Environmental Literature | Social Justice | Sustainable Futures

A Globally Impending Disaster: Riley’s Home is Being Destroyed

March 4th, 2017 | Posted by Riley Cohen in Uncategorized

Nanki Singh and Riley Cohen

March 3rd, 2017




Deviating from its original use as gum filling for indigenous canoes, the first barrel of refined Alberta Oil Sand was only shipped out in 1978. Despite only being processed for around forty years, the Oil Sands have impacted Canada, and even the world, in an environmental, social, and economic fashion.


In recent years the Oil Sands industry in Alberta has seriously expanded, evolving into a multi-billion dollar industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people. It would be impossible for Canada to completely eliminate its reliance on the Oil Sands in a short period of time without causing serious harm to the employees of this industry. However, it is clear, even to the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that allowing the oil industry to control the economic fate of Canada is unwise. It must be phased out.


Over the course of this paper, we will explore the specific impacts of the Oil Sands on multiple facets of the issue. Furthermore, we will weigh the benefits and harms that the oil sands have on Canada. This should clarify and, hopefully, reduce the complexity of the issue.


History of the Oil Sands:


Upon first exploring western Canada, colonists were intrigued by the Oil Sands and documented their encounters with these strange pockets of black goo. One of the earliest recorded descriptions of the Oil Sands or bitumen comes from Sir Alexander McKenzie in 1788. Not only does he note just how extensive the reserves of bitumen are, but he also writes about how this substance is used by the indigenous population to fill their canoes. Interestingly, the process by which the native inhabitants of Alberta refine the bitumen into gum for their canoes is similar to the process we use now to refine the sand into oil.


Throughout the 19th century there was no commercial use for the Oil Sands, but quickly after the turn of the century many began to drill in Alberta, hoping that the presence of oil in the sand was an overflow of a large oil reserve stuck underneath the surface. To their dismay, no attempts to strike pockets of oil were successful. The United States, shortly after gaining nuclear technology, also developed an interest in refining the Oil Sands. They planned on igniting a nuclear bomb underground, which would theoretically make the ground reach high enough temperatures to refine the sand into crude oil. Thankfully, the Canadian government rejected this project.


In the 1960s, the first successful projects to refine the Oil Sands began to emerge, and by 1971, the Sun Oil Company was pumping out 30,000 barrels of crude oil a day. This marks the beginning large-scale corporate mining operations in Alberta.


Today, the scale of the Oil Sand extraction has increased to gargantuan proportions. It is now the third largest oil reserve that is proven to exist. In 2007, 726,100 barrels of oil were being pumped out each day. If companies keep to their current mining objectives, future planned production could be around 5,000,000 barrels of oil a day.   



Estimate of production is taken from a synthesis of data from:

“Athabasca oil sands.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 February 2017. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Petroleum History Society Archives 15.4 (2005): n. pag. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

“Oil Sands History and Development.” Institute for Oil Sands Innovation. University of Alberta, Oct. 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

Gordon Pitts. “The Man Who Saw Gold in Alberta’s Oil Sands.” Globe and Mail [Calgary] 25 Aug. 2012: n. pag. Web.


Oil Sands’ Emissions and Contributions to Climate Change:


Although the Oil Sands have only been industrially mined for about forty-five years, a relatively small time when compared to a geological timescale, its impact on the environment and contribution to global warming is immense. With today’s technology, we have access to about 170 billion barrels of oil from the Oil Sands. It is estimated that the Oil Sands hold up to 1.63 trillion barrels of oil. If those barrels of oil were all consumed, the Earth’s average temperature would raise 0.4 degrees Celsius.


The statistic above, however, only includes the green gas house gas emissions from burning the oil once it has been refined. The process of refining the Oil Sands also contributes to climate change, and it is far more polluting than the process of refining normal crude oil. In fact, Greenpeace estimates that the Oil Sands are three to four times dirtier than normal oil. It is important to note, however, that the Greenpeace estimation is pretty liberal. The Scientific American estimates that oil burned from the Oil Sands results in an increase of greenhouse gas emissions of only fourteen percent more than the average oil burned in the US. This increase is still considerable, although it is far less than Greenpeace’s estimation.


Furthermore, the the bitumen in the Oil Sands create a by-product known as petroleum (pet) coke. It is used to create jet fuel and diesel and is possible one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, emitting 20 percent more CO2 than oil. The Canadian tar sands alone produce 10 million metric tons of pet coke a year. It is important to note that since pet coke is not the primary resource being mined in the Oil Sands, it is often not included in companies’ reports on their environmental impact.


In 2011, the Oil Sands emitted 47 million metric tons of CO2 into our atmosphere, which is a relatively small number when compared to the two billion tons of CO2 that was emitted by US coal mining in the same year. Eliminating our consumption of oil from the Tar Sands would definitely not stop greenhouse gas emissions, but it would be a step in the right direction.  


Biello, David. “How Much Will Tar Sands Oil Add to Global Warming?” Scientific American 23 Jan. 2013: n. pag. Web. 1 Mar. 2017.

“The Tar Sands and Climate Change.” Greenpeace Canada. Greenpeace, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

Economic Impact of the Oil Sands:


It is estimated that over the next 20 years, the Oil Sands will have contributed four trillion dollars to the Canadian economy and 1.2 trillion dollars in taxes to the Canadian government. In 2012, the Oil Sands single handedly generated 91 billion dollars. Considering that in 2016 the Canadian gross domestic product was only 1.5 trillion, the Oil Sands clearly have an immense impact on its country’s economy.


The Oil Sands have essentially transformed Alberta, replacing its agriculture-based economy to a massive oil-based economy. This change, of course, has led to economic prosperity for Alberta. The province is now even debt-free. The Oil Sands have also supplied the Canadian economy with 480,000 jobs, many of which are in Alberta. It is to think of that number as just figure, but those are 480,000 people who are now able to provide for their families. These are also, in general, low skilled jobs. If the Oil Sands industry would cease to exist, many of these people would have a difficult time finding a job with a similar skill-level and pay.


It is also important to note that there still a lot of oil left in the tar sands. In fact, Canada has the world’s third largest proven oil reserve. A lot of it, however, is difficult to retrieve. Nonetheless, in theory, the Oil Sand industry could generate a lot of income for Canada for many years to come. In fact, the industry would like to double their output of oil by 2025. If they succeed in doing so, it is estimated that the Canadian gross domestic product will double and another 700,000 jobs will be added to the economy over the next 25 years.


Although allowing the oil industry in Canada to grow would theoretically be lucrative, many question whether this growth would result in Canada being unhealthily dependent on oil. Oil prices definitely have a direct impact on the Canadian economy. In 2016 oil prices dropped significantly, which resulted in an economic slouch. Since the process of refining the tar sands is tedious, companies in Alberta spend more per barrel to extract oil. As oil prices continue to plunge, profit margins for these companies shrink and reverberations are felt across the country. These reverberations would be exponentially larger if the industry succeeded in doubling their size.


“Economic Contribution.” Canada’s Oil Sands. Canada’s Oil & Natural Gas Producers, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017

“Alberta’s Oil Sands: Social Impacts.” Gale Canada in Context, Gale, 2016. Canada in Context, n.d. 01 Mar. 2017.

“Oil Sands and the Economy: 5 Things You May Not Know.” Oil Sands Question and Response (OSQAR) Blog. Suncor, 18 Sept. 2014. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

Slav, Irina. “Oil Bust Continues To Take Its Toll On Canadian Economy.” OilPrice.com. OilPrice, 05 July 2016. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.


The impact of Oil Sands on Human Health

All we are saying is that the basis for the human health risk assessment is flawed.”

It is a fact, that the crude oil processed from the sands of the Boreal Forests in Alberta, Canada is one of the world’s dirtiest and most environmentally destructive sources of fuel. An increasing body of research evidences the serious health risks posed by the extraction and production processes. Despite this, the state and federal governments have done little to address the public health risks it poses.

The University of Toronto’s environmental chemistry research group recently published a study that reported: the PAH emissions estimated in the environmental impact assessments of the oilsands, are shown to be lower, than what they actually are. . In fact, researchers recently studied the chemical concentrations from direct oil sands industrial activity (mining, processing and transport). They asserted that the actual levels of chemicals in the air, may be two to three times higher than what was recorded in other scientific studies. (Cotter)

PAH refers to the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are released into the air, water and soil when bitumen-rich oil sands are mined and processed .(Cotter) This was to approve developments in the Athabasca oilsands region. Of the multiple risks posed by the oil sands operations in Alberta’s Athabasca region, the health implications remain vast, and extremely underestimated. The most predominant causes are the explosions and industrial accidents that occur at the site(s) during the production process, and setting up of its infrastructure. These industrial mishaps have deleterious effects, and manifest themselves by decreasing the health of the biotic species around:

              Various forms of cancer are becoming prevalent, attributed to the production process.

              Freshwater is being made toxic by downstream seepage- causing catastrophic damage to aquatic, animal and human life in the area.

              It accounts for high emissions of hazardous pollution and dust from tailing ponds and mining sites. These lead to increasing cases of respiratory and lung diseases, especially in the miners and workers.

Despite all the overwhelming research that of the negative effects of the oil sands projects, especially those that impact human health- directly and indirectly- more projects are being planned in the region.


Oil Sands: An endangerment to the animals of Alberta

“Birds tell us so much about what is going on around us. They tell us that there needs to be a change in U.S. energy policy.” Gabriela Chavarria, director of the NRDC’s science center

It comes as no surprise, that the habitat and health, of various species of animals have been detrimentally impacted by the infrastructure and production processes of the oilsands. While the industry’s impacts on human health have been greatly assessed and criticized, there remains a lack of literature and urgency when it comes to our animal co-inhabitants. The oil sands have led to the poisoning of waterways, irregularities in the food chain and clean air supply. Concurrently there has been an incessant increase in CO2 emissions and a gradual degradation in the surrounding areas. This has led to “drops and even disappearances of species near pipelines, platforms and other infrastructure of the tarsands.” (Wells)

Powell, Todd. “Alberta Places Wildlife at Further Risk with Tar Sands Wetlands Exemption.”The National Wildlife Federation Blog. National Wildlife Federation, 12 Sept. 2012. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Over hundreds of decomposed ducks have been found on the surface of the oil sands company’s pollutant-filled reservoir in Alberta. It has been reported that its lake-sized reservoir, also known as a tailings pond, killed an estimated 1,606 birds. (Blog) These ponds hold an amalgamate of clayey sand, hydrocarbons, and heavy metals that remain as by products after the oil extraction process. A study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated a death toll of 166 million birds over the next 5 decades.

Sadly, one of the animals most harmed by the expanding tar sands operation is the the Woodland Caribou. Due to the pernicious loss of its habitat, the Caribou, an animal already considered endangered is soon expected to go extinct. This would make the Woodland Caribous the third species of Caribou to disappear from the earth. Other animals facing endangerment include: the Grey Wolf, the Black Bear and aquatic life. (Wells)


The Oil Sands: A social cost or social benefit

It is an indisputable fact, that the Canadians have and continue to benefit tremendously from the economic growth and high paying jobs due to the tar sands in Alberta. But these developments have rightly raised concerns to various social issues. In the recent past, debate over issues such as: short- and long-term environmental impacts on water quality and wildlife habitats, the affect of extraction projects on aboriginal people’s traditional lifestyles, affordable housing and drug and alcohol addiction have begun to be brought to the fore-front.

The exploitation of the oil sands has left in its wake of positive financial upshots, multiple negative payoffs. The magnitude of the social costs- direct and indirect- was perhaps never fathomed to have been what it currently is. It is not hard to conclude, that the socials costs are indeed outweighing social benefits. This led us to question: what then is justification enough, for the proponents of the oilsands, to either scale back or completely stop their economically beneficial yet biologically, socially and environmentally detrimental activities?

The following is the data provided by Canada’s GreenPeace 2010 report on the Social Costs of OilSands production in Alberta:

1996 – 2006: More than 700,000 people poured into Alberta to work in the oil industry, creating severe housing shortages roads, schools and healthcare facilities.

2006: Homelessness in Edmonton increased by 19 per cent, while Calgary has seen a 458 per cent growth in the number of homeless people since 1996.

1999 – 2007: The population of Fort McMurray jumped from 36,000 to 65,000.

Further, it was reported that in the span of a decade, the cost of a single-family home in Fort McMurray rose from $175,000 to over $900,000. (GreenPeace) This was twice the average price of a house in Canada. In fact, some workers were paying over $700 monthly for a cramped single room; in desperation workers and tradesman wrapped insulation around their vehicles and camped outside in below freezing temperatures. (Greenpeace)

The negative socio-economic effects of rapid growth, have negative alterations to the traditional way of life: on the land, drug and alcohol abuse, and increased dependence on handouts by NGO’s. It has simply been a downward spiral for the way of life for the the people of Alberta. Additionally, crime and safety issues have seen a dramatic increase (Gale). They have been in “lock step with increased population and the boomtown mentality of Fort McMurray that has been fostered by the oil sands development” (Gale).

Substance abuse, gambling and family violence has thus increased in Alberta, especially in towns closer to the tar sands projects. At this rate, it is not difficult to see Alberta as the Skid-Row of Canada in a not so distant future. For example, A GreenPeace Report shows-


Fort McMurray:

  •             Has the highest suicide rate in the country for men age 18-24;
  •             Reports five times more drug offences than the rest of Alberta;
  •             Has an 89 per cent higher rate of assault;
  •             Has a 117 per cent higher rate of impaired driving offences.
  •             Women in Alberta experience the highest level of spousal abuse in Canada.
  •             A recent report doctor-patient ratio of 1 to 1579 – three times lower than found in countries such as China, Mexico and Uzbekistan.
  •             Exploitation of the workers is not uncommon.
  •             Tailings ponds cover nearly 60 square kilometres of forest and muskeg around the Athabasca River. They contain dozens of carcinogens that have killed birds, fish and mammals. To date, no provincial or federal agency has done a review of the ponds or their seepage rates into groundwater and the river.

Those most harshly impacted by these actions however, have been the aboriginal communities of the Fort McMurray district. For them the negative ecological and socio-economical impacts of the oil sands developments are closely intertwined, and highly detrimental. The First Nations have inhabited the forest lands of the Athabasca river region for hundreds of years. “Thousands of Chipewyans live in small communities downstream from the oil sands projects north of Fort McMurray. These communities fear a destruction of the forest and river habitats that support the fishing and hunting that is central to their traditional lifestyle.” (Steward)

A recent study on the Social Impacts of Alberta’s Oil Sands reported shockingly despairing news. According to them, the Moose meat from the region now contains unacceptably high levels of arsenic. Arsenic is known to be a potent carcinogen. Further, the Metis fishermen in Fort Chipewyan have discovered hundreds of deformed fish, downstream from the mining areas. It is not hard to understand then, why there is a sudden increase in the reported cases of renal failure, lupus, hyperthyroidism and cancer amongst the aboriginals who eat the local duck, moose and fish (Gale).

Additionally, the Chipewyans claim that the production surrounding tar sands is damaging and degrading their traditional lands. They contest that not only are they are not made aware of the development plans, but nor do they receive adequate compensation for this utter destruction of their resources. “Many of Canada’s First Nations people, including the Cree, Métis, Dene, and Athabascan, are tied to the land and rely on the continued existence of wildlife for their living. Wildlife is becoming tainted by toxins. Fish and game animals are appearing covered with tumors and mutations. Fish frying in a pan smells like burning plastic.” (Steward)


Oil Sands and Deforestation

According to Global Forest Watch data, from 2000-2013, Canada lost more than 26 million hectares of forest, mainly in its boreal region. More than 20 percent of the boreal forest region (more than 150 million hectares) is now covered by industrial concessions for timber operations, hydrocarbon development, hydroelectric power reservoirs, and mineral extraction.”

Canada is laden with one of Earth’s major ecological treasures: The Boreal forests. But in the light of the Economic Boom attributed to the Oil Sands found here, why are they important? It has been found that Canada is home to 54% of the worlds Boreal Forests. Making it the world largest and most ecologically intact of its kind- at least up until now. (Peterson) These forests boast of a rich and varied system of bogs, mountain ranges, coniferous and mixed forests, forested plains, waterways and peatlands. It also supports a web of wildlife that are now increasingly facing endangerment. From the Grey Wolf to the Woodland Caribou and the Black Bear. Further, some studies have shown that because the caribou avoids areas approx. 500m of the industrial areas, it does not cross the fragmented and cleared forest areas. This in turn, makes the ecological footprint of the tar sands higher than the actual physical footprint. Industrial development and forest fires in Canada’s tar sands region has cleared or degraded 775,500 hectares (almost two million acres) of boreal forest since the year 2000. (Tencer)

FORT MCMURRAY, AB – JUNE 20: The Shell Oil Jackpine open pit mine uses trucks that are 3 stories tall, weigh one million pounds, and cost 7 million dollars each. There is explosive growth in the oil field areas around Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. The oil extracted from this area is the product that would travel through the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It has oft been overlooked, that these boreal forests capture and retain twice the amount of Carbon Dioxide as compared to Tropical Forests. Hence, their destruction plays a critical role in the increasing global climate issue today.  However, today these forests are being recklessly destroyed. The oilsands companies in their incessant need for extracting oil have cleared and harmed much of the forest by activities such as logging, mining and building hydrodams. (Petersen)



In the long-term, the rate at which our planet currently consumes fossil fuels is not sustainable and we must move towards renewable energy sources. However, given that the economy is essentially inextricably tied to oil, it would be unrealistic to cut out oil from the Canadian economy any time in the near future. This makes the Oil Sands issue far more complex.


The long term goal for many people concerned about climate change is to first halt the expansion of the oil industry in Canada and then slowly reduce its output. Below are some proposed methods to accomplish this task.



In order to protect the land and animals that live in the Albertan forest and halt the expansion of the oil industry, the Government of Alberta would have have to use legislation. Some proposed legislation includes:

  • Establishing more protected areas. This would restrict the amount of land that could be purchased and developed by oil companies.
  • Establishing harsher offset policies. Offset policies ensure that mining companies offset their environmental impact by contributing by doing environmental work. The Pembina Institute recommends that for every hectare of land companies destroy for oil, three hectares of land should be restored or conserved.
  • Establishing conserved land that integral to the survival of certain species.


Reducing Impact on Climate Change:

No matter what measures are implemented, it is impossible to completely eliminate the carbon footprint of the Oil Sands, and for the extraction of oil in general. However, there are ways to reduce the impact of mining until we transition to sustainable forms of energies. These include:

  • Implementing carbon capture technology at the mining sites. This technology would reduce the output of CO2 at the sites.
  • Ensuring that Alberta stays committed to scientifically defined greenhouse gas emission rates that are in line with Global emission reduction targets. This means that the Canadian government cannot back out of Global initiatives, such as the Tokyo protocol.


Reducing the Social Costs of the Oil Sands:

It is important to note that as the the Oil Sands industry begins to contract, so will its societal impacts. However, in the meantime, the Canadian treat the issues in these affected with a high degree of seriousness. This includes creating programs to work directly with these communities to create a better home and working environment.


Institute, Pembina. “Oilsands Solutions.” Pembina Institute. Pembina Institute, n.d. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Kyoto Protocol.” Kyoto Protocol. N.p., 30 May 2013. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.



In this analysis we sought to map the impact of the multiple consequences produced due the extraction and production processes of the Oil Sands in Alberta. It serves as a preliminary exposition into the history, the significant changes and the research with regard to the Oil Sands.

While the detrimental effects of Canada’s economic juggernaut have been de-emphasized in the past, today there is a growing dialogue in the public sphere and media for the same. In our greed for Petro-dollars, we have destroyed the product of thousands of geological years, in a short span of 45 years. While Canada’s economy remains largely dependent on the Oil Sands, so are a myriad of other factors. These other dependent factors in turn are dying, being depleted and damaged in our belligerent greed for oil. We have wreaked irreparable havoc to the land, the boreal forests and the flora and fauna of areas surrounding the Oil Sands extraction sites. We are driving animals to extinction, polluting the air and making the once clean waters highly toxic. These systemic failures, in turn are contributing heavily to the global change in climate. Further, the displacement of the indigenous people, and the influx of migrant workers and laborers has contributed to increasing levels of crime, and lower standards of living. However, solutions exist. Those listed above are just a few of the myriad of ways to prevent the current situation from worsening.

Today, we possess the means and are aware of the methods to halt our destructive actions. In this vein, we need to address the issue before it gets too late.  


 Works Cited

“Alberta’s Oil Sands: Social Impacts.” Gale Canada in Context. Detroit: Gale, 2016. N. pag. Canada in Context. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.

Blog, /. Tar Sands Project. “Alberta’s Wildlife Death Toll on the Rise.” Iowa Tar Sands Project. N.p., 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Cotter, John. “Health Risks Of Oilsands Likely Worse Than We Thought.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 05 Apr. 2014. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

GreenPeace. “Tar Sands and Social Costs.” Stop the Tar Sands (2010): 1-2. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.

Petersen, Rachael, Nigel Sizer, and Peter Lee. “Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest.” Tar Sands Threaten World’s Largest Boreal Forest. World Resources Institute, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2017.

Steward, Gillian. “First Nations Bear the Risks of Oilsands Development.” Thestar.com. N.p., 28 Aug. 2015. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Tencer, Daniel. “Canada The World Leader In Deforestation, Study Finds.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post, 05 Sept. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.

Wells, Jeff, PhD. “Impact on Birds of Tar Sands Oil Development in Canada’s Boreal Forest.” NRDC Report December 2008 (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

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