| Fort McMurray Alberta Photo kris krüg Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 DEED | MR Online Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Photo: kris krüg / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

Canada’s oilsands are a toxic nightmare

Originally published: Counterfire on January 31, 2024 (more by Counterfire)  |

Research that has been published in the journal Science, shows that toxic emissions from Canada’s notoriously dirty oilsands project have been ‘dramatically underestimated’. The report ‘found that air pollution from the vast Athabasca oilsands in Canada exceed industry-reported emissions across the studied facilities by a staggering 1,900% to over 6,300%.’

So great is the level of the emissions ‘that damaging reactive pollutants from the oilsands are equivalent to those from all other human-made sources across Canada with severe health implications.’

These findings mean that ‘scientists have validated what downwind Indigenous communities have been saying for decades. Jesse Cardinal, from the indigenous-led Keepers of the Water, noted that ‘we are told this is all within the limits and OK but this report backs up what the communities living in these areas experience–it is so bad they cannot open their windows because it hurts their lungs to breathe–especially at night.’

The researchers used ‘aircraft to measure pollutants’ and found that ‘there are many organic compounds being released during the process that are missed by traditional ways of measuring air pollutants.’ Moreover, these ‘emission underestimates were not just observed at the more well-known surface mining operations, but also from in situ extraction facilities that represent over 50% of production with projected increases.

Documented risk

The threat posed by the oilsands development was already well documented long before the present shocking revelations. The Narwhal, a publication that focuses on environmental issues, issued a backgrounder on the oilsands project last year that makes this very clear.

The oilsands are ‘the world’s third-largest deposit of oil, containing an estimated 165 billion barrels of oil.’ They ‘are comprised of high-carbon bitumen deposits. Bitumen requires extraction from underneath the boreal forest, either through mining or the drilling of steam injected wells.’ Given the extensive use of such methods, it isn’t surprising that for ‘many years, the oilsands have represented Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.’

The project also ‘generates a tremendous amount of contaminated water waste, called “tailings”. The tailings ponds from the Alberta oilsands cover about 220 square kilometres and hold an estimated 1.2 trillion litres of contaminated water that’s been used in bitumen mining.’

Covering an area of roughly 142,200 square kilometres in northern Alberta, these ‘operations have contributed to a massive disturbance of Alberta’s boreal forest, through the construction of roads, refineries, processing plants, seismic lines and other oil and gas infrastructure. The result is a heavily polluted landscape, fears of water and wildlife contamination and increasing pressure on at risk species such as the boreal caribou.’

Though the roots of the oilsands project go back much further, it was taken forward in the ‘mid-1990s by rising oil prices. By 2004, Canadian production of tar sands oil had reached one million barrels per day–with much of the output bound for the United States–and Big Oil had ambitious plans to expand.’ Many of these plans have involved laying major pipelines to Canada’s west coast and the U.S. Gulf Coast. In this way, the project’s impact extended well beyond the region immediately impacted and led to enormous confrontations and determined resistance from Indigenous communities and environmentalists.

Fossil-fuel interests and Canadian governments, at both the federal and provincial level, have pushed forward the oilsands project with scant regard for the environmental consequences. The impact on Indigenous communities has also been completely unconscionable.

The Council of Canadians points out that the ‘most immediate and significantly impacted victims of the financially lucrative and environmentally apocalyptic Athabasca tar sands are the Indigenous peoples who have lived since time immemorial in the Athabasca watershed.’

As the project was established, ‘the consent that was given for these projects was not free, prior, or informed. Leaders who entered into these agreements did so knowing that the bitumen mining projects would be going forward with or without their consent, and that these developments would further disrupt the lands they depended on for their livelihoods.’

It has been clear for decades that ‘the waste products of the tar sands were poisonous.’ The tailings ponds that the project has generated now cover an area two and half times larger than the city of Vancouver and ‘the devastating toll of the poisoned ponds’ has had a shattering impact on Indigenous lives.

The report that has now emerged on the extreme and grossly underestimated toxicity of the oilsands project makes clear that, as dire as the impact has been on the immediate area, the venture constitutes an appalling contribution to environmental degradation and climate crisis on a global scale.

Climate wrecking

The dire impacts of a profit-driven effort to extract dirty oil in Alberta is, of course, only a particularly dreadful example of the course that fossil-fuel capitalism is pursuing everywhere. Just a few years ago, political leaders and mainstream media talked about the need to ensure that global warming was kept at or below the 1.5C threshold.

Last year was ‘the warmest in recorded history, with average global temperatures topping 1.5C of heating above preindustrial levels for more than one third of the year.’ For this year, forecasts ‘suggest the year ahead is likely to be another record breaker, with a strong possibility that this could be the first full year to go beyond 1.5C of warming.’ It is likely that ‘we will end the year with average global temperatures somewhere between 1.34C and 1.58C above preindustrial levels.’

In the midst of this dreadful situation, which threatens life on this planet, we learn that ‘Canada’s oil production is set to jump by about 10 per cent over [this] year and become one of the largest sources of increased supply around the world.’ Canada ‘produces about 4.8 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude and that figure could climb by about 500,000 bpd to about 5.3 million bpd by the end of 2024 … That would mark an all-time high for Canadian production.’

Incredibly, in ‘2024, Canada could be the largest source of growth in global crude oil production. The country’s expected jump in oil output of about 500,000 bpd is higher than the 400,000 bpd projected growth in the U.S.’ Moreover, ‘predicted growth over the next two years is expected to exceed the total amount added over the last five years.’

As this mad rush proceeds, we are told that ‘Alberta’s oilsands is expected to drive much of the growth.’ The utter destructive recklessness of this situation speaks to the uncontrolled nature of the climate crisis under capitalism.

The dirtiest and most carbon intensive form of oil imaginable has been extracted and transported at the cost of a process of environmental degradation that has laid waste to an area of Canada larger than some European countries. In the process, Indigenous communities that have lived for thousands of years on this land have had to cope with the toxic effects of the process and an assault on their way of life.

Now, it is belatedly revealed that the monitoring process over this wrecking operation has been totally inadequate and that the release of pollutants may be up to 64 times greater than everyone was led to believe. Yet, we may be sure that fossil-fuel companies and governments will downplay the significance of these terrible findings and do all they can to ensure that the dirty oil keeps flowing, regardless of the human cost and environmental consequences.

The Alberta oilsands project has done enormous harm and the results of perpetuating it would be even more dreadful that anyone could possibly have imagined. It is incompatible with a rational use of natural resources and a sustainable generation of energy and it must be brought to an end.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.