This is the world's most destructive oil operation—and it's growing

Stephen Leahy
April 11, 2019

Indigenous people and environmentalists want to prevent the expansion of Canada's oil sands development, and the water and air pollution that come with it.

Large enough to be seen from space, tailings ponds in Alberta’s oil sands region are some of the biggest human-made structures on Earth. They contain a toxic slurry of heavy metals and hydrocarbons from the bitumen separation process.

AS THE WORLD’S largest industrial project, the scale of Alberta’s tar sands operations is hard to grasp. Imagine driving on a highway and to either side behind a thin screen of trees is a vast industrial landscape as far as the eye can see. Now imagine 500 miles of that highway.

If Alberta, with its population of four million people, was a country it would be the fifth largest oil producing nation. While it produces conventional oil, most comes from the Alberta oil sands, the world’s third largest proven oil reserve at 170 billion barrels.

The local and national Canadian governments are pushing to expand oil extraction operations in the vast tar sands region, which already has a footprint roughly the size of England, even as they promote action on climate change on the world stage. And although the relationships between local people and the extraction operations are complex, involving jobs and services, a growing chorus of environmentalists and indigenous people are speaking out against pollution and degradation in the oil sands. Many are digging in for a fight against proposed expansions, including a major pipeline project.

The Syncrude oil sands plant is seen north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The province is home to the third largest oil deposits in the world, but it's particularly destructive to extract.


Against the brewing fight in the oil sands region, Canada pushed for the 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) global warming target at the Paris climate summit in 2015—but when protestors blocked construction of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline in 2018, the Justin Trudeau government bought the pipeline from its Texas owners. Canada’s national carbon tax to cut its global warming emissions went into effect April 1, 2019. And yet the country spent U.S. $3.4 billion (C $4.5 billion) last year to buy the only oil pipeline from Canada’s west coast to the Alberta oil sands to ensure future growth of its oil exports, and allow expansion of operations in the oil sands.

Texas-based Kinder Morgan, owners of the 65-year-old Trans Mountain oil pipeline, had been building a much larger pipeline along the same 715-mile (1,150-kilometer) route along the banks of numerous major rivers and through world-renowned Jasper National Park, but were bitterly opposed by indigenous and environmental groups. Frustrated by lawsuits and protests Kinder Morgan announced last April they were abandoning the project. The Trudeau government stepped in knowing it will cost billions more to complete the project.


A charred swath of boreal forest, along highway 63 near Fort McMurray, is seen during the wildfire of 2016.


After living almost his whole life around the oil sands industry, Michael Beamish was diagnosed with advanced thyroid cancer in 2016 and given two to three years to live. Here, he uses a dust mask to protect himself from wildfire smoke and other pollution in June 2016.


“Canada wants to be a climate champion,” says Kevin Taft, author and former leader of the Liberal Party in Alberta. “At the same time, it wants to increase its oil exports.”

The oil industry uses cut lines in the forest like this one to search for underground resources and build infrastructure for future development.


The fact that Canada, with a progressive Liberal Party government and Alberta’s quasi-socialist New Democratic Party government, are both desperate to have it both ways reveals the immense power of the oil industry, says Taft, whose most recent book is titled Oil’s Deep State: How the Petroleum Industry Undermines Democracy and Stops Action on Global Warming—in Alberta, and in Ottawa.

Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, according to a new government report. That report also warned that drastic action is the only way to avoid catastrophic outcomes. “We need to act now so our kids can have a healthy planet and good jobs,” Prime Minister Trudeau wrote on Twitter on April 4, 2019.

[Map - See link.]

However, Canada is not likely to meet its 2020 carbon emission reduction target, experts warn. Nor is it likely to meet its 2030 Paris climate target—almost entirely due to increasing emissions from the oil and gas sector, which are expected to reach 100 million tonnes a year by then. That’s close to the entire country of Nigeria’s emissions in 2017—a major oil-producing country with a far larger population of 190 million people.

Canada has been a significant oil producer since the 1850s. Oil is the country’s biggest export earner, and it is a much bigger part of the Canadian economy than it is in the more diversified U.S. “Governments, regulators, and public institutions, including some universities, are all servants of the oil industry,” Taft says.

A water intake pipeline runs from the Athabasca River near Fort McKay, Alberta. The oil sands industry consumes three barrels of fresh water for every one barrel of oil produced.


Nowhere is oil more important than in the province of Alberta, where the vast majority of Canada’s oil is produced.

Big footprint

Perhaps surprisingly, the oil sands don’t actually have any oil per se. Instead, a huge area about the size of Florida or Wisconsin north and east of Edmonton, Alberta, contains a tarry bitumen mixed with sand that is mined from underneath the boreal forest. The region has long been known as the tar sands.

The 175-odd oil sands mining projects are owned by major oil companies from around the world, including Exxon and China’s CNOOC. Together, the companies pump out 2.6 million barrels every day, virtually all of which is shipped to U.S. refineries. Those barrels hold diluted bitumen, not crude oil. Bitumen is too thick to pump, so light crude oil and chemicals are added.

A quick look north of Fort McMurray using Google map’s satellite view clearly shows some of the impacts on the landscape. Scattered along the banks of the Athabasca River is one of the world’s largest collections of tailings waste ponds— able to fill more than 500,000 Olympic swimming pools. These are so toxic, ducks and other birds have to be prevented from going near them.

A swath of boreal forest is stripped away to reveal the bitumen-laced ground at the Fort Hills Suncor oil sands site near Fort McKay, Alberta. The area will soon become a gaping strip mine as the bitumen, a mixture of sand and tar, is trucked away for processing into petroleum products.


“For every barrel shipped out, six to 12 barrels of tailings waste is produced,” says Paul Belanger, a former oil sands worker and current co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca, an organization of indigenous peoples and environmentalists.


Tailings flow into a Suncor tailings pond, as seen from above. 


A detail of the shoreline of the Shell Albian Sands tailings pond near Fort McKay. Environmentalists say such ponds may pose a risk to groundwater.


Tailings ponds have been growing for more than 50 years with no end in sight and no solution to clean them up, says Belanger. They’re also leaking into the Athabasca River, he says.

Air pollution including acid rain also plagues the remote region. One study found that acid rain would eventually damage an area almost the size of Germany. Tar sands operators could reduce their pollution and better manage the tailings waste problems, but they’re reluctant to spend the money, Belanger says. As a result of these issues, tar sands oils have a higher environmental cost than other sources, he notes.

Joey Fraser hunts for ducks at the Métis territory of Big Point, near Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. Such traditional food sources are becoming more scarce and more polluted as time goes on, and locals blame the impacts of oil sands developments. Studies have shown that moose meat in the area has been found to contain hundreds of times the acceptable limits of arsenic.


“I grew up in the bush up there,” he says. “Alberta is incredibly beautiful, but big parts are being absolutely destroyed.”

Impacts on First Nations people

The tar sands industry has been very destructive to the environment and our communities in the region, says Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, executive director ofIndigenous Climate Action, an indigenous-led organization working on climate issues.

“It’s had a huge impact on caribou, bison, moose, birds, fish, the water, the forest. It’s affected our ability to travel, to gather food from the land—it’s really overwhelming,” said Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation located near Fort Chipewyan, north of Fort McMurray.

Wade and Chelsea (at center) say goodbye to their infant daughter during her burial in Fort McKay on November 11th, 2012. Chelsea suffered a miscarriage five months into her pregnancy. Cancer, stillbirths, miscarriages and other serious health problems are prevalent in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan. Healthcare professionals have been sounding alarms over pollution levels from surrounding oil sands mines and calling for an in-depth health study for many years.


Even though the Indigenous Climate Action is led by former activists from Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and other organizations, they don’t want to shut the oil sands industry down. “That would just make things worse,” Deranger says.

Indigenous communities in the region are deeply impoverished, for one thing. First Nations communities have long suffered from poor housing, education, and other social problems. Some 62 communities across Canada are currently under long-term boil-water advisories, some for the last 23 years. The Canadian government was criticized in a 2016 Human Rights Watch report for its poor treatment of its indigenous peoples.

Left: The spotlight from a freight barge shines out over the Athabasca River. From south to north, the Athabasca connects Fort McMurray, Fort McKay, the oil sands mines, and Fort Chipewyan. Many rely upon the waterway as a means for travel, hunting, and transportation of goods. Water levels have become dangerously low since the oil sands industry began drawing water from the river for their processing facilities.
Right: Commercial fisherman Raymond "Smokey" Ladouceur throws a whitefish to his sled dogs in Fort Chipewyan. After decades of commercial fishing on Lake Athabasca, located downriver from the oil sands mines, the fish caught there are too polluted for human consumption.


The other reality in the oil sands, according to Deranger, is that environmental cleanup will require enormous investment. One government estimate put thebill as much as U.S. $195 billion (C $260 billion).

It makes no difference if local communities object to proposed oil sands projects, says Janelle Marie Baker, an anthropologist at Alberta’s Athabasca University. “Projects are always approved by government,” Baker says.

The best they can hope for is to have some land set aside to buffer the impacts and get some compensation. “There’s a strong cultural preference for food from the land. Some have never eaten meat from a store,” she says.

With the oil industry’s fingers in all aspects of government, communities don’t have much choice, says Deranger. “It’s the buffalo kill all over again. Starve us to weaken us,” she said. (In the 1870s the U.S. government encouraged theslaughter of buffalo, also known as bison, to deprive the Sioux and other Plains tribes of food.)

Dez, 7, plays in his bed in Fort McKay. Dez was born with an underdeveloped heart and has received multiple open-heart surgeries. His family and healthcare professionals believe his condition was caused by industrial pollution from nearby oil sands developments.


Against this history of mistrust, some First Nations communities have become partners in oil sands projects in return for jobs, grocery stores, housing, and public facilities. When a community wanted to build off-grid solar for electricity, no one else stepped up to help except the industry. The same was true for a health center, Deranger says.

“The Blood Tribe created Kainaiwa Resources because we needed to be more involved in how our land is used,” says Clayton Blood, general manager of Kainaiwa Resources, which is an oil and gas producer. “We have been very successful working with industry and partnering with companies we trust,” Blood said in a statement.

Rather than advocating for the closure of existing oil sands projects, Indigenous Climate Action opposes any expansion of the industry and is working to help communities make a transition away from oil and toward renewable energy projects, particularly those that are indigenous owned and operated. As a result, they are strongly opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline, since it could help increase the size of oil sands operations and contribute more to climate change. Even worse, in their view, is the fact that the Trudeau government spent billions to buy the pipeline—money they would have liked to see improve the poor housing, water infrastructure, and energy deficits within indigenous communities.

Kanahus Manuel brings her niece Wasayka, 2, to the banks of the South Thompson River in Shuswap, British Columbia. For years, many Secwepemc First Nations people have been rallying to protect their water and prevent a new oil sands pipeline from being built through their territory. In 2016, the pipeline was formally approved by the Canadian government and construction began in 2017.


“Pipelines are critical in ensuring Canada has access to high growth markets and receives full value for our natural resources,” says Tim McMillan, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an oil and gas industry group.

“Indigenous peoples are often seen as being widely opposed to oil and natural gas development—that’s simply not the case. There are many indigenous communities who have built, and continue to build, a prosperous economic future by working with industry,” McMillan said in a statement.

A number of indigenous communities along the pipeline’s route remain resolutely opposed, and especially in the province of British Columbia. If built, the pipeline could dramatically increase the number of large oil tankers using coastal waters. That could endanger the local orca population and risk oil spills.

“The answer is still 'no'. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline will never be built,” Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told media in 2018 after Trudeau announced the pipeline would be built.

Behind the scenes there was immense pressure by the oil industry on Trudeau to get the pipeline built, says Taft. “It shows the power of the industry, even when it’s facing imminent decline.”

A robotic bird of prey sits on a floating platform equipped with a strobe light, loudspeaker, and a propane canon, at a Syncrude oil sands site. Such contraptions are aimed at deterring migratory birds from landing in tailings ponds, where they are poisoned in large numbers.


If the Trans Mountain pipeline does go forward, it will take years to complete. By then, it’s possible it won’t be needed since the decline in global oil demand is not far off, he says.

“Long after the industry is gone, we will have to deal with the consequences.”