Skip to content

When I first began to write Black Bonanza, my history of Athabasca oilsands development, I was struck by the growing attention paid to the Sands by journalists and commentators.

This was at a time when you couldn’t look at a newspaper or watch a news broadcast without breathless warnings of catastrophic doom caused by CO2 emissions. And looming large in many of these reports – at least in Canada, but also in the US and Europe – was and still is a clear attempt to focus attention and blame on Canada’s industrial oil development.

Originally called the tar sands, this belt of bitumen laden silica contains about three TRILLION barrels of oil, of which at least one trillion barrels are extractable using new underground thermal technologies. The most important of these is SAGD – Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage – a process dreamed up by Roger Butler, a British chemical engineer who emigrated to Canada in the 1950s.

Here’s an account of Butler’s invention:

I decided early on that I would have to address the green demonization of the Sands as a part the business narrative. I found most of the engineers developing the deposits were particularly unadept at meeting criticism of their industry. Many of them had strong environment concerns personally, and were baffled by the nature and virulence of the attacks, which seemed to make little sense.

To do a proper job, I had to do a deep analysis of the motive and background of the green groups, and follow the money. Cui bono. Who was paying the PR bills, and who was benefiting?

What emerged was a corollary to the narrative most GWPF followers know, that scientific truth has been seriously bent in the pursuit of profit. But what a profit, and what potential.

The green demonization clearly originated with Chicago derivatives wizard Dr. Richard Sandor, who was the major driver behind the Bush administration’s Clean Air act, and the trading among coal fired power plants of sulphur dioxide emissions allowances, which has worked reasonably well. But Sandor was after bigger game. As he told the Wall Street Journal,

“Air and water are no longer the free goods that economics once assumed. They must be redefined as property rights so that they can be efficiently allocated.”

I won’t retell the story of The Chicago Climate Exchange, and how Al Gore and others almost succeeded in creating a trillion dollar global market in hot air.

Suffice it to say, the Athabasca Tar Sands was an easy target, and still is, for green fundraisers, backed by some of the most prominent foundations in American, who have to date ploughed over $200 million into anti-oilsands activities. From a plane or an ivory tower, the Athabasca looks ugly, like Tolkein’s Mordor, with its strip mining and great clouds of steam, but most of the bitumen is underground, and will be extracted thermally, while the current tailing ponds are now being dried up and reclaimed.

The Athabasca Sands are also far away from civilization, like James Cameron’s Pandora in Avatar, and some of the local pandorans are claiming to be victims of cancer-causing environmental pollution. (while others are happy for the oilsands jobs).

While many Europeans have been brainwashed to regard the Sands as “the worst industrial project on Earth,” the reality is shockingly different. What I did discover in my research is that the entire CO2 output of all the oilsands mining operations – 38.4 million tonnes – is less than one coal fired power station, granted the biggest in the world – Taichung in Taiwan. And after publication I also discovered that the “rare cancers” affecting fish in Lake Athabasca and some aboriginal groups may very well be caused, not by petrochemical pollution, but by Siberian liver fluke found in frozen or poorly cooked whitefish. See here for further details:

While more needs to be done to monitor real and potential water and air pollution as these oil deposits are further exploited, Athabasca oilsands development is far from being the environment Armageddon it is painted to be. The real tragedy of the last decade is that so much of the energy of the young has been hijacked and harnessed to a losing cause, energy that could have been better directed toward real pollution problems, such as soot in the atmosphere and the pollution of oceans and groundwater.

Alastair Sweeny PhD
Black Bonanza
Skype: alastairsweeny


Alastair Sweeny is is a Canadian publisher, historian, and author. He is the Executive Director of the non-profit educational foundation, The Civics Channel, dedicated to research, teaching and learning in the areas of citizenship and society, politics, human rights and the justice system.