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The Environmental Impact of the Tar Sands

Originally appears in the Fall 2012 issue

The development of deposits of bitumen (also known as oil sands or tar sands) is one of the most important petroleum resource development projects in Canada and possibly the world. The bitumen deposits in the northern regions of the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan are considered to be among the last and largest remaining major sources for oil in the world.

The problem with bitumen, however, is that it must be mined either with enormous open pit excavations much like some coal mining, or forced out of the ground under pressure by injecting steam or liquid into the bitumen. Either one of these methods has significant impact on the environment. In fact, these impacts are considered so significant that some people are calling for the development of bitumen deposits to be slowed down until we are more certain of the environmental effects.

One of the groups most concerned are native people, or First Nations as they are called in Canada, living in the area. They are taking their concerns to the Supreme Court of Canada and asking the court to act in order to give First Nations some say in how the oil sands will be developed. First Nations groups could also make a submission to the United Nations requesting a review under international environmental laws and conventions.

This is how one First Nation leader, Chief Don Testawich, Grand Chief of the Western Cree Tribal Council explained their case:

“Our traditional territory is being overrun and cut to pieces by oil sands, major pipelines, gas fields and major power projects. Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Trans Canada Pipelines and Bruce Power are proposing massive projects that will fuel unsustainable oil sands growth. Development on this scale is making our Treaty Rights meaningless and threatens our traditional way of life… The governments of Alberta and Canada sit back and refuse to address our concerns. We are intervening before the Supreme Court because it is abundantly clear that neither the environment nor First Nations can expect to receive a fair hearing within Alberta, where oil sands revenues are at stake. We need help now and help fast.”

Development of bitumen has been controversial. The root of the controversy is the question of environmental impacts versus economic benefits. There is general agreement that relatively little is known about the environmental consequences of development. Much of the debate so far about tar sands development has lacked detail about the pertinent environmental issues.

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Pat Clarke is program coordinator at the Centre for Education, Law and Society at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia.