The Alberta Oil Sands Then and Now: An Investigation of the Economic, Environmental and Social Discourses Across Four Decades

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  • A detailed study of dozens of documents pertaining to the Alberta oil sands produced by the Alberta government over the past 40 years shows the government’s perspective regarding this vast resource has undergone a major shift. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the Alberta government initiated detailed studies and scientific investigations to better determine oil sands policy. By the mid-1990s documents suggest the government had abandoned that role in favour of promotion and marketing of the oil sands. It is quite clear from government documents produced in the 1970s that most of the economic, environmental, and social impacts associated with rapid expansion of oil sands operations (often referred to as tar sands in the 1970s) were anticipated. Various studies and surveys were also undertaken by the government of the day to determine how to avoid these negative impacts. For example, a 1973 Alberta Environment report – An Environmental Study of the Athabasca Tar Sands – states: “The disposal of tailings from the hot water extraction process represents the most imminent environmental constraint to the future expansion of this recovery method.” Documents reviewed suggest that at the time the Alberta government saw itself as being primarily responsible for further development of the oil sands. To this end, the government invested millions of dollars in the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA) to kick start expansion. AOSTRA initiated and funded research into technological innovation for the extraction of bitumen. Another government agency – Alberta Oil Sands Environmental Research Program (AOSERP) – investigated social conditions for people living near oil sands plants and environmental impacts such as air emissions and tailings ponds. By the mid-1980s the Alberta government had pulled back from this direct kind of involvement with oil sands development. And even though much research into environmental and social impacts had been carried out it was put on the back burner in favour of more immediate economic benefits. This study also examined documents pertaining to the oil sands produced by industry, academia, non-governmental organizations, and the news media over the past 40 years during which time oil sands operations expanded from two to seven oil sands mining projects, 26 commercial in situ projects approved, in addition to about 130 primary recovery projects and 12 experimental schemes. The study revealed that public discourse about the oil sands has shifted from one that was primarily focused on the economic benefits of oil sands development to a conversation that involves a multiplicity of issues and voices. Economic signifiers such as job creation, royalty revenues, foreign investment, and markets are still key when it comes to talking about the oil sands. But in the last 10 to 15 years, global issues such as climate change, indigenous rights, pollution of the air and major waterways, and sustainability have become embedded in the discourse about the oil sands. Nowadays, the oil sands are talked about as if they are an arena in which key players and issues vie for attention. The entry of other voices into the discourse about the oil sands has also affected Canada’s dialogue with the United States regarding oil exports. Whereas the United States was once discussed as the prime customer that must be satisfied at all costs, now governments and industry talk about the U.S. as a riskier market and seek to export the oil to China, India and other emerging markets as well. There are some significant language choices that stand out in the media, particularly the distinction between “tar sands” and “oil sands.” It has been suggested in media coverage that supporters for the development of this resource use the label “oil sands”, whereas critics deploy “tar sands”. While this claim rings true, in the media sample reviewed it becomes evident that “tar sands” was used during the 1980s and 1990s in a completely neutral way, simply in reference to the “Athabasca Tar Sands.” “Tar sands” became a more negative term only when it is associated with vivid descriptors such as being a “monster” that “needs to be fed”, or as the “black stain of Canada”, or simply talked about as something “dirty”, “sticky”, “gooey”, or “oozing.” These types of expressions are most often used by Aboriginal sources, environmentalists, political figures (members of the opposition), and sometimes journalists themselves. These stakeholders deploy such terms when they want to criticize the development of this resource. In the sample of articles examined, it was not until 2008 when the environmental action group Environmental Defence published Canada's Toxic Tar Sands: The Most Destructive Project On Earth that these types of negative add-ons started to appear. All of the documents examined in the study were in English, as were the news articles. This is an admitted limitation as we do not capture dialogue in francophone Canada. Most of the documents collected and analyzed for this report came from a database established by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a collaborative organization based in Fort McMurray, Alberta that includes representatives from government, industry, academia, First Nations, civic and community organizations, and environmental groups. Other documents were collected from university, government, industry and NGO libraries and databases. The news articles were collected from two databases – CBCA Complete and Canadian Newsstand. Discourse about the oil sands is one of the most important conversations occurring in Canada and abroad. The deeper we can delve into that conversation, the more we can come to understand all the complexities, risks, and rewards that this vast resource presents to Albertans, Canadians and the world.

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    Attribution 3.0 International