It’s one of the largest development projects in the world. Larger than the state of Florida and containing the second largest oil reserve in the world, The Athabasca Oil Sands, also known as the “Alberta tar sands”, produce almost a million barrels of oil every day. And that number is rising.
But a locally-based online newspaper, The Dominion, thinks the mainstream media has neglected to cover the oil sands, especially when it comes to the potential impact to the environment and the people who live in the area. So they decided to cover it themselves.
“The Dominion is a grassroots news co-operative that publishes a newspaper [by the same name],” said editor Dru Oja Jay. “It’s a mostly online newspaper but about once a year we do a special issue where we do a more significant print run and organize discussions across the country.”
The free 48-page special issue on the oil sands, due out Nov. 7, is only the paper’s second. Last year, they covered Canadian foreign policy. This year’s issue will be launched at McGill with a print run of 20,000 copies.
The Dominion is a self-described “network of independent journalists in Canada” that takes its name from Canada’s status as “both a colony and a colonial force.” The monthly newspaper seeks to critically examine politics, culture and daily life in order to explore the exercise of power.
Along with the launch, both Jay and Maya Rolbin-Ghanie, another Dominion writer who traveled to the tar sands last summer, will present a slide show and film clips of their investigations. They will also be speaking at Concordia Nov. 15.
Jay says that along with the development comes a huge environmental impact. He describes the sands as a “massive wasteland that’s being created in northern Alberta.”
Unlike oil in underground reservoirs, which occurs as a liquid, the oil in the sands, called bitumen, is extremely thick and mixed into the sand.
According to Jay, the extraction process for tar sand requires “a huge amount of water, a huge amount of energy and a huge amount of labour.”
Once the sand has been separated, the tar is then turned into synthetic crude, which must be further refined before it is turned into gasoline for consumption.
“It’s an extensive process and it’s much more expensive than normal oil,” said Jay.
According to the Alberta government, two tonnes of oil sand is needed to make a single barrel of oil. But with the rising price of oil and the instability of many oil-producing nations, oil sands are looking more attractive than ever, even with the environmental costs.
“The rising price of oil has really pushed things ahead in terms of development at the tar sands,” said Jay.
“And right now the only thing that’s limiting it is capacity, in terms of labour that’s available, in terms of the highways that are up there, in terms of pipeline capacity. And that’s really what’s keeping it from expanding even faster.”
The impact to the environment of the processing of the sands is the biggest concern at The Dominion. These impacts, Jay argued, will be felt far from the site of the sands themselves.
“Natural gas pipelines are going to be built, which will have an impact stretching all the way up to the Arctic Ocean, both in Alaska and the Mackenzie Valley [North West Territories],” said Jay.
And that doesn’t even touch on the question of the depletion and pollution of water.
“You have the Athabasca River, which feeds the Mackenzie watershed, which is basically being polluted and people downstream from there are already dying of cancer,” said Jay.
“You have this massive untouched wilderness that a lot of people depend on for their culture and their survival, which is being effectively threatened.”
Jay laid the blame partly at the feet of the American government’s greed for consumption.
“What Stephen Harper and people like Dick Cheney have been saying is, that oil is going to be used to provide for U.S. energy security. [But] basically what that means is, it’s going to be used to keep American automobiles on the road, and it’s going to keep the U.S. military running in Iraq and elsewhere.”
You can catch The Dominion’s launch Nov. 7 at Chancellor Day Hall Rm #203 (McGill Law – on Dr. Penfield, between Peel and Stanley), and Nov. 15 at Concordia.
Articles from the issue are already available on the Dominion’s website, www.dominionpaper.ca.