oil sands


Native Women: Leading the Fight Against the Tar Sands 

Faith Spotted Eagle, Ihanktonwan Dakota Signatory to the Treaty to Protect the Sacred. Testified at public hearing in Nebraska against Keystone XL. 

Crystal Lameman, Beaver Lake Cree Grassroots activist, organizing in Alberta against tar sands devastation on her nation’s territory. In 2012, she was a delegate to the UN Rio+20 Summit. 

Debra White Plume, Oglala Lakota Organizer with Moccasins on the Ground, which trains Native people an allies in direct action tactics in anticipation of the approval of Keystone XL North 

Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabeg One of the founders of the Indigenous Women’s Network, founder of Honor the Earth. Longtime indigenous activist, LaDuke is (at the time of writing) riding across the length of Enbridge’s pipelines in Minnesota to raise awareness.

Casey Camp-Horineck, Ponca Actress and activist, Camp-Horineck provided important support and guidance to Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance in their work stopping construction of KXL south

Tantoo Cardinal, Metis/Cree Born in Ft McMurray, Cardinal was arrested outside the White House at the massive 2011 sit-in against the Keystone XL pipeline. She has continued to organize against Keystone XL. 

**This in no way encompasses all the accomplishments of these women.**


covering an area the size of england, the tar sands are the second largest oil reserve in the world, with an estimated potential of 173 billion barrels. situated in alberta’s northern boreal forest, and holding almost twice as much carbon as all tropical rainforests, the area is also the most carbon rich terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. 

but to obtain a single barrel of crude oil, two tons of peat and soil must be extracted from the forrest to access the tar sand bellow, and three barrels of water are needed to then separate out the tar from the sand and refine the bitumen. (the trucks in the sixth photo are the size of a house.)

the extraction processes uses more water in one day than a city of two million people, with 90 percent of it then stored in contaminated tailings ponds (large enough to be seen from space) which pollute key waterways like the athabasca river (first and last photos) with 11 million litres of toxic runoff every day.

the process also consumes enough natural gas a day to heat six million canadian homes, and daily generates more carbon dioxide emissions than all the cars in canada combined. it also laces the air with dangerous toxins, poison communities with rare cancers and autoimmune diseases, and destroy critical animal habitats. 

photos by peter mettle, todd korolgarth lenz and yann arthus bertrand. for more information, see “tipping point” on the nature of things, and petropolis 

Canadian First Nations, U.S. tribes form alliance to stop oil pipelines
Agreement signed in Montreal, Vancouver on Thursday

First Nations communities from Canada and the northern United States signed a treaty on Thursday to jointly fight proposals to build more pipelines to carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands, saying further development would damage the environment.

The treaty, signed in Montreal and Vancouver, came as the politics around pipelines have become increasingly sensitive in North America, with the U.S. Justice Department intervening last week to delay construction of a contentious pipeline in North Dakota.

The Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion was signed by 50 aboriginal groups in North America, who also plan to oppose tanker and rail projects in both countries, they said in a statement.

Targets include projects proposed by Kinder Morgan Inc, TransCanada Corp and Enbridge Inc.

While aboriginal groups have long opposed oil sands development, the treaty signals a more coordinated approach to
fight proposals.

Among the treaty’s signatories is the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who opposes the Dakota pipeline.

“What this treaty means is that from Quebec, we will work with allies in (British Columbia) to make sure that the Kinder Morgan pipeline does not pass,” Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon said in the statement.

“And we will also work with our tribal allies in Minnesota as they take on Enbridge’s Line 3 expansion, and we know they’ll help us do the same against Energy East,” he said, referring to TransCanada’s plan to carry 1.1 million barrels of crude per day from Alberta to Canada’s East Coast.

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Over the past four years, the Unist'ot'en clan of the Wet’suwet’en nation have literally built a strategy to keep three proposed oil and gas pipelines from crossing their land. Concerned about the environmental damage a leak could cause on land they’ve never given up, they’ve constructed a protection camp to block pipeline companies. As opposition to the development of Alberta’s tar sands and to fracking projects grows across Canada, with First Nations communities on the front lines, the Unist'ot'en camp is an example of resistance that everyone is watching. 


“This is sacred—this Indian land. And it is sacred not just for First Nations, it is sacred for everybody. We are all here, we all share this. We all share in the responsibility.

“Keep using your voices. Keep standing strong.”

Audrey Siegel, Musqueam leader

Hundreds of protestors are gathering to rally against Kinder Morgan’s controversial pipeline survey work on Burnaby Mountain, despite a court injunction and $5.5 million lawsuit. This isn’t just about land exploitation. It’s about intimidation tactics, oil money and undemocratic government. More than anything, it’s about the power of the people to defend our land and our future.

We will not be divided. We will not be defeated.

Photos by Jackie Dives

Bill Nye 'the Science Guy' visits tar sands, calls it 'extraordinary exploitation' of environment

American science educator Bill Nye “the Science Guy” is in northern Alberta filming a climate change documentary.

Nye visited the tar sands and after taking an aerial tour of the mining areas told APTN National News it was a “depressive” sight to see.

“Producing all this oil that’s producing all this carbon dioxide, that’s not good from a global stand point,” said Nye.

“And from an environmental point of view locally, it’s astonishing and overwhelming.”

He went on to say that it’s difficult to describe witnessing the scale of industrial activity that is taking place and that he was “amazed” at the size of production happening in the tar sands, and the damage it is causing.

“Furthermore consider all the toxins that are being used to move the fluid around and then they put in these enormous ponds, or lakes, or encampments,” he said. “It’s very much out of nature’s natural state.”

Nye visited the community of Fort McKay First Nation Monday. Fort McKay is encamped by tar sands activity and has suffered the consequences of environmental damages over the many decades since the tar sands were discovered in their traditional territories.

He said after learning of the community’s history and relationship with industry he thinks Fort McKay still has a battle ahead of them.

“I think anybody would say that First Nations have rights that have been abridged or catastrophically curtailed,” said Nye.

However, he added that Indigenous people can have an impact on climate change if their treaties are held up to law.

While in Fort McMurray, Nye noticed the local news headlines regarding the province’s grim financial situation and rising unemployment. The new Alberta NDP government provided its first fiscal update today revealing a deficit of almost $6 billion and growing.

He called it the “boom and bust of oil.”

Nye said hope for the environment may lie in the upcoming Canadian federal election and said “everybody is talking about the very strong possibility” that the Harper government will be voted out.

If that were to happen, new leaders with different views and values regarding the environment would be helpful to address the climate change issue, he said.

“Everybody says they feel like the tipping point’s been reached. Everyone we speak with, where enough is enough kind of thing. But then you have people that are in denial of climate change, who justify all of this extraordinary exploitation to the environment,” he said. “It’s amazing the scale of it, is just very hard to believe and very troubling.”

Nye is one of a growing number of celebrity big names that have visited the Alberta oil sands in recent years others have included actor Leonardo DiCaprio, singer/songwriter Neil Young and South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu.

Nye is working on his freelance film titled Bill Nye’s Global Meltdown. He was joined by National Geographic filming a separate feature.

Daryl Hannah arrested for protesting proposed Canadian oilsands pipeline
Actress Daryl Hannah, famous for her movie roles in Splash and Wall Street, was among dozens of anti-oilsands activists arrested Tuesday at the White House in ongoing “sit in” protests against TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

“Stop the Keystone pipeline,” Hannah shouted as she was being handcuffed by SWAT team officers. “No to the Keystone pipeline.” (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s Getting Hot in Here: Mother Nature Lays the Climate Cards on the Table

Another brilliant climate-themed cartoon from The Los Angeles Times’ David Horsey. Check out more of his work here.

100 Indigenous Nations in US and Canada Join Forces in Opposition of Pipeline Expansion
Standing Rock's Sioux Tribe, the Union of BC Chiefs, and many more Indigenous leaders signed a treaty to prevent expansion of the tar sands.

Across North America, more than 100 Indigenous leaders have signed a treaty against Alberta’s tar sands, effectively putting those who want to build oil sands pipelines—including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—on notice.

By signing the treaty, Indigenous nations agree to help other nations when they face a fight against a major tar sands pipeline.

The expansion of the tar sands “can only happen” if new pipelines are approved, the treaty states. The treaty’s signatories are therefore against the following pipelines that would carry oil sands products to North America’s coasts: Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Alberta Clipper pipelines, TransCanada’s Energy East and Keystone XL pipelines, and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, “any of which, if allowed, would lead to a major expansion of the Tar Sands.”

Trudeau is under pressure from petroleum advocates and Canada’s Conservative opposition to approve a major pipeline that would carry Alberta oil to international markets—something he has repeatedly said he is in favour of doing, as long as it’s done in a “responsible” way that includes First Nation consultation. But that pressure comes at the same time that a groundswell of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (the Indigenous name for North America) are rising up against pipeline projects, using both legal challenges and encampments on traditional territory, as seen at Standing Rock, to assert their land rights and delay pipeline construction.

At the treaty signing in Vancouver, the line of chiefs in regalia waiting to add their names “filled an entire room,” according to the National Observer. Leaders were invited to sign in Vancouver, where part of the Trans Mountain pipeline would be built, and Montreal, which sits along the proposed Energy East route. Treaty signatories included Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Chiefs, Standing Rock’s Sioux Tribe, and Grand Chief Serge Simon of Kanesatake, who has stridently opposed Energy East, and who represents a reserve that famously stood up to the RCMP during the 1990 Oka land crisis.

“We are going to stick together and we’re going to protect each other right across the country,” Simon told reporters Thursday, according to the Canadian Press. Simon added that the pipeline resistance would aim to be peaceful.

Continue Reading.


To uncover the truth, it’s often best to land “on the ground.” But sometimes obstacles—physical or bureaucratic or even mental—obscure our view. Then, it’s sometimes better to take to the sky and get perspective.

Photographer Alex MacLean has been doing just that—snapping photos from the air—for nearly 40 years. His photos reveal the overlooked scale of American car culture. They peek over the fences of military bases. They connect the dots between digging coal and generating electricity.

Alex will ride the skies above Alberta’s oil sands for a week beginning April 4th. We know the ground beneath Alberta’s boreal forest—saturated with an estimated 150 billion barrels of oil—rivals all other troves of oil apart from those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. We know Alberta’s rich deposits underlie a territory of 54,000 square miles, as large as Iowa. But we can barely comprehend numbers this big.

Alex will help us. He’ll show us waste ponds nearly the size of Manhattan and dump trucks that could swallow a McMansion whole.  

We’ll report from the ground as well. We’ll talk to regulators, mining companies, the miners themselves and many others. Stay tuned.

Images by Alex MacLean with text by Dan Grossman.

Follow Dan and Alex reporting from Alberta @GrossmanMedia.

Alberta’s sands are the world’s third largest oil reserve and one of Earth’s largest industrial projects. The Big Picture: Alberta’s Oil Sands shows the preliminary photos and writing. 

To learn more and help support the work, visit Tar Sands Truth Indiegogo Campaign.

Grossman's TED Book Deep Water is available to download.

Bill Nye Talks About Canadian Oil and the Certainty of Climate Change

Yesterday, Bill Nye touched down in Toronto to attend the International Astronautical Congress, an annual gathering where space enthusiasts (where, as Nye says, the nerd factor is “turned up to 11”) share research papers. Since his mega-hit show, Nye has taken the reigns of the Planetary Society, an organization founded by Carl Sagan in the 1980s that focuses on science advocacy, research, and outreach.

As the CEO of the Planetary Society, Bill Nye is clearly using his powers as a celebrity scientist for good. During a keynote speech at the University of Toronto last night, he discussed a project the Planetary Society was developing to conquer the possibility of an asteroid hitting Earth. Their solution? Laser bees. These “bees” are tiny robots that surround an offending asteroid and by using mirrors, “focus sunlight onto a spot on the asteroid” that can “gently move it.”

Anyhow, I caught up with Bill Nye before his speech to chat about Canada, the tar sands, and the Harper government’s muzzling of scientists. 

Bill Nye: I’m hip with VICE, I’m down with the VICE.
VICE: Oh awesome, that’s good to hear. Let’s jump right into it then… Climate change has been immensely politicized. How do you respond to outside influences, like industry and government, that try and control the message of the scientific community?
The government in Canada is currently being influenced by the fossil fuel industry. [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper is a controversial guy in the science community because [of] the policies, especially in western Canada, with regard to the production—that’s the verb they use, “producing,” but you’re taking old earth and burning it. [The production] of tar sands, oil shale… is there tar shale? Is there sand goo? Whatever.

I used to work in the oil field, albeit much farther south, in Texas and New Mexico. Oil is noxious, but it’s not that noxious as stuff to spill on the ground. However, when you start taking this tar sand and oil shale, where you’re you’re strip mining many, many tons of earth to get to this stuff, and then you have to burn a lot of it to make it soupy enough to pump. The environmental impact is huge!  And there was some trouble with some train cars, and some explosions.

A town exploded.
Yeah. This is all stuff that could be controlled, but part of it, at least for me as an engineer, is that the extraction methods in that part of the world are so aggressive, it’s so hard to get this stuff to [a point where it’s] useful. The bad news, writ large, is that we’ll never run out of fossil fuels. There’s so much stuff, so much coal, so much tar sand oil shale everywhere around the world that we’ll never use it up. But we will use up the really easy to burn gasoline, easy to burn diesel fuel.


Canada has the world’s third-largest oil reserve, and it’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Nearly all of that crude is contained in Alberta’s oil sands. Getting the oil from underground and into your car requires an extraordinary mining effort that has significant effects on the environment and is expensive.

In a world concerned about climate change and in which oil prices have plummeted, the oil sands industry faces an uncertain future.

Environmental activists have celebrated a few victories recently. Last month, President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have transported oil sands crude from land-locked Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, giving producers access to the world market.

Another victory for environmentalists came when Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced that her government will limit carbon emissions from the oil sands business at 100 million tons a year. That could put a damper on the industry’s projected growth and prevent Alberta from taking full advantage of its huge oil reserve. That is, unless companies can figure out how to develop the resource and prevent carbon pollution. Shell believes it has a solution.

In November, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden was among dignitaries who turned a big, yellow ceremonial valve to mark the opening of the Quest carbon capture and storage project.

It captures about one-third of the carbon dioxide emissions from Shell’s oil sands upgrader plant. Then the company injects that CO2 deep underground so it stays out of the atmosphere.

Between Cheap Gas And Carbon Caps, Oil Sands Face Uncertain Fate

GIF: Annette Elizabeth Allen and Alyson Hurt/NPR

Dear Fellow Canadians,

I feel like it is not brought up enough, especially by our government, that the Native Americans in our country are being treated extremely poorly. 

Firstly, “Indigenous women are going missing and being murdered at a much higher rate than other women in Canada—a rate so high it constitutes nothing less than a national human rights crisis” This is a quote from the Amnesty International site, there have over 1,500 Aboriginal women missing in Canada, the number is estimated because a lot of cases have gone undocumented, so this number could be higher, these women are going missing purely because of their race.

This site can keep you updated on this subject 

Secondly, there is a economic crisis in Iqaluit, the people who inhabit this area are dealing with starvation due to the food cost crisis. They have to pay nearly 11 dollars for a bag of milk and 27 dollars for a jug of orange juice. 

Multiple news networks have covered this but I have yet to see our government speak out.

Thirdly, The oil sands in Alberta have been causing a 30% growth in cancer in aboriginal people, due to the pollution to their fish.

Again, I haven’t seen Stephan Harper talk about the cancer rate increase 

The Native Americans in our country face a great deal of racism, we as a country need to start treating the original founders of Canada with respect. WE stole THEIR land and now we make it unsafe for them to live on it. 

Alberta Health Board Fires Doctor Who Raised Cancer Alarms
'I am stunned,' says Dr. John O'Connor, a veteran presence in First Nations community.

An Alberta health board has fired Dr. John O'Connor, the physician who came to national prominence after raising questions about rare cancers in the tarsands region.

The Nunee Health Board Society send O'Connor a letter last Friday saying it no longer required his professional services.

The letter gives no reason why. “I am stunned. It is indescribable. This severing of links, with no reason,” O'Connor told the Tyee.

Since 2000, O'Connor has served as the on-call physician for the remote community of Fort Chipewyan, as well as physician back-up for the community’s nursing station.

Continue Reading.

Seeking SciNote, Biology: The Impact of Using Oil Sands


What are some detrimental effects of the exploiting oil sands (such as those in Alberta, Canada) on the environment? 

Asked by Anonymous.

Oil sands have definitely been a hot button topic as of late, and for good reason. Oil sands, also known as tar sands, are a mixture of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a very viscous black oil. The oil sands can be processed to extract the bitumen, and therefore areas containing these oil sands are in high demand as fuel sources. While tar sands are found in many places worldwide, including in the US, the largest deposits in the world are found in Canada (Alberta), Venezuela, and various countries in the Middle East.

It is estimated that it takes about two tons of tar sands to produce one barrel of oil, and roughly 75% of the bitumen can be recovered from sand. However, this process can be very intensive and requires an extensive amount of resources. Both mining and processing of oil sands generate a variety of environmental worries, such as global warming and greenhouse gas emissions from the energy required to process them, disturbance of mined land, impacts on wildlife through habitat loss, and pollution of waterways and air.

There is also concern for the large amount of water required for tar sands processing. Currently, extraction and processing of oil sands require several barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil, though some of the water can be recycled. Public health concerns include levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in air and water, which can be quite toxic to humans, and the presence of heavy metal compounds, such as cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, and zinc (1). These are what are referred to as priority pollutants, which are a set of regulated chemicals as defined in this case by the government of Alberta, Canada.

Bioaccumulation and biomagnification also present major issues that result from the release of heavy metal compounds into the environment. These happen when chemicals accumulate in the tissue of organisms through respiration, ingestion, or direct contact with contaminated water or sediment, over time leading to high levels of things like mercury in organisms at the top of the food chain due to their high consumption of lower-level species. As demonstrated in the image below, the neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) can build up in the foods that humans eat, meaning that the pollution from the oil sands presents a problem for wildlife and humans alike (2).

[Methylmercury traveling up the food web, http://tn.gov/health/article/mercury]    
When the aforementioned compounds are released into the environment during oil sand processing, there is no natural process prepared to remove them all from the food chain before they can be consumed. This is why efforts to make these processes cleaner and safer for the environment are so important.

Read more here:

  1. Kelly, E.N., D.W. Schindler, P.V. Hodson, J.W. Short, R. Radmanovich, and C.C. Nielsen (2010). Oil sands development contributes elements toxic at low concentrations to the Athabasca River and its tributaries.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(37), 16178-16183.
  2. Kirk, J.L., D.C.G. Muir, A. Gleason, X. Wang, G. Lawson, R.A. Frank, I. Lehnherr, and F. Wrona (2014). Atmospheric deposition of mercury and methylmercury to landscapes and waterbodies of the Athabasca oil sands region. Environmental Science & Technology 48(13), 7374-7383.
  3. The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel: Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry 
  4. Alberta Energy: Fast Facts on Oil Sands 

Answered by Rachel R, Expert Leader, and John M, Expert

Edited by James H., Editor


See the devastated landscape of the Alberta Tar Sands 
May 22, 2014

Driving down a certain stretch of a highway next to the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, you can’t see the huge crude oil fields you’re passing; a border of trees deliberately blocks the view. There’s no glimpse of the scarred, murky land where forests once stood, even though the clear-cut area stretches as far as the horizon.

Even when you round a certain bend and see some of the view, it’s hard to grasp the scale: This is a place where trucks are literally the size of houses, storage tanks are the size of football fields, and machines for processing the oil are the size of small office buildings. When the oil fields are fully developed, they’ll cover an area the size of the state of Florida.

Photographer Alex MacLean visited Alberta this April to take a series of photos from the air, aiming to help educate the public on both the global and local impacts of tar sands development. The project was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. While environmental groups have made the tar sands more well known over the last few years thanks to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, not everyone knows what the fields look like, especially from this perspective.

“From the aerial view, you can see it at scale,” MacLean says. “We really had to get up off the ground to see how extensive it is and where it’s happening. Hopefully the pictures, with captions, will expose why this fuel is so carbon intensive and how the extraction process is polluting both the water and air.”

MacLean has been photographing the world from above for decades, beginning as an architecture student. “In graduate school I started learning to fly–I thought it was a good way to do site analysis and see architecture in context,” he says. “But I was also interested in regional planning and connecting the dots at a larger scale.”

Over the years, Maclean has photographed everything from farmland to the hidden outdoor spaces on the roofs of New York City. His work takes an environmental approach. In suburbs and cities, he looks at how density and land use make neighborhoods car-dependent or walkable. In strip mines, he’s used aerial photography to show exactly how pollution is leaking into nearby rivers.

“I really hope to be able to show and explain some of these issues that might be harder to comprehend,” he says. “If you have a visual image in your head, it can illustrate and frame a concept.”

See more photos here

The News Photographers Association of Canada interviewed Ian Willms, a Reportage Emerging Talent, about his project “As Long as the Sun Shines,” which won a judge’s special recognition in this year’s POYi.

I came into this story thinking I’d do a photo essay on rising cancer rates in towns near the Oil Sands. But it has since become much more than that. I now see this work as being about a vanishing culture and that’s tied to a vanishing environment. This situation is a continuation of a long and painful history of abuses of the First Nations within Canada.

Read more on the NPAC Web site.

Caption: Aurora borealis is seen over Fort Chipewyan’s main cemetery, September 3rd, 2011. In recent years, the cemetery has been filled beyond capacity and will soon need to be expanded.