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The Oil Companies’ Tar Sands Challenge

Energy Companies Say, “We Know It’s Bad — But It’s Worth It.”

One of the first things a visitor to Ft. McMurray, Alberta sees upon driving into town is the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Part museum, part gee-whiz science exhibit, the Centre is dedicated to explaining the history, science, and mechanical details of how synthetic petroleum is made from the bituminous reserves underneath the boreal forest. For geeks like me, it’s a great spot to learn how exactly heavy tar gets transformed into gasoline. For the area’s oil patch workers, it’s a chance to show off to their families the business they’re involved in. For the industry, of course, it’s a chance for some positive PR. The centre has been around for 25 years, suggesting that the industry was prescient in recognizing how controversial the practices here would become.

Here’s the interesting thing: The exhibits and presentations by centre staff are impressively candid about the environmental consequences of strip mining the forest to wring especially carbon-dense petroleum out of the dirt. And that candor sets up something of a moral challenge for the museum-goers. The centre forces upon visitors the kind of tough question you don’t normally get at a science museum: Is it worth destroying the environment to sustain the lifestyles to which we’ve become accustomed?

Most of the museum is focused on science and technology. We’re told about how the tar sand deposits formed: Petroleum created from organic matter during the lower cretaceous period about 100 million years ago settled into the sands from ancient rivers and, through the rubbing of the sand and the action of bacteria, turned into the goop we have today. There’s a great deal of information about the complex process needed to process the tar into a form of petroleum. Mining, we learn, is just the start. Then the tar has to “upgraded" into synthetic petroleum via a process that involves “conditioning,” “separation” into a bitumen froth, then “deaeration” to take out gases, and finally injection into a dual-system centrifuge that removes the last of the solids. Next comes distillation, thermal conversion, catalytic conversion, and hydrotreating. At that point the recombined petroleum is ready to be refined into gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. It all felt like a flashback to high school chemistry.

The exhibits about the machinery involved in the mining are the centerpiece of the museum. The pictures of the massive equipment and the scale models will get any gearhead’s heart racing. We learn about the technical evolution from excavators, to draglines, to a shovel and truck system that has made mining “more selective and efficient.” The museum’s highlight is the front half of a real Caterpillar dump truck big enough to move loads of 400 tons. One has to climb a flight of 20 steps to get up to the operator cab, where you can sit and — watching a large movie screen in front of you — feel what it’s like to be in the mines, including the roar of having a 100 ton load of ore dropped on you. The sheer size of the thing sparks a childlike wonder among visitors. I spotted a young couple posing for a photo in front of the massive, 20-foot-tall tire. The works of man are indeed awesome.

The last third of the museum is all about the environment. There’s a section on “Water Issues,” one on “Habitat Fragmentation,” one on “Reclamation.” Some of environmental sections are just plain bizarre and out of context; I have no idea what exactly the beaver exhibit was all about. Some of it is gloss, like the panel reading, “Since 1967, the environmental bar has been raised significantly for oil sands companies. However, this should not make us complacent.” And some of it is spin — “better reuse and recycling of water helps, but other concerns require careful monitoring and study.” By pro-actively addressing the environmental criticisms of tar sands extraction, the industry can give visitors the impression that they are addressing pressing issues and that the problems are being taken care of.

But I have to give the industry props — much of the content in the environmental section was impressively forthright. The section on habitat fragmentation was especially good. As one panel put it, “Increasingly, Alberta’s remaining forested areas resemble islands of trees in a larger network of cut lines, well sites, mine, pipeline corridors, plant sites, and human settlements. … Forest disturbances can also encourage increased predation and put some plants and animals at risk.” And I also found the centre’s staff to be transparent about some of the problems of oil extraction. After a really neat live demonstration on how to separate bitumen from tar sands using hot water, a staffer told the small crowd, “This slick of oil is very environmentally hazardous. So if you’ve heard about the ducks landing [on the tailings ponds and dying], that’s the problem. So industry has to have cannons and scarecrows. That’s the good and bad of tailings ponds.”

Or, as the narrator of a video in the environment area, put it: “We can’t produce oil from the oil sands without any concerns or consequences.”

What’s going on here? Why would major oil companies — not usually known for being paragons of honesty — take space in their own museum to discuss the dangers of their products? Yes, part of it might be spin — an effort to inoculate themselves from criticism. But I think there’s more at work here. By so openly recognizing the environmental costs of their businesses, the oil companies are forcing onto the public a choice about priorities and principles. They are asking the Oil Sands Discovery Centre visitors — and, by extension, the general public — whether dead ducks, forest loss, and some water and air contamination are worth affordable, abundant oil.

The last panel of the museum, set next to the image of Earth from space, makes the point clear: “When we use energy from the oil sands to make our lives more pleasant, it has an impact and an environmental cost. New research can help us avoid some problems and limit others, but we cannot use energy and have no impact at all. We share the benefits of the industry and all of us — oil sands companies, governments, and consumers — have a part to play in ensuring those impacts are sustainable.”

In effect, the oil industry is making a gamble that people are willing to sacrifice the environment for a comfort and pleasure. So far, neither the Canadian nor US publics have proven them wrong.

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the longtime editor of Earth Island Journal and author of the new book, Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. In addition to his work in the Journal, his writings on the environment have appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle,, The Nation, The Progressive, and, among many other publications. He is also a co-founder of Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest urban farm.

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