Tar Sands' Ecological Impact | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Tar Sands' Ecological Impact

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 8, 2007. Partner content is not updated.

Left unfettered, Alberta's energy sector will, by the end of this century, transform the southern part of the province into a desert and its north into a treeless, toxic swamp. Driven both by GLOBAL WARMING and oil and gas developments, temperatures in Alberta will soar by as much as eight degrees.

Tar Sands' Ecological Impact

Left unfettered, Alberta's energy sector will, by the end of this century, transform the southern part of the province into a desert and its north into a treeless, toxic swamp. Driven both by GLOBAL WARMING and oil and gas developments, temperatures in Alberta will soar by as much as eight degrees. The Athabasca River will slow to a trickle, parching the remainder of the province's forests and encouraging them to burst into flame, generating vast quantities of CO2. "They're going to be the architects of their own destruction," says journalist William Marsden, whose new book outlines the environmental threats posed by Alberta's energy industry.

Even now, fish pulled from the Athabasca downstream of the OIL sands taste of gasoline and smell of burning galoshes in the fry pan. The landscape is perforated by more than 300,000 oil and gas wells. Water in some areas to the south can be set alight with a match, likely due to coal-bed methane developments. Doctors administering to Aboriginal communities not far from the oil sands report high rates of thyroid conditions and rare diseases such as cancer of the bile duct. Some from those communities have been employed at the oil sands raking in the carcasses of ducks floating on vast pools of rotten water, the by-product of the sands' oil-extraction methods.

Such are the claims contained in Marsden's upcoming Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't Seem to Care), which presents a scenario almost too frightening to contemplate and suggests Alberta may already be too far gone for redemption - indeed, that it is environmentally doomed. "When you start digging up an area equivalent to the state of Florida, when you start carpet-bombing your province with oil and gas wells, and at the same time, you've got global warming drying up the glaciers and your rivers - you're kind of looking at a doomsday scenario," he says. "It sounds bizarre, but it's an absolute possibility that they could be literally destroying themselves."

Marsden argues Alberta's political leadership has consistently neglected - in an almost willful, pathological way - to curb the destruction wrought by industry. Former premier Ralph KLEIN for years rejected placing controls on Alberta's energy sector and, according to Marsden, ordered the dismantling of oversight bodies that might have monitored the degradation, the extent of which remains somewhat unclear today as a result. Marsden charges the province with marginalizing scientists who sound warnings on the environment, quoting Rod Love, Klein's long-time chief of staff, dismissing them as "flakes."

The book is bound to enrage Alberta and its energy sector. "Why are Albertans so stupid?" Marsden asks an Alberta scientist at one point in the book. Designed to be provocative, Stupid to the Last Drop will come under intense fire as an exercise in fearmongering and West-bashing by a Montreal journalist. Yet it will be applauded by others who fear that the environment gets short shrift in Alberta. "I think it's useful to have books like that - it scares people, I guess," says David Keith, an expert on carbon capture at the University of Calgary.

Still, the fight Marsden is picking with Alberta may be a harbinger of a more titanic one to come. Alberta has become the country's economic engine - churning out money at the same time it spews huge emissions - and the rest of Canada, whether out of jealousy or genuine concern, may soon demand environmental controls be placed on the province, the country's worst industrial greenhouse gas emitter. Experts, from constitutional scholars to former Alberta premier Peter LOUGHEED, are predicting a battle, and at the centre of that coming feud is the issue of how far the federal government can go in controlling a resource Alberta owns. It's a fight some fear may tear Canada apart.

Known mainly for his reporting on organized crime in Canada, Marsden has written a polemic on the Alberta environment that looks at first blush to be a departure. Marsden disagrees. "Frankly, I think what's going on in Alberta is a crime," he says. "You get these kinds of political factions and gangsters, almost, who have literally taken over a province - and are reducing it to catastrophic shape."

The riches generated by Alberta's energy sector are astounding, the stuff of breathless business stories and promises by the likes of Prime Minister Stephen HARPER that the province is on the cusp of becoming an "energy superpower." Earlier this year, Calgary-based EnCana earned profits of $6.4 billion, a record-breaking sum. The provincial government's last budget showed a surplus of $8.5 billion. So dynamic is Alberta's energy boom that it's become, what with Ontario's struggling manufacturing sector, the real power in the economy. Remove Alberta from the Canadian economy, some say, and the country would now be in recession.

There is no denying, however, that the wealth comes at a huge environmental cost. In a rollicking, wry style, Stupid to the Last Drop outlines that environmental degradation, as well as the energy industry's appetite for wild schemes. Marsden dredges up, for example, a little-known plot hatched by an American geologist in the late 1950s to free oil from the tar sands by detonating a nuclear device beneath an Alberta creek, a plan that came surprisingly close to execution. And yet, Marsden argues, what is going on right now is almost as outrageous.

Consider the millions in cubic metres of water that three oil sands projects - 20 more are in the works or pending approval - extract from the Athabasca River each year. The water, which in heated form is used to melt the bitumen free of the sands, is crucial; between two and six barrels of water are required to produce a single barrel of oil. Oil sands outfits are sucking 215.2 million cubic metres of water a year, Marsden writes, and are now licensed to draw 349 million cubic metres of water a year, twice what's required for the city of Calgary. Extractions from the Athabasca could triple in the next decade.

As a result of both global warming, which is melting the mountain glaciers that nourish Alberta's waterways, and oil sands extractions, flow in the Athabasca has been reduced by 30 per cent since 1970. By 2020, the oil sands could use as much as half the river's flow in winter, a time when it is at its lowest ebb and fish populations are most stressed. At such levels, says the Pembina Institute's Chris Severson-Baker, "You run the risk of killing the ecosystem." More, Marsden cites scientific research that suggests the 20th century was unusually kind to Alberta in water terms - a desert in its south is a real possibility, he says - and warns that industry may be taking advantage of a natural anomaly.

Alberta's oil sands operations also struggle with the problem of what to do with the water once it's been used. Only eight per cent can be made sufficiently clean to go back to the Athabasca. The rest stagnates in huge ponds. "Birds that land on them never take off," David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta, told Maclean's. Oil sands operators now float buoys in the ponds equipped with hard-hat-wearing scarecrows and propane cannons, whose booming sounds are designed to prevent the water fowl from landing.

Consumption of natural gas, another critical oil sands ingredient, also boggles the mind. By the end of 2005, the industry's daily consumption could heat 3.2 million homes for a day. Marsden notes that present consumption could triple in the oil sands by 2015. Environmentalists have long decried the absurdity of wasting such huge quantities of reasonably clean energy to extract dirtier oil.

Then there's the question of greenhouse gas emissions. The Sierra Club of Canada says oil sands operations spewed 23.3 megatonnes of them in 2000 - about three per cent of Canada's total emissions. Those emissions are predicted to rise to between 57 and 97 megatonnes by 2015, making the oil sands Canada's largest single contributor to global warming. The University of Calgary's Keith says the province is responsible for roughly 36 per cent of Canada's CO2 emissions, though most originate in the electrical power industry (the most significant emitters of any industry countrywide). Alberta, Keith points out, is "only 11 per cent of the population - it's pretty asymmetric."

The projects are at the same time decimating Alberta's northern boreal forest, which forms an umbrella above a vast, metres-thick deposit of peat, a carbon sink that begins bleeding CO2 into the atmosphere upon excavation. "The boreal forest per unit area actually contains more carbon than the Amazon does," Schindler says. Adds Severson-Baker: "The public has been really focused on the critical role of the tropical rainforest, but the boreal forest plays a similar role" in regulating the earth's climate. The remainder of the boreal forest will soon become a tinderbox of forest fire activity due to a global warming-related pine beetle infestation and an increasingly dry Alberta, Marsden says. The Canadian Forest Service says global-warming models show the area burned by forest fires will double over the next century. High forest fire years already spew emissions equal to 90 per cent of industrial emissions, says Schindler.

It's a startling litany of environmental abuse. But some in Alberta point out that the province has already begun meeting these challenges by bringing in green legislation earlier this year more stringent than federal law. Others believe Marsden's "Armageddon" won't happen because industry will become cleaner through innovation. "We have a history of meeting those challenges," says Calgary-based Annette Hester, of the Centre for International Governance Innovation. "If it wasn't for meeting those challenges, we would never have an oil sands development in the first place." Oil sands outfits are required by the province to plan for land restoration. And cleaner and more efficient practices - carbon sequestration that buries CO2 or nuclear power as a replacement for natural gas - are in the offing.

Nor does Keith believe doomsday scenarios like those presented by Marsden. Though effects like an eight-degree rise in temperature - one potential outcome included in the book - are possible, "that prediction is contingent on people's choices," says Keith. "My actual prediction is, we won't get close to that." He adds: "Do we have serious environmental problems? Of course. Is it true that eventually we will have to close down the entire industry here - the entire industry of producing oil for putting in cars - because of environmental concerns? At some level yeah. Is there going to be a desert? No."

But Marsden believes the future he describes should persuade Alberta to halt further oil sands developments. "I think that you have to put a moratorium on any further growth in the oil sands until that province really figures out where it wants to go," he says. "Then the people of the province - and the people of Canada, too, because these are vital resources for all of Canada - can decide how they want to proceed on this." Although such a suggestion may be blasphemous to some - particularly in Alberta - no less a figure than former premier Peter Lougheed has called for a slowdown, in part to study how the oil sands developments are effecting the environment.

Marsden has another point to make. Driving the breakneck pace of Alberta's oil boom, he says, is Canada's commitments to the U.S. under the North American FREE TRADE Agreement, which he says promises the U.S. an inordinate amount of our oil. Marsden, in effect, argues Canada has sold its soul. "We have ourselves in a corner over NAFTA," says Marsden, "because we've surrendered sovereignty over our energy." Stupid to the Last Drop has Lougheed, who helped negotiate NAFTA, predicting that the U.S. will manhandle Canada fiercely should China or India, say, make grabs for a share of the sands. Paraphrasing Lougheed, he writes: "Alberta under Ralph Klein ... essentially surrendered its control over its resources to the free market, and the Americans have walked in and taken control."

Now Alberta's resource-development surge has put it on a collision course with central Canada's devotion to Kyoto. Lougheed, who predicted this clash of interests in a speech last month in Calgary, warned that Canada's very national fabric could be threatened when Alberta's desire to exploit its resources conflicts with any renewed federal government push to regulate them.

That push almost arrived last October, not long after the Tories introduced Bill C-30, which aimed to introduce a bundle of new air pollution regulations. The original bill made no mention of the Kyoto Protocol and its target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions dramatically, six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. Instead, the Tories sought to limit emissions by 2020. But when the bill was handed over to a House committee, opposition party MPs overwhelmed the Tory minority, drafting sweeping amendments. Not only did they enshrine the Kyoto targets, they also detailed an enforcement system for stringently regulating emissions-heavy sectors of the economy.

Apparently anticipating a clash with the provinces, the committee added an assertion that "air pollution and greenhouse gases are matters within the jurisdiction of both the Government of Canada and the governments of the provinces." There can be little doubt some premiers would react angrily if C-30 ever became law. The Tories denounced the opposition rewrite and promised never to enact it. (Bill C-30 died when Harper prorogued the House.)

The Tories tout their own plan, unveiled by Environment Minister John Baird last spring. But Baird's greenprint, which is a broad strategy rather than a law, doesn't come close to the hard-nosed approach in the opposition's overhaul of C-30. Although he calls for major industries to shrink emissions by 60 megatonnes in 2020, from 350 to 400 megatonnes now, he doesn't say how. And critics scoff at the plan's reliance on so-called "intensity" rules, which require industries to burn fossil fuels more efficiently yet allow their total carbon dioxide output to grow if overall production also rises.

Should Alberta ever confront more severe legislation - anything with the same flavour as the opposition MPs' C-30 rewrite - the feds would have a fight on their hands. "My surmise is that we're into this constitutional legal conflict soon," Lougheed said last month, adding: "National unity will be threatened if the court upholds federal environmental legislation and it causes major damage to the Alberta oil sands and our economy."

That battle would also pit province against province in a way not seen since the days of the National Energy Program. "The tensions," says Thomas Courchene of Queen's University, "are magnified by what's called the Dutch disease," a concept in economics that holds energy exports - such as those from Alberta - appreciate the dollar, "which then clobbers central Canadian manufacturing. So there's this tension between the oil sectors and manufacturing." The main players in this feud are Alberta and Ontario, with its ailing auto manufacturing industry. Hints of the tensions could be seen in the ramp-up to a premiers' meeting last month, when Premier Ed Stelmach told his counterparts not to "mess with Alberta. Alberta's boom is Canada's boom."

With the provinces at odds, the feds can't afford a constitutional battle, which might take place if stringent federal legislation triggers a provincial court challenge. The threat is not a new one. Ralph Klein warned of a challenge 10 years ago, just days before federal officials flew to Kyoto and committed to international emissions caps. The threat is serious. The Constitution clearly gives the provinces "exclusive" rights over the exploration, development and management of their natural resources. The question is what that would mean to a federal government seeking to regulate emissions.

Constitutional law experts are divided on the issue. While Canadian courts have in the past been clear in ruling which jurisdiction prevails in environmental matters, deciding in favour of the feds, its hard to know just how far the courts will go. A 1997 Supreme Court decision upheld the federal government's right to sanction polluters under criminal law, a decision that stemmed from a court challenge launched by Hydro-Québec after it had been criminally charged for dumping PCBs. The University of Ottawa's Stewart Elgie, who helped argue the Hydro-Québec case, says the decision makes it "very likely that the federal government has the constitutional power to bring in tough environmental laws."

Al Lucas, dean of law at the University of Calgary, is less certain. "If you read the Hydro-Québec case, it looks like the feds can do anything they want as long as they set it up as a criminal offence," he says. "But there have got to be some limits to that because, carried to its ultimate limits, federal authority just gobbles up everything provincial." Lucas says the Supreme Court would likely have to set these limits in any future provincial challenge to federal environmental legislation. Where those limits might fall is an open question. That may be why the Tories have yet to move on Baird's plan - they may be waiting to see if they can work things out with Alberta and avoid a national maelstrom that could pull in the other provinces.

Still, Alberta should brace itself. Sooner or later, its energy sector will have to change. "Albertans aren't in the driver's seat here," says Keith. "They'll be regulated over. And not necessarily by Ottawa." He argues many environmental initiatives will be forced by market conditions set by carbon regulations south of the border, like those California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is seeking.

What Keith and others are awaiting is the hosanna of a "tipping point" in public and government attitudes that will force regulations - the same kind of pressure that led to action on ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons, for example, or the pesticide DDT. And when those regulations do arrive, says Courchene, "they're going to be viewed by the Canadian public in the same way as the Canadian Health Act principles are" - in other words, as a core Canadian value. "And they're going to force all provincial governments to toe the line."

Maclean's October 8, 2007