The Athabasca Oil Sands: a costly development

Over the past few decades, the Athabasca oil sands have been a cornerstone of the Albertan economy, providing today one in every fourteen permanent jobs in Alberta (Government of Alberta). However, this development in energy production has been the target of intense criticism, in particular from environmental agencies and environmentalists in general. In order to understand the controversy surrounding the exploitation of this resource, which is primed to produce over one hundred billion dollars of tax revenue for Alberta over the next twenty-five years it is important to study the nature of the oil sands (Government of Alberta). Oil coming from the oil sands is different than conventional oil, because conventional oil needs very little refinement in comparison to oil from the oil sands. This oil is actually bitumen, a very thick viscous oil that must be intensely refined before it can be used as fuel, which serves as a layer which coats each grain of sand. (Government of Alberta) In Contrast, conventional oil is mainly pentanes and hydrocarbons, and remains liquid at air temperature. This allows for it to be welled more easily and to undergo less refinement. (Government of Alberta) it has been found, that due to the extraction methods used for oil from the oil sands pollution of water and air has greatly increased in areas surrounding the oil sands. The Athabasca River, for example has been found to have an important concentration of contaminants stemming from the sands that lay on the river’s banks. It has been found that the toxicity of these pollutants, which include bitumen is enough to seriously impact marine life.(PNAS) The following research paper will clearly illustrate the stance of both people who support the development of the Athabasca oil sands as well as those who stand clearly opposed to the exploitation of this resource. Furthermore, we will present our viewpoint on this matter.

Supporting the Sands

People who stand in support of the development of the Athabasca oil sands come from diverse backgrounds, however they all tend to support the same contention; the environmental risks of this development are far lesser than the economic profit that Canadians and Albertans stand to gain. On the large scale, the oil and energy industry is still a minor part of the Canadian economy. The production of oil for the entirety of the country makes up only eight percent of the Canadian GDP (The Globe and Mail). This statistic is integral in upholding the value of the oil sands for Canadians as not only does it show that there is still a potential for growth because of Canada’s massive reserves (it is estimated that Canada has the second largest reserves of oil in the world (Discovery Channel)), and that Canada’s economy is still relatively balanced. Because the contrast between the size of Canada’s oil reserves and the percentage of the GDP that this resource provides, it is obvious that this resource is not being utilized to it’s full potential. This in itself is important in assuring the sustainability of the development of the oil sands. Because we know that the oil sands present such a massive reserve and are being used moderately, Canadians can be assured that this richness is set to last for years to come and to grow in economic importance over that same period as we improve our ways of exploiting these reserves. Moreover, due the fact that oil represents a relatively low percentage of Canada’s GDP, Canadians can be assured that in the unlikely case of a softening in the market with respect to oil, our economy is balanced enough to remain afloat. Moreover, the Oil sands are responsible in the preservation of an Albertan middle class. The oil sands on the banks of the Athabasca River hire thousands of skilled laborers and engineers who become important parts of the province’s middle class (The Globe and Mail). The oil sands are an integral part of the preservation of the middle class in Alberta, and a strong middle class is an important part of a thriving society. Many supporters of the Athabasca oil sands also argue that the increased development of this resource will lead to strengthening of the Canadian economy by providing a national energy strategy. A proposed pipeline stretching between Alberta and Quebec is likely to bolster the Canadian economy by providing further job opportunities to Canadians and finally developing our ability to refine more of our oil domestically. This pipeline will allow for oil to be moved throughout the country and to be exported at various ports along the east coast (TransCanada Corporation). This pipeline is expected to create a lasting impact on the Canadian economy, creating over 10,000 permanent jobs, contributing just over twenty five billion dollars in GDP over the next forty years. (CBC) Moreover, all six provinces that are touched by the development of this pipeline are expected to see substantial job growth as well as tax revenue. (CBC) This development is extremely important to Canada as a whole as it provides a means to improve multiple provincial economies and it allows for the domestication of our produce, in this case the oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands. Without the development of the oil sands, this project becomes impossible, as it is the resource that feeds this pipeline.  Moreover, the average Canadian is set to benefit from the development of oil resources in Canada and the proposed pipeline. Most of the East of Canada currently gets crude oil from North Africa, however, the development of this pipeline would allow for oil to come from Canada instead. This would lower the cost of crude oil in Eastern Canada because the transport and border taxes would be significantly lower. (CBC)

Arguing against the development

“The Tar Sands "Gigaproject" is the largest industrial project in human history and likely also the most destructive” (Oil Sands Truth). This is merely one of the projects associated with the development of the Athabasca oil sands. These oil sands are a major negative influence in today’s modern world.  Being centered in Canada, this project doesn’t only harm its country of origin but also the rest of North America. In short, these oil sands are responsible for everything from, harmful impacts on the environment to social and economic issues that raise important concerns. Things like energy loss, deforestation, health threats, loss of land, social impacts and the misuse of water can all be observed. 

Climate change is likely the largest societal issues facing the world right now. This environmental phenomenon is largely due to carbon emissions, which have skyrocketed since the development of the oil sands.  Despite only accounting for one tenth of Canada’s population, Alberta accounts for thirty five percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. (Government of Canada) This impact is directly due to the development of the Athabasca oil sands as it has raised intensely since their initial development, and the production of petroleum is a know contributor to greenhouse gases. But why are Oil sands in particular so harmful?  “The tar sands mining procedure releases at least three times the CO2 emissions as regular oil production and is slated to become the single largest industrial contributor in North America to Climate Change” (Oil Sands Truth).  In fact, the Pembina Institute has found that the exploitation of the oil sands is between three and four times more harmful, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, than conventional oil.

The tar sands have a direct impact on the forest surrounding them; this impact has particularly harmed the once rich vegetation of the Athabasca region. “the tar sands are already slated to be the cause of up to the second fastest rate of deforestation on the planet behind the Amazon Rainforest Basin.” (Oil Sands Truth) In fact, the oil sands account for eight percent of the country’s deforestation. (NCBI) Along with the actual tar sands there are countless pipe lines, factories and other capital resources made to extract, export and produce oil. These various institutions produce greenhouse gases and are also at an important risk of disaster, in particular pipelines which have been known to leak oil directly into nature in the past.

The development of the Athabasca tar sands has led to a startling increase of cancer in the first nations people of Alberta who live near the developments. Not only are people being struck with cancer, they are being struck with rare and deadly cancers. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports, “John O’Connor, a doctor who practiced in Fort Chipewyan between 2002 and 2007, first raised the alarm about human cases of cholangiocarcinoma, reporting six possible cases in this community of about 900. This rare cancer of the bile duct typically strikes about 2 in 100,000 people. In Alberta, the incidence of cholangiocarcinoma has increased progressively over the past 30 years, and rates are 2–3 times higher in First Nations communities compared with non–First Nations populations.” This increase in disease clearly illustrates the dangers that the tar sands pose to the people who live around them. What makes this situation such an abomination is the fact that the people affected are not employees who have consented to the risks of working in the tar sands, they are innocent bystanders who have been affected by these developments with sometimes deadly consequences.

The Athabasca oil sands have directly influenced the social structure of small communities in northern Alberta, harming first nations people as well as others. In particular, First Nations reserves near the oil sands have had to deal with “drugs, alcohol and associated violence spreads. Hunting becomes difficult when the land is threatened, leading to a further loss of culture and tradition.”(Oil Sands Truth) Due to the prominent link between indigenous culture and nature a serious cultural boundary has been violated by the development of the oil sands. This destruction of culture has had a sever impact on the First Nations Communities in northern Alberta.

Because clean water is essential to human life, it is one of the world’s most valuable resources. Incidentally, the Athabasca oil sands use important amounts of water to fuel their projects. Their use of fresh water is a clear waste of a resource that could be used to support life.  “Currently approved projects will see 3 million barrels of tar sands mock crude produced daily by 2018; for each barrel of oil up to as high as five barrels of water are used” (Oil Sands Truth) The Athabasca oil sands are responsible for so much water use that water is in danger of being privatized in Alberta. (Macleans) The privatization of water could lead to an increase in price on the world’s most essential resource. The misuse of water by the companies in the oil sands has led to the potential privatization of water as it has wasted this resource so intensely that the government is having difficulty distributing it.  The privatization of water is harmful as it could lead to the prize control of water, which would make it more difficult for poorer people to acquire it.

Our Opinion

The oil sands are a veritable enigma; on one hand their economic importance is colossal, on the other hand their environmental destruction is just as apparent. We believe, that in order to get the best of both worlds strict regulation of the oil sands as well as a capped production is imperative to the success of Canada in the long run. We don’t think that it would be beneficial to Canadians for the oil sands to be completely shut down, but we do think that the government needs to be relatively heavy handed in imposing regulations on the corporations who exploit this resource.

Firstly, the government should refuse all proposals to expand the development of the oil sands. In order to balance the environmental harms with the economic benefits of the oil sands, the current territory that is being exploited should be the only territory that is allowed to be exploited. This would guarantee territory to first nations peoples in northern Alberta and would ensure that most of Alberta’s flaura and fauna is protected from deforestation. The capping of the territory allowed for the development of the oil sands would also serve to help fix some of the social issues attributed to the displacement of reserves as well as the destruction of nature.

Moreover, in order to ensure that Carbon emissions are controlled we believe that a severe carbon tax should be imposed on the corporations that exploit the oil sands. Not only would this provide an incentive for companies to limit their environmental impacts but it would also provide a source of income for the government, which should be directly invested into environmental conservation projects.

Our final suggestion is that the total number of barrels of oil that can be produced daily in the Athabasca oil sands is capped. Although this may cause an increase in the price of the resource it would allow for greenhouse gas emissions to be held to a certain level and would also ensure that our resource remains sustainable and usable for generations to come.

We think that because Alberta’s economy has greatly strengthened over the past few decades the oil sands cannot simply be eliminated from Canada because they provide such great opportunity for Albertans. However, we also believe that their environmental impact is inexcusable and for that reason we must find a compromise to ensure that both environment and economy can flourish. Moreover, We think that this middle ground is important in protecting Native culture in Northern Alberta because it has been severely harmed by the irresponsible growth of the Athabasca oil sands. All in all, the only way to properly manage this resource is to compromise. If we completely illegalize the exploitation of the oil sands, which is something that many environmentalists have proposed, we instantly remove eight percent of the country’s GDP as well as placing one in every fourteen Albertan on the help wanted list. Moreover, we completely destroy boomtowns like Fort McMurray. However, if we allow for the oil sands to expand at an unregulated rate, like many corporations want, we sacrifice the environment, the livelihood and culture of first Nation’s peoples, we risk the privatization of water and finally we set Alberta up for failure in the long run because their economy will become one-dimensional. If we cap the production of oil from these sands however, we ensure that the oil sands become a secondary part of the province’s economy and we avoid many problems associated with the oil sands all in allowed Alberta, and Canada’s economies to benefit importantly. 


Nikolas De Stefano


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