state-owned companies are all here and want to play in Alberta. They can even take home more money than they can by investing anywhere in the U.S. That to me is just wrong.


In Canada, what we in the U.S. call Native Americans, you call First Nations. How are they being affected by the developments in northern Alberta in the tar sands area?


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 Rhode Island or Delaware in the boreal forest. Of course, you can’t do that kind of thing without affecting the traditional communities that live there. So the Dene and the Cree, those that are in this industrial area now, many are now working for the mining companies. They’ve stopped fighting, they’ve joined in because they really don’t have any alternative. Those that live downstream are concerned about the contamination of the Athabasca River with heavy metals and other oil pollution. People living downwind in Saskatchewan are concerned about acid rain.


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 Alberta? I imagine there are giant holes in the ground and huge tractors and trucks and people working in lots of dust and smoke.


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 Washington, DC with that amount of mining waste, as you could Staten Island. Both of them would just be under mining waste. This waste is toxic. It’s sand and clay and water and heavy metals and lots of oil all mixed into it.


The community of Fort McMurray would be like Williston, North Dakota. It’s a boom town and you have this incredible influx of workers from all over the world. You have in the bush itself 20,000 to 30,000 workers working in these temporary work camps. You’ve got a very active drug trade, prostitution, you have infrastructure deficits. Some of the most horrendous traffic jams in all of Canada take place in Fort McMurray because there’s only one highway going north and south. If you’re caught in the rush to get to the mines in the morning or when everyone is coming home from the mines in the evening, you can end up sitting in your car for two or three hours. It’s an extraordinary boom town, all based around the rapid extraction of bitumen out of the forest.


And who are the workers?


The workers come from all over the place. Some of the workers come from eastern Canada, from some of the poorest provinces in Canada—in particular, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. A lot of workers, too, come from Northern Ontario. A great many also come from Texas and various places in the U.S. We have workers from the Philippines, Eastern Europe, temporary foreign workers from China, and we’ve had workers from South Africa. And you have this kind of stratified society in Fort McMurray, where you will see the Somalis are the cab drivers, the Filipinos work as nannies for the oil workers because both mom and dad are away for 12 to 14 hours a day.


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 China were blown off some scaffolding. Two died, three or four were injured. These workers had all been brought in by Sinopec, which is a state-owned oil company in China. The workers were never paid. After 5 years, 53 charges have been laid, but no one has yet been in court. Sinopec is fighting every action, saying it’s not liable and it doesn’t really have to recognize Alberta’s health and safety regulations. That’s typical of boom towns and what happens in them.


There are 12 major oil corporations operating in Canada: BP Canada, Canadian National Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Devon, Imperial Oil, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil, Suncor Energy, Total E&P, and Teck Resources. Do they all have a piece of the action in Alberta?


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 “Alberta’s magic sandbox.” Total is there, Sinopec is there, Middle Eastern companies are there. Indian oil companies want to get involved and just about every American multinational you can think of is there.


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 Athabasca River, would kill almost all aquatic life all the way up to the Beaufort Sea. That’s a huge risk and issue. We have the destruction of the boreal songbird habitat throughout the boreal forest as it’s rapidly becoming industrialized. We have threats to groundwater and groundwater contamination. Some of the groundwater aquifers in that region extend all the way to Hudson Bay so if we mess that up, we’re contaminating groundwater across three Canadian provinces.


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 Athabasca River.


Talk about the Keystone XL project, which did get some attention in the U.S. In the summer of 2011, 12,000 people demonstrated outside the White House. A thousand of them were arrested for civil disobedience. What’s going on with the Keystone XL project? I learned that there are already existing pipelines to the Great Lakes from Alberta.


There are indeed. Right now in the U.S. Midwest, about 70 percent of the oil that goes to Illinois and Michigan and states like that is coming from Canada. The majority of that is coming from the tar sands and the pipeline making those connections was built  a couple of years ago.


But Keystone is a bit different. Keystone was proposed to get around a bottleneck in Cushing, Oklahoma. There’s a huge bottleneck of oil there now because essentially Canada has overproduced bitumen. We’ve approved too many projects, too quickly. As a result, we’re getting a lower price for this oil because it can’t be moved. So the Keystone was proposed as a way to get around this Midwest market and get this oil straight to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico owned by the Koch brothers or owned by Saudi Arabia or Venezuela? And how do we get it down there as quick as possible?


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 Canada all the time. Who the hell is going to be concerned if we propose to put this over one of North America’s most important aquifers? Well, Nebraskans were concerned. They gave a damn, and then you had this huge debate. But the oil industry and TransCanada tried to pass it off as this bitumen is all about improving American security and it’s all about lowering your dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Those arguments were pure nonsense. None of it was true. As Canadians, we don’t give a damn about any of that stuff. We want to sell oil. Every petrostate wants to sell oil. We want a higher price for our oil. All we want to do right now is we want Americans to assume the risks for this pipeline. We want to get it down to refineries in Texas where refining this stuff will not improve the air in Houston, and then get it onto a supertanker to China or someplace else so we can get this imaginary premium we hope to make by building this pipeline.  

Your book Tar Sands has a map for 2019 of North America virtually criss-crossed with these pipelines, including one from Alberta to British Columbia and from there presumably to energy-starved China.


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 Middle East. And it comes with this huge carbon and environmental footprint. So when you start running on a resource that’s this extreme, business as usual cannot go on. But oil and gas companies are in the business of producing oil and gas and they want business to go on as usual. But it can’t. It is a great way, though, to increase the shelf life of oil. And that’s what this project then, truly is about.


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 Norway. The Norwegians had a conversation in the 1970s about their offshore oil wealth. Parties on the left, parties on the right, parties in between said, There’s so much money here that if we don’t do something about it and take it off the table, we will destroy ourselves as a country and we will destroy our democracy. The Norwegians actually took time out to have that conversation. That’s pretty unusual. They took the money off the table and they now have a sovereign fund worth more than $500 billion to use the day when the oil runs out.


And you call Alberta, your home province, “a classic petrostate. It has one of the least accountable governments in Canada as well as the lowest voter turnout.” Why is voter turnout so low?


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 United States. I think Americans have forgotten that they were on a different path before they found oil in the 1850s. There was more of a Jeffersonian ideal of resilience, independence, self-sufficiency, and communities working together, fundamentally as agricultural producers. Oil changed that. It changed every part of the American character and arguably gave the U.S. a whole new vision or dream, which is now rapidly becoming a nightmare.



David Barsamian is the founder and director of Alternative Radio, (www.alternativeradio.org).