Nature’s Past Episode 38: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VIII – Tar Sands

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Episode 38: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VIII – Tar Sands

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The northern Alberta tar sands (or bitumen) resource is the most well-known environmental issue in Canada today. Representing both a significant component of the nation’s resource economy, and the single greatest threat to ecosystems across the country, the development of tar sands petroleum in western Canada has contributed to a restructuring of the nation’s political economy, a reconsideration of regulatory legislation and government oversight, and a transformation of the perception of Canada internationally. Indeed, the development of the tar sands has become a primary objective of the current government. In December 2012, representatives of the Energy Framework Initiative (who represent the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association) wrote a letter to Peter Kent, Minister of the Environment, and Joe Oliver, Minister of Natural Resources, to request “regulatory reform” of “out-dated” legislation that would allow for “timely licensing and permitting” of major resource projects in Canada’s energy sector without “duplication and overlap between federal and provincial processes.” In the letter, the National Energy Board Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Fisheries Act, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act were all listed by name as “existing laws and regulations related to energy regulation, environmental assessment, and environmental protection” that the authors felt were worthy of reform. Four months later, in April 2012, the Conservative government introduced Bill C-38, which included significant changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, and the National Energy Board Act. Six months after that, in October 2012, the government introduced Bill C-45, which altered the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

In many respects, the political pressure exerted by the tar sands industry is not new. As early as the 1930s, the Alberta government experienced pressure from Imperial Oil and other smaller producers to limit conservation legislation, which these companies saw as a deterrent to outside investment in the development of the province’s oilfields. After the Second World War, the development of oil resources in Alberta came to dominate the provincial economy, generating enormous revenue from royalties that allowed the government to pay off debts and provide important social services, while at the same time assuming a larger role in federal politics. By the 1970s, the oil and gas industry “accounted for almost 40 percent of all value added in the province.” [1] Throughout the early years, efforts to prevent over-production or regulate the industry came up against political expedients that saw the best interests of the province met through industry royalties. Since then, the importance of the tar sands to the provincial economy has grown considerably. For instance, between 1947 and 1967, public revenues from the industry totaled $2.25 billion. In 2010-2011, the province received $3.7 billion in revenue from tar sands production. The rapid growth of the industry in the twenty-first century has also translated into much more influence for Western Canadian interests in federal politics. When considered within a larger historical context, the close relationship between tar sands development, economic growth, and political power in the country today reflects the important place natural resources have always occupied in Canadian history. Canadian historians have long debated the importance of natural resources, or ‘staples’ (cod, fur, timber, wheat), in shaping society, economy, and politics. Bitumen seems destined to rejuvenate this historiographical debate. Indeed, a recent report on tar sands mega-development, released in early 2013 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has referred to the bitumen deposits in northern Alberta as Canada’s newest “staples trap”. While many features of tar sands development are unprecedented, the similarities with previous staples economies are striking.

This episode features an interview with Dr. Andrew Weaver, a climatologist from University of Victoria and recently elected Green Party of BC Member of the Legislative Assembly. It also includes the plenary session from the 2013 American Society for Environmental History Annual Meeting titled, “The Fossil Fuel Dilemma: Vision, Values, and Technoscience in the Alberta Oil Sands,” featuring Warren Cariou, Sara Dorow, Imre Szeman, and Graeme Wynn.

[1] Alvin Finkel, The Social Credit Phenomenon in Alberta (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 100

Image of book cover for Keeping Our Cool, Canada In A Warming World

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Warren Cariou
Sara Dorow
Imre Szeman
Andrew Weaver
Graeme Wynn

Suggested Readings:

Breen, David H. Alberta’s Petroleum Industry and the Conservation Board. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1993.

Chastko, Paul A. Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands: From Karl Clark to Kyoto. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.

Clarke, Tony, Jim Stanford, Diana Gibson, Brendan Haley. The Bitumen Cliff: Lessons and Challenges of Bitumen Mega-Developments for Canada’s Economy in an Age of Climate Change. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013.

Climate Action Network Canada’s ‘Tar Sands Database’

“Dirty Oil Sands: Uncovering the Canadian oil sands disaster”

Finkel, Alvin. The Social Credit Phenomenon in Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989.

Gilmour, Don. “Shifting Sands” The Walrus, April 2005.

Gismondi, Mike, and Debra J. Davidson. “Imagining the Tar Sands 1880-1967 And Beyond”Imaginations, Issue 3-2 (2012), 68-103.

Goodine, Claudia. “Ship Spotting” The Walrus, July/August, 2012.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas. “The Tar Sands Disaster” The New York Times, April 3, 2013.

Kheraj, Sean. “The History of Oil Pipline Spills in Alberta, 2006-2012” Active History, 12 June 2012.

Lemphers, Nathan and Dan Woynillowicz. In the Shadow of the Boom: How Oilsands Development is Reshaping Canada’s Economy. Pembina Institute, May 2012.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010.

Pratt, Larry. The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1976.

Weinhold, Bob. “Alberta’s Oil Sands, Hard Evidence, Missing Data, New Promises” Environmental Health Persepctives, Vol.119, No.3 (March 2011), pp.A126-A131.

Works Cited:

Sean Kheraj, Canadian History and Environment
Weaver, Andrew. Keeping Our Cool: Canada in a Warming World. Toronto: Viking, 2008.
Stacy Nation-Knapper on Twitter
Andrew Watson on Twitter

Music Credit:

“Big John stems” by copperhead
“Fm120-GTR-impro_dry” by Javolenus
“Just Don’t Know What I’m Playing” Doxent Zsigmond

Photo Credit:

Tar Sands in Alberta (ca. 1900-1930). Source: Library and Archives Canada, 12-2 L.10 A48 (21B)


Kheraj, Sean, Stacy Nation-Knapper, and Andrew Watson. “Episode 38: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VIII – Tar Sands” Nature’s Past: Canadian Environmental History Podcast. 29 May 2013.

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Sean Kheraj

Associate Professor and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University
Sean Kheraj is a member of the executive committee of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and Vice-Provost Academic at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at


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