Crude nation: Canada in the grip of Big Oil

| August 7, 2013
Photo: Greenpeace / John Woods

As Canadians become better versed in the rhetoric and posturing of the petroleum industry, so too are they understanding the exigency with which it has spread, leaving widespread degradation in its pipelined path.

From spill to explosion, leak to contamination, tragedy to regret, it is rapidly becoming apparent the capricious nature of an economy increasingly dependent upon oil.

It is no veiled secret, either, that Canada's role in the globalized world has shifted. Described emphatically as a "rogue petrostate" by Andrew Nikiforuk, writing in Foreign Policy, the nation once applauded for its environmental protections is now competing in the volatile sector of resource extraction, dotting its landscape with pipeline and rail projects to spur trade and entice offshore investment. Centred on Alberta's oil boom, this top-down economic transformation has meant a commitment to export-oriented growth, foreign direct investment (FDI) and, consequently, the neglect of important regulatory oversight by the public.

In the restructuring, Big Oil has allowed for the explosion of the temporary jobs market, accepted greater foreign ownership of Canadian resources and seen the expansion of mining operations from coast to coast. To satisfy stakeholders, the Conservative government has incentivized oil sands investment, notably authorizing a $15 billion takeover of Calgary-based Nexen by Beijing's CNOOC (China National Offshore Oil Corporation), and opening the door to arctic drilling by requiring of companies a paltry $1 billion liability cap described by analysts as "not best practice in comparison to other parts of the world."

It is estimated that as much as 71 per cent of the Canadian oil industry, including prominent companies like Husky and Suncor, is now foreign-owned.

Using euphemisms such as "responsible resource development" and "streamlined environmental protection," the Tories have abetted petroleum's takeover by passing systemic legislation that has accelerated deregulation and weakened transparency. Without mentioning Canada's historically-unprecedented abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol, the government's funding cuts to the Canadian Environment Network -- designed to inform national energy decision-making with data and research -- and stripping of the Species at Risk and Environmental Protection Acts, have dealt a severe blow to independent groups and sent a message to activists and progressives: dissent is not advisable.

Crowned with a series of expensive ad campaigns masking the lurid realities of bitumen extraction, the oil industry and complicit Tory government have effectively warped public opinion into tacit acceptance of an environmentally disastrous and non-renewable enterprise.

Yet, despite overwhelming scientific evidence stating the dangers of oil sands expansion and the need for alternative energy technologies, the petroleum industry is moving forward. The advent of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other in situ methods of underground oil extraction have spread well beyond Alberta's borders, threatening ecosystems and communities across the country.

So, what can be done to halt, or at least temper, the voracious expansion of oil and bitumen refining which actively threaten Canada's wilderness?

And what of the country's longterm geopolitical security? Are the aims of foreign-owned energy corporations in line with many Canadians' desires for economic independence, valuable jobs and clean drinking water

Profound consequences

 The environmental impacts of the Alberta oil sands are well documented and ongoing. Its damaging effects on aboriginal hunting grounds, poisoning of lakes, rivers and wetlands and deleterious consequences for wildlife have been widespread, stirring activists who demand greater governmental transparency and industry principle.

Today, there are over 80 pipelines operating along the 49th parallel, most of which divert bituminous sands from northern Alberta to refineries in the southern United States. Compared to conventional oil extraction, the creation of liquid fuels from oil sands emits 12 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, and requires an immense amount of fresh water to maintain steady rates of production.

Pipelines, while considerably accelerating the movement of bitumen into the United States, pose an inherent danger to nearby communities and the vulnerable ecosystems they precariously cover. Just in recent months, several devastating and unprecedented spills have carpeted Alberta in poisonous sludge. In June, an enormous discharge of industrial waste near Zama City leaked over 9 million litres of contaminated liquid, threatening the Dene Tha' First Nation's traditional lands. This followed an earlier spill of 475,000 litres of oil near Sundre which severely polluted the Red Deer River. Then, a toxic dumping of 5,000 litres of crude at the Lubicon Lake First Nation ravaged over 2.5 square kilometers of hunting and trapping territory.

These devastating events, including the shocking train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec that killed 30 people, are tragic symbols of an industry with a one-dimensional profit motive. Poor inspection, low standards and an ineffective response caused over 5.6 million litres of oil to spill there on July 6, and 150,000 more in the nearby lake and Chaudière River. Strangely, the Ottawa-based cleanup corporation charged with assessing the damage at Lac-Mégantic, the Eastern Canada Response Corporation (ECRC), remained silent on the issue, not disclosing to the community or federal government the full extent of the damage.

Further train accidents, like the leakage of 30,000 gallons of crude in western Minnesota in late March, spotlight the dangers of a hyper-productive export industry desperately attempting to meet massive volumes.

Meanwhile, Alberta's new Energy Regulator Gerry Protti -- a former oil lobbyist and vice president of corporate affairs for the Encana corporation -- is being asked to step down by rights groups and First Nations communities who feel their landowner rights will not be respected by powerful 'oil insiders.'

Despite acts of civil disobedience, though, more projects are rammed through on a monthly basis. With Phases 1 and 2 of TransCanada's Keystone XL Pipeline complete, construction of Phase 3, which will extend it from Cushing, Oklahoma to Gulf refineries in Texas, is already underway. Toronto-based Enbridge, the tar sands company notoriously responsible for over 800 spills since 1999, has been exceptionally active, too. In July alone, representatives announced a 600-mile-long pipeline to run from Flanagan, Illinois to the southern states, along with a massive $1.3 billion project which is poised to expand the Woodland Pipeline near Edmonton.

Typically, Canadian democracy has fostered open debate and placed the concerns of the public ahead of moneyed prestige or a disreputable company like Enbridge. Beneath the shadow of Big Oil, however, no such guarantee exists. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, amendments to the National Energy Board (NEB) have stymied rational conversation and led to gross incongruities between the aims of natural resource extraction and environmental stewardship. With increasing amounts of red tape blockading public hearings and inquests, it seems as though acts of civil resistance and hijacking are the only remaining methods of effectively halting the spread of new pipelines.

And yet, the struggle to reclaim Canada's environment and national economy from shortsighted petroleum producers is only intensifying.

In recent decades, the decline of traditional sources of oil have pushed for new in situ extraction methods which often administer harmful chemicals and solvents to access bitumen from fractures deep within the earth.

It is estimated that over 80 per cent of Alberta's bitumen requires methods like Cyclic Steam Stimulation (CSS) -- a technique of steam and solvent injection which heats viscous bitumen to a temperature at which it flows -- to access underground oil. By 2020, in situ technologies are expected to operate more than 40 per cent of Canada's oil sands industry, raising concerns over the viability on "no shut-off" drilling beneath the surface.

These worries are not unfounded. Recent spills along the north Alberta/Saskatchewan border near Primrose and Cold Lake have been uncontainable. Not knowing how to stop the leak which currently covers over 13.7 hectares and is located under a significant body of water, scientists and industry representatives have described the cleanup process as "in a state of chaos."

With little disclosure by the province's Energy Regulator and consistent downplaying of the seepage, the public remains in the dark, numb to corporate doublespeak and promises of "containment" and "mitigation."

Looking ahead

In the coming months and years, Canada's mostly foreign-owned oil industry will continue to exert a significant force over state direction, policy and regulation.

As pipelines expand in size and breadth, in situ extraction methods spread to threatened areas, and while hydraulic fracturing becomes the norm, a very uncertain future lies ahead for a nation whose international role is currently marred in a profound state of redefinition.

Is Canada to proceed as a desperately anxious energy superpower? Will its Conservative government buckle under the pressure of foreign investment, or heed the noxious warnings of spills and secure a healthier relationship between the environment, scientists, Aboriginal communities and the Department of Natural Resources? Will democracy, compromise and apology prevail?

Whatever the case, it is the duty not just of activists and environmentalists to demand greater accountability and reconciliation for disasters perpetrated by Canadian and foreign-operated petroleum producers. On the contrary, every Canadian should be aware of the grave dangers posed by industry lacking federal oversight, strict regulation and absolute liability -- the type of awareness which constitutes the bulwark against corporate expansion, and fortifies the strength of our collective futures.


Harrison Samphir is the senior editor at The Uniter, the University of Winnipeg’s weekly urban journal. He holds a B.A. (Hons.) in history from the University of Manitoba. He can be reached at or followed on Twitter at @HarrySamphir.

Photo: Greenpeace / John Woods 



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