Published November 28, 2007 · Estimated reading time: 4 minutes · Filed under , ,

My first article in the Daily! Pretty exciting for me… 🙂

Alberta: Tar sand wasteland
By Marzieh Ghiasi
Monday, November 19th, 2007

Author decries rush to exploit Canada’s natural resources

In northern Alberta, an estimated 174-billion barrels of black gold lie trapped in grains of sand, and capitalizing on this dormant cash cow has become a national obsession.

In the recently published Stupid to the Last Drop, award-winning investigative journalist William Marsden critically examines the oil boom in the Alberta tar sands, a sprawling industry that has promised to make Canada the new Saudi Arabia. In his non-linear but fluid style, Marsden argues that, while Albertans may see some marginal gain from this relentless resource exploitation, Canadians stand to lose a lot.

The tar sands are thought to have been made by geological forces which pushed oil up into the limestone and sand landscape. Composed of bitumen – a viscous form of crude oil, silica sand, clay, and water – the tar sands present a unique challenge in resource extraction and are famously expensive to exploit. Just how much are people willing to sacrifice to extract this oil? Marsden contends: everything.

Stupid to the Last Drop begins in 1957 with an American paleontologist, Manley Natland, and his proposition for Alberta’s future: a nine kilo-ton nuclear bomb set 1,300 feet below ground in the Athabasca tar sands to create a giant underground cavern, with enough heat and pressure to force oil into it. In spite of the obvious environmental hazards, including radiation leakage and land collapse, Marsden details the quick acceptance of this proposition. In just two years, the inconspicuously-dubbed “Project Oil Sands” gained support from a major oil company, approval from the U.S. Senate, a nod from the Canadian federal government, and a nuclear-bomb-to-go.

Natland’s modest proposal never came to fruition due to an eleventh hour backlash against nuclear testing. However, a method to boil bitumen out of sand with hot water was perfected long before by Canadian scientists Ells and Clark. This simple yet elegant solution has spawned a billion-dollar industry and brought some of the largest machines in the world into Alberta, which at only 4 per cent of full capacity are digging up an area the size of Florida.

Marsden perceives this destruction of the boreal forest and water systems – the lungs and bloodline of Western Canada – as another misguided and dangerous development. Throughout the book, he chastises the Albertan government for distributing oil contracts with little precaution or foresight of their impact. He describes in detail the effects of oil-extraction processes, which in their limited scope are already destroying the wetlands and tributaries that feed major rivers.

Marsden’s account of water and air pollution becomes only more perturbing as he examines water systems that have been polluted with carcinogenic arsenic and other toxic metals, threatening the health of the ecosystem. He notes that while the government of Alberta actively opposes the Kyoto protocols, an enormous amount of Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by refinery cokers. Even more alarming, the book also describes communities that have suffered from toxic gases released from refineries, including a case in 2006 that led to the hospitalization of 26 children.

Stupid to the Last Drop spares no criticism for oil corporations and the politicians who support them. At times, the book falls into a one-sided and arguably stereotypical portrayal of the projects’ supporters as greedy, uncultivated, and downright malicious. This may serve only to isolate readers that the book should be targeting, and preach to the choir for the rest.

Marsden also asserts that Canadian sovereignty over its resources is in peril, considering the trade agreements that keep Alberta as a supplier of cheap oil to the U.S., and the millions of dollars spent lobbying the government to “keep the good times rolling.” Energy trends, however, show the pursuit of oil is unlikely to slow anytime soon, owing largely to increasing demand. In this context, the book falls short by failing to suggest viable and immediate solutions to bring industry, government, and society together for a constructive solution to the tar sands problem.

Nonetheless, through interviews, meticulous observations, and a sharp sense of humour, Marsden manages to balance scientific, economic and social trends to convey a sense of urgency. Stupid to the Last Drop is a bleak but compelling polemic against oil madness, lagging concern for resource conservation, and the lack of political vision that threaten every Canadian’s future.

William Marsden will be speaking at Paragraphe book store on November 25. Stupid to the Last Drop is published by Knopf Canada and available for $29.95.

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One response so far

  1. It is such a shame that Albertas Tar sands are being exploited the way they are. It has helped our economy a lot here in Canada, but we are destroying a large piece of the province to get at the oil. It is amazing to me because as I write this gas is $1.40 a litre. You would think that we would have cheaper gas with the abundance of gas that is out there


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