Book Review: Andrew Nikiforuk’s Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

Northern Alberta’s vast stores of bitumen–a.k.a. “tar sands” or “oil sands” or “dirty oil”–may well be one of the worst environmental tragedies you never heard of. At least that is what Andrew Nikiforuk, a prize-winning Canadian journalist, wants you to believe.

In his recent book Tar Sands: Diry Oil and the Future of a Continent, Nikiforuk lands a knockout blow on the kissers of the oil industry, oil-friendly bureaucrats, and petrol-guzzling North Americans. It is obvious that this Canadian is sick and tired of watching his own beloved habitat mutate from a pristine Northern ecosystem to a veritable toxic wasteland.

That said, Nikiforuk is clearly perturbed (another “p” word springs to mind…but this is a family-friendly blog). His book combines intensive research with a lively, caustic writing style…sort of enlightened invective. This makes for an astonishingly entertaining read that raises your hackles while raising your awareness about a seriously dangerous issue.

Nikiforuk continuously holds up the oil industry and the all-too-complicit Canadian governments (federal and provincial) for their nonsensical, outright silly approach to the country’s bitumen reserves. The various names given to this resource are themselves telltale signs of the prevailing mindset. Bitumen, which is basically oil-soaked sand, gets called anything but “tar sands” or “dirty oil” by those reaping the benefits and profits from it. No, for them it is oil, plain and simple.

But Nikiforuk is not fooled: “If that lazy reasoning made sense, Canadians would call every tomato ketchup and every tree lumber.”1 Luckily, though, some Canucks like Nikiforuk are not lulled by the sound of gurgling oil…as most of it flows right out of Canada and down south to the United States.

Believe it or not, Canada is now a burgeoning player in the global energy market thanks in large part to bitumen. It has become “the largest single exporter of oil to the United States,” bypassing Saudi Arabia and providing “nearly one-fifth of all U.S. oil imports” (2).

But bitumen is a nasty, truly dirty form of oil–perhaps one of the dirtiest forms of oil or any energy source imaginable. “Each barrel of bitumen,” Nikiforuk states, “produces three times as much greenhouse gas as one barrel of oil” (3). Getting it out of the ground (think sucking cold maple syrup through a straw) requires immense amounts of water, terribly destructive collection methods, and intensive alterations to the environment (through pollution, infrastructure, etc.). As the author so strikingly puts it, “bitumen is the equivalent of scoring heroin cut with sugar, starg, powdered milk, quinine, and strychnine” (16).

Thus, Nikiforuk argues convincingly, the reckless and desperate turn to bitumen “is a signature of peak oil and a reminder, as every beer drinker knows, that the glass starts full and ends empty” (3). As the world runs out of its precious petrol, desperate measures become required…and just about anything will serve for a quick fix.

Tar Sands contains overwhelming evidence in Nikiforuk’s case against pursuing bitumen with such hell-bent abandon. He shows all the ways it has dirtied the environment, worsened peoples’ lives, and actually cost Canadians both energy security and money.

Yes, you read me correctly: bitumen has cost taxpayers while providing hefty profits for the industry. And this strange situation arises for two reasons.

Firstly, the governments have been shockingly, indeed criminally lax when it comes to charging fees and collecting royalties for Canadian bitumen. (Otherwise, ever-flighty industry could pack up and move elsewhere!)

Secondly, bitumen is so hard to collect and so dirty at every stage that cleaning up its messes has become expensive. Just dealing with the open-pit mines often created to get it provides a case in point. Nikiforuk explains, “Canadian taxpayers, who made $150 million [Canadian] in royalties from mining activities between 1966 and 2002, have spent more than $4 billion tidying up scores of contaminated sites…” (100).

All this mess and expense for a bottom-of-the-barrel oil source that, even at the maximum estimated production levels (five million barrels per day), “would barely supply 5 per cent of the world’s oil consumption, a drop in the global bucket” (168).

By the end of Tar Sands, Nikiforuk leaves little room for doubt about how problematic bitumen is as an alternative to Middle East oil. He ends with a 12-step plan to “energy sanity” (think of similarly stepped plans to overcome any number of addictions!), which basically seeks to reverse all of the problems he addressed in the book.

None of these countermeasures is surprising or innovative, nor are any of the other methods he mentions for overcoming our oil addiction–changing lifestyles, reducing consumption, policing industry and government more closely, etc.

But Tar Sands does enough without offering grand, visionary solutions for the problem. Those are fairly obvious, relatively speaking, by this point. The problem so far, though, has been a sort of self-induced haze of blindness for all players in the bitumen game.

With Nikiforuk barking and biting at the heels of the oiligarchs stomping around his home turf (i.e., tundra), every Canadian and American will have little difficulty recognizing that bitumen is far too dirty to have a place in the future of our continent.

1. Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver: David Suzuki Foundation-Greystone Books, 2008. 12.

  1. Alison Wiley

    Thanks for this good review. Its topic outrages me, as does the construction of new coal plants — and of course I try to find constructive things I can do.

    I’ve learned that Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben are leading a very constructive action to address all of this: http://www.diamondcutlife.org/join-wendell-berry-and-bill-mckibben/
    Since I can’t attend the action myself while still keeping my job, I’m offering free publicity on my blog (2,000 hits in one recent week) to anyone who joins their action and reports on it.

  2. Sean

    This book is based on false statistics. To begin with, Canada has always been the largest exporter of oil to the USA. The government has gotten more than 150 million dollars in royalties over the last 36 years. “With Nikiforuk barking and biting at the heels of the oiligarchs stomping around his home turf (i.e., tundra)”, the oil sands are not in the tundra, they are in the boreal forest. There is a huge difference between them. By law, all oil companies have to pay for environmental cleanups THEMSELVES. The taxpayers do not pay for the clean up.

    I’m all for lessening the world’s dependence on oil, but lets not scare people into thinking the oil sands are the next environmental apocalypse waiting to happen. In one year the oil sands produce the same amount of CO2 that the USA does in one day. Oh, and by the way, the USA produces its own ‘dirty’ oil domestically. Google it.

  3. Acme Fixer

    It’s not as bad as the fiasco going on right now in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. There’s going to be hell to pay when that’s over. Remember the EXXON Valdez??

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