Alberta Oil Sands – Disaster or Bonanza?

Bitumen has been flowing naturally into the Athabasca River for thousands of years.

This is the way most of us think of the Alberta oil sands: humungous equipment and open pit mining.

Surmont project north of Fort Macmurray – Newer projects in the oil sands do not use open pit mining.

Most Canadians are blissfully unaware of the extent and impact of the massive oil sands developments taking place in northern Alberta. Sure we’ve heard a news clip from time to time. If you’ve been around for more than 25 years or so you’ve probably heard about proposed mega projects that have sputtered on and off with the fluctuating price of oil.

It may come as a surprise to most people that the oil sands were first seriously investigated more than 100 years ago and the first attempts at using the bitumen for commercial purposes took place before WW II. The first major project aimed at extracting oil from the oil sands began in 1973 – the first Syncrude project – which begain shipping oil in July of 1978. So the oil sands have been in actual production for more than 30 years.

If you follow the news you probably occasionally hear about celebrities visiting the oil sands area to offer their wise and informed opinion. Or you may have seen reports of American politicians on fact finding missions touring the projects.

You probably also know that the Alberta oil sands are a favourite target of environmentalists. They claim the projects in the Fort Macmurray area are despoiling the environment – air, water and land – and steam rolling right over the local First Nations people rendering their land uninhabitable and ruining their way of life.

You may be puzzled why governments at all levels (federal, provincial and local) and large multi-national energy companies are so eager to encourage and develop these projects if they are so financially fragile and environmentally questionable. Are they blinded by greed?

In this series of articles I will look at some of the issues surrounding Canada’s energy policy, and some of the environmental, political and ethical issues raised by the oil sands.

These will include
– the history and development of the oil sands
– local environmental issues – land, air, and water
– global environmental issues – global warming
– First Nations involvement and opposition
– the economic impact of the oil sands on Canada
– the geo-political impact on global energy politics

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