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

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.

Photograph By Ian Willms
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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.
Photograph By Ian Willms

As the world's largest industrial project, the scale of Alberta’s tar sands operations is hard to grasp. Especially north of Fort McMurray, where the boreal forest has been razed and bitumen is mined from the ground in immense open pits, the blot on the landscape is incomparable.

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.

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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.

“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.”

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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.

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