Canada’s oil sands – bountiful blessing or cruel curse?

Patrick Hull

Staff Writer

This month sees the 15th anniversary of the release of the iconic science-­fiction motion picture “The Matrix”. The film tells the story of a world in the near future where humans believe that they are living full and worthwhile lives, when in fact this vision is being projected into their brains in a bid to subdue them as energy is harvested from an enslaved population in order to power a sentient robotic ruling class. However a small group of people have managed to break free of this illusory world and live as outcasts, trying to bring down the system and restore the freedom of the human race. In one scene Morpheus, the leader of the rebels, is about to show someone the reality of their world with the following disclaimer: “Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.”

These words were echoed by the Canadian musician Neil Young in an interview earlier this

year. “I’m never going to tell you what to believe… what I do attempts to show things, it brings light to things… I don’t tell people what to think”, he said, speaking to the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi. The interview was organised to promote Young’s pan-­Canadian tour entitled ‘Honour the Treaties’, a series of concerts to raise funds for the aboriginal Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) people and their efforts to fight against the expansion of oil sands production in their region. Oil sands are deposits of sand and clay that are saturated with a form of crude petroleum

called bitumen, known colloquially as tar. Bitumen can be upgraded to crude oil through a refining process, where it can then be used in much the same way as conventional oil sources. Canada possesses the world’s largest accumulation of bitumen and the single biggest deposit exists in Athabasca in north-­eastern Alberta, home of the ACFN. The issue of the extraction and use of oil sands bitumen is a hugely polarising one, not just in Canada but across the world, as economists and environmentalists engage in a head-­on collision over the true benefits and costs of production.

“Perpetuating the use of fossil fuels is never going to be a long–term solution and the quicker that governments recognise this, the better. Investing in a switch to renewable and sustainable energy sources may represent a step back in the short run, but it is the only chance we have of creating a future fit to live in.”

For those against the further development of oil sands, the exploitation of the bitumen stocks represents an unacceptable risk to the environment. The huge energy costs associated with extraction are cited as one major objection. As the vast majority of the deposits are buried too deep underground for conventional mining, in situ methods have been developed including steam assisted gravity drainage and cyclic steam stimulation. These mostly involve pumping steam into the ground to make the bitumen more viscous, thus allowing it to be pumped to the surface. To generate the steam, huge amounts of natural gas and water are used with Greenpeace Canada claiming that three to five times more water and energy are required to generate a single barrel of oil than any other energy source currently in use. The group ‘Oil Sands Reality Check’ state that three to four times more greenhouse gases are emitted by the extraction of oil from Alberta’s oil sands compared to conventional oil production. The more immediate and visible cost to the natural surroundings is also a factor that draws great criticism. Neil Young caused controversy with comments made at a National Farmers Union event in Washington D.C. where he compared the Athabasca production site to Hiroshima. He stuck to this line in the CBC interview. When asked to describe his arrival in the oil sands area, often referred to as Fort McMurray – the name of the main town in the region, he stated that “when I got to Fort McMurray… the first thing I smelled was fuel, and then I realised that was the air… 25 miles away from the nearest site… it was burning my eyes and I could feel it in my throat.” He went on to say, “it is the ugliest environmental disaster… that I could even comprehend.”

Unsurprisingly, these kinds of criticisms have been strongly rebuffed by the Albertan government. Their website has a large section dedicated to the oil sands which goes to great lengths to detail how the increased development is having a negligible impact on the environment. They claim that “while Fort McMurray is growing, air quality is not being substantially affected”, that “water use per barrel is comparable to other energy resources” and that “Alberta’s oil sands industry continues to operate under some of the most stringent regulations and standards in the world that hold industry accountable for environmental performance at all times.” However the crux of the pro-­extraction argument is the economic benefit. The government claims that around 173,000 Albertans are employed by the industry and that over the coming 25 years the Albertan government can expect to claim $350 billion in royalties, the government’s share of the revenue, from oil extraction. The issue is not just a Canadian one, as the British Conservative Party have recently indicated a strong interest in exploiting unconventional energy sources in a similar way by pushing the controversial process of fracking, with financial rewards to councils who engage in the development of fracking sites.

While there are strong arguments to be made in favour of oil sands development, Neil Young managed to produce the best rebuttal in his CBC interview. It’s unusual that the most telling part of a radio interview can be a period of silence but that was the case in a short exchange that followed Jian Ghomeshi leading into a question as to whether producing home-­grown oil was better than importing it, saying “we have a cultural dependence on oil, we have a system based on oil…”

“Why?” shot back Young, and what followed was a very long pause as Ghomeshi struggled for an answer, leaving Young to continue. “Because it exists?… That’s not a good enough reason for me. I disagree with the reason behind us feeling we’re dependent on oil. That’s a basic problem for me, as a thinking person, as a person who’s looking into the future, who’s looking out for my grandchildren.”

In “The Matrix” those who choose to break free do so not to enter a better life, indeed the reality they find themselves in is much more hazardous and uninviting than the one they left behind, but in the hope of creating a better future. Maybe this is the kind of approach that we should consider when it comes to future energy supplies. Perpetuating the use of fossil fuels is never going to be a long-­term solution and the quicker that governments recognise this, the better. Investing in a switch to renewable and sustainable energy sources may represent a step back in the short run, but it is the only chance we have of creating a future fit to live in.