Book Review: Economics Assignment Paper on Andrew Nikiforuk’s Tar Sands


            For decades, Canada has been a leading voice in the call for environmental conservation and protection. It has been on the forefront of pushing for a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emission globally. These efforts are aimed tackling the raging problem of global warming and climate change that is threatening the existence of plants, animals and humans alike. The country is a signatory and active participant in several environmental treatises and protocols such as the Paris Accord, Copenhagen Accord and the Kyoto Protocol. However, like many developed economies whose leaders have appended their signatures to these accords and treatises, the most important question has always been their commitment. It is this lack of commitment and propensity for environmental conservation double-speak that Canadian journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk, seeks to critically highlight in his award-winning exposure: Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent published in 2009.   

            In the critical exposure, Nikiforuk seamless weaves wit and passion to break down the true environmental, social, political and economic implications associated with the numerous open-pit mines that dots Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada. The huge machines constantly shifting earth, scarring and scouring land to find the precious bitumen symbolize America’s obsession with oil. The book lays bare America’s inability to wean itself off oil despite its half-hearted efforts and heart-felt efforts to push other nations such as China to wean itself off oil.

The book highlights how Canada has continuously soiled its hand with the bitumen-rich tar sands of Alberta. However, it also implicates the role of the United States in fostering environmental pollution in Canada and the greater American region. The U.S. imports up to 20 percent of its oil from its longtime trading partner and neighbor, Canada. Together with numerous multinational oil corporations who have operations in the Alberta, the country has played a critical role in creating a classical Deadwood of global reputation. Thanks to the dirty oil whose exploitation began in mid 20th century, the region is now a concoction of crime including religious extremism and drug dealing.

One of the most profound strengths of this book is its objective nature. Nikiforuk impassioned plea against the tar sands project is based on his personal connection with area having spent years living in Calgary, Alberta. His exposure draws from two important wells: personal experience and his excellent investigative skills. His criticism of the unregulated exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands for the oil-rich bitumen explores various aspects of the mega-projects in the area. However, the despite the angle he tackles the oil scourge currently blighting Alberta’s once beautiful ecosystem, Nikiforuk does not betray his strong conviction that the project and the oil-lifestyle addition it has induced in the region is unsustainable. He notes that multinationals are currently operating in the region unchecked and with the blessing of petropoliticians with a unidirectional perspective: economic income.       

He argues that the tar sand project in his province is a colossal project with mega consequences. While it has enabled Canada to surpass the traditional oil producing and exporting nations when it comes to exporting oil to the U.S., the mega project is a financial sink and a mega greenhouse gases exhaust whose size keeps bludgeoning. The dirty oil project is the largest in the world in all key metrics for quantifying a project. Once compared to the iconic and historic Pyramids of Egypt by the immediate former Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, the project is the largest globally in terms of capital requirements. The oil magnates and multinationals have pumped in a staggering $200 billion to fuel the production of oil that fuel the American economy, and greenhouse gases emission and environmental degradation in equal measure. There has never been such a mega construction or energy project in the world.      

            Nikiforuk holds that Albertan and Canadian are culpable in encouraging the wastage of ecosystem in Alberta and far beyond. Christening them as petropoliticians, he laments the lax government laws instituted by politicians who view the environment as nothing more than just an economic cash cow. Encouraged by the Albertan government, multinationals have gleefully pitched their tents in Albert and are milking the cow dry. Even with the Albertans and ecosystem bleeding, the petropoliticians have continued with their relentless quest to add one more drop of dirty oil into barrels of the multinationals by okaying even dozens of new open-pit mining projects. With each new project approved, the petropoliticians are permitting these multinationals to continue sculpturing and scarring Albertan ecosystem beyond recognition.

            However, he notes that the laxity problem is not confined to the Albertan government. The federal and provincial governments are in bed together and cozying up to the United States with blind obedience to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Despite boasting of vast untapped reserves of the much-coveted bitumen, Canada is ill-prepared in the eventuality of a gas shortage[1]. This is because the country seems to be in a hurry to sell off its oil resources to fuel its current needs without considering setting up a strategic fuel reserve program that can come in handy during contingencies. It is a sorry state of policy naivety for a country claiming to be one of the industrialized nations of the world and seeking to command respect and administration globally.

The unsightly glory of the hundreds of pounds of solid and gaseous waste that have been the symbol of Alberta oil industry have thrived due to lack of cohesive environmental and energy policies at both the federal and provincial level. Alberta has gladly followed in the footsteps of the federal and opted to fly blindly when it comes to environmental and energy laws and the bid corporations are none the wiser. The two levels of government have adopted a strategy of short-sightedness, whether intentionally or not, in a game whose outcome only benefits the enterprise. Canada has gladly joined the exclusive club of petrostates and in the process sacrificed the once majestic ecosystem of northern Alberta on the altar of economic greed.        

            According to Nikiforuk, the only element of the tar sand project that compares to historical landmarks such as the Great Wall of China, which it was compared with, is the height and the length of the wall toxic waste from the open-pits. The impact the project has had on the ecosystems towers above these historical landmarks. In addition to the enormous amounts of toxic waste generated from processing the sludge and mixing it with sand to produce bitumen, several communities have suffered numerous health problems as a result of water pollution. Another egregious aspect of the blossoming industry is the amount of greenhouse gases that find themselves into the atmosphere as a result of the project. In addition to releasing these harmful gases, Nikiforuk points out that huge tracks of forested land are cleared to make way for enormous open pits and heavy machinery[2]. Woe unto animals such as the caribous and birds which call the forests their homes. They are displaced with abandon care as the economic value of bitumen far much outweighs theirs. They have become deathtraps for many birds including ducks due to their toxic nature. Water bodies are drained too. Alarmingly, the water bodies and trees are important carbon dioxide sinks that could have absorbed the carbon dioxide produced in the mines[3].

            The doom and gloom yet informative exposure highlights how such ponds of toxic wastes reeking with chemicals such as carcinogens potentially cause acid rains when their contents evaporate. Disturbingly, evaporation of these wastes is not uncommon as they only freeze under extremely cold temperatures. When they leak into other water bodies, as is commonly the case, water supplies for downstream communities are poisoned. However, such communities rarely complain for their voices have been muffled by dollarized incentives as the cost of their own health.

The waters of Athabasca River are increasingly becoming under threat and will succumb to whims of the enterprise if they continue laying waste to Albertan ecosystem. The threat to the river is twofold: pollution and overuse. The space-visible ponds that run along the river gradually leak their toxic wastes into the river posing a greater danger to its biodiversity. Using statistical data, Andrew Nikiforuk shows that processing of tons of pounds of the sludge to extract market-grade bitumen requires thousands of gallons of fresh water. This water is radily available from the river. However, with heighten mining activities due to increased traffic of oil and gas multinationals into the area, thousands more of the river water will be used per day without necessarily replenishing it.        

            Fort McMurray has transformed into a crime capital where all manner of criminals thrive. From Muslim extremists to drug peddlers, the transitory workers of the town offer the right environment for crime to thrive as they do not invest the area socially and economically. However, the transient nature of the labor market has not stopped the real estate properties industry in the area to soar. Individuals looking to make a quick kill in the mines can pay high rental charges as their stay is short-lived. Because they give back nothing to the community while raising the living standards in the town, squalor lifestyles have become commonplace. Fort McMurray, which started out as a small outpost with a handful of people, today is home to northern Canada’s largest population of people who lives on the streets. The atmosphere in the town is acrid due to pollution. Air pollution in Fort McMurray currently rivals that of many Chinese cities.        

            Through the book, Nikiforuk shows his first-rate research skills by not confining himself to criticism. While lamenting Canadian federal government’s complacency, duplicity and apparent pride in the hideous project, he offers hope with a practical recovery program at helping Canada from dealing with decades of oil addiction. The twelve-step recovery program is aimed at ensuring that the country gains sanity by arresting and toning down the effects of a disaster. His practical guide is informed by the social, economic and political effects of the tar sands project in Alberta. As evidenced by corruption and lax environmental and energy policies, Nikiforuk holds that Canada has fallen victim to the corrosive effect of oil on democracy. According to Nikiforuk, the first step to recovery from the dangerous and debilitating oil addition is accepting that the era of low-priced oil has come to a screeching end. Therefore, the country needs to scale down the capacity of the tar sands project with the view of weaning off itself from oil dependency. Canada needs to use the project as a springboard to better and sustainable energy alternatives.     

            One of the strengths of Andrew Nikiforuk’s exposure is its engaging manner. His presentation is very detailed and uses statistical data and information available to the general public to justify his opinions. He has also mastered the art of drawing comparisons by laying bare two contrasting yet disturbing thoughts. While pointing out the several attempts to assassinate his character and amount of dollars the Canadian spends on personnel employed to convince Americans and Canadians on the green benefits of the tar sands projects, Nikiforuk taps into an emotional well. His appendix of figures on some of the figures the Canadian government does not reveal to the general public during such public relations initiatives is thought provoking. As an indictment against the classic petrostate of Alberta and the petropolitics of Canada, this book comes complete with facts to back up its claims. His portfolio of evidence ranges from journal articles to government documents, newspaper clippings and petitions. 

            Nikiforuk’s choice and content of chapters is very interesting. The content of each chapter does not betray the poignancy of their titles. There is no second guessing of the criticisms contained in each chapter as the titles give readers an opportunity to create mental pictures of the content. But most interestingly, each chapter paints a specific picture of the negative side effects of the colossal project. For example, the chapter on the ills associated with ponds of toxic wastes is poignantly named as “The Ponds”. In this chapter, Nikiforuk leaves no stone unturned in his indictment. He backs his claims with more than just narratives; he shows data on the sizes and capacities of the huge ponds and their connection to water pollution in Athabasca River and other surrounding wetlands.

            While Andrew Nikiforuk focused on Alberta and Canada by extension as dysfunctional petrostates where petropolitics have overrun common sense environmental and energy policing, the mosaic portrait painted throughout the book can apply to any nation. It highlights the fallacies associated with petropolitics where the enterprise calls the shorts. With scintillating evidences, Nikiforuk wades through an emotive and divisive issue while also trying to remain as objective as possible. From rare cancer whose discovery was followed up embarrassing government cover up to cancerous leaking ponds, he lays his research bare for all to marvel at the inadequacies of the federal and Albertan Province governments’ when it comes to critical policy formulation. Tar Sands shows the deep rooted lack of commitment of a government that is keen on signing international treatises on environmental protection and conservation but lacks the spine to put its house in order. But most critically, it shows the dangers of a petrostate at the beck and call of big businesses. Such a state is marked by lack of political accountability and secrecy. The political class is beholden to business communities who rarely care about the local communities. Therefore, they will continue to exploit the local resources unabated at the detriment of the locals and the ecosystem.

In the end, the once serene towns and ecosystems are turned upside down. The free flow of cash and a transient labor markets means that despite the rising cost of living in towns such as Fort McMurray, the locals have very little to be proud off. Once the big businesses move in, it is very easy to find yourself on the streets. Since such environments are mired in corruption and all manner of crimes, residents have very little wriggle room to find justice. Or if you dare ask the tough questions, threats are abound as seen in the case of Andrew Nikiforuk when a smear campaign was hatched to tarnish his name and reputation.

Nikiforuk’s exposure is a wakeup call to all Canadians. It is a call to action to the country’s political class and citizens to begin the process of weaning itself off the murky and addictive oil if the country is to have any hopes of minimizing the outcomes of an oil-dependency disaster. Despite its Canadian perspective, Nikiforuk aims at helping other communities suffering from the insanity of oil addiction and in the process are harming their environments. The facts presented are damning and thought provoking. The statistics used by Nikiforuk to justify his claims are mind-numbing. Paraded in a scintillating manner, these facts and figures form the foundation of any effective exposure.       


Alberta Energy. “Alberta Energy: Facts and Statistics”. Alberta Energy.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (2nd ed.). Greystone Books and David Suzuki Foundation, 2010.

[1] Andrew Nikiforuk. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (2nd ed.), Greystone Books and David Suzuki Foundation, 2010.

[2] Alberta Energy. “Alberta Energy: Facts and Statistics”. Alberta Energy.

[3] Andrew Nikiforuk. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (2nd ed.), Greystone Books and David Suzuki Foundation, 2010.