“Mordor” or “emerging energy superpower”?

Published in the Catalyst, Vol. 32, No. 2 – Spring 2009

Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn’t Seem to Care)
By William Marsden
Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2007

Tar Sands Showdown: Canada and the New Politics of Oil in an Age of Climate Change
By Tony Clarke
Toronto: James Lorimer and Company, 2008

Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
By Andrew Nikiforuk
Vancouver: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation, 2008

Reviewed by Joe Gunn

Speaking in London, England after having recently become Prime Minister, Stephen Harper announced Canada is the world’s “emerging energy superpower.” Thanks to Alberta’s oil sands, British business journalists today refer to the tar sands as “Canada’s Mordor.” As Canadians struggle to separate the rhetoric from the reality, three recent books make the latter case.

William Marsden’s Stupid to the Last Drop begins with an incredible story of how in the mid-1950s, engineers and oil firms were planning to detonate atomic bombs to release oil from the tar sands of northern Alberta. Fortunately, the project was shelved when fears of nuclear proliferation (and inability to secure a market for radioactive oil) prevailed. Unfortunately, this stupid plan was deadly serious.

Marsden persuasively argues that the stupidity persists in the way Alberta and Ottawa currently develop oil sands, grant massive water licenses to mines and refineries, and refuse to control greenhouse gas emissions or develop social infrastructure for the workers flocking to the high-paying jobs.

As well as outlining social and environmental issues, Tony Clarke’s Tar Sands Showdown places the debate in another important context: economic sovereignty. Clarke notes that 67% of Canada’s oil and 59% of our natural gas is exported to the USA, and that under NAFTA, Canada cannot cut back or put a quota on our exports – even if Canadians’ needs are not met or the ecology can take no more. Given the lack of a sovereign energy policy, dependence on unconventional sources of oil (such as tar sands) offers Canada no long term solution to the energy or environmental crises. Clarke argues that, “How the tar sands are developed and managed in response to the peak oil challenge will, in large measure, determine Canada’s destiny in the twenty-first century.” This book is a dream for activists, with chapters on the “resistance movement” and a study guide.

Calgary’s Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, wonders why Canadians are unmoved by “the moral consequences of converting a forest into a carbon storm and the planet’s third largest watershed into a petroleum garbage dump.” Nikiforuk focuses on the environmental impact of the tar sands, which drain as much water as Toronto and create on average three times more carbon dioxide emissions than a barrel of normal crude. There are 23 miles of leaking toxic ponds along the Athabasca River, while 400 million gallons of toxic sludge is added every day.

Nikiforuk states, “Canada is implausibly digging up and replumbing an area the size of Nepal, not to save the world or to ensure its own energy security but to keep wealthy oil companies in business and to supply a fading empire with oil.”

We should all take time to visit the oil sands. Even simply looking at satellite photos of the tar sands will make you want to read these books – and take action.


  • Joe Gunn

    Joe served as Executive Director at CPJ from 2008 to 2019.

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