Alberta Has a Reality Problem, Not a ‘Narrative’ Problem

Any account of Alberta’s bitumen must reflect the toxic reality on the land and water, and on human and wildlife health.

Jule Asterisk and Paul Belanger

Photo by Jeff WallaceE, CC, cropped from original

The attempt to “alter the narrative” about bitumen has been provoking cognitive dissonance in Alberta and around the world for decades. Industry and governments changed the name of Alberta’s main fossil fuel export from “tarsands” to “oilsands” in the early 2000s in an attempt to deny the qualities of bitumen.

In fact, Alberta bitumen has so much dirt in it, it literally cannot move down a pipe by itself, and needs highly toxic and explosive ‘diluent’ in order to flow. Bitumen and diluent together (dilbit) require extreme means of extraction (open face mines, billions of litres of tailings) and transportation (heated train cars are proposed), and extreme clean-up efforts during spills. Instead of continually trying to deny or obscure important and valid facts, we need to accept reality, and make safer products.

Guided by both Indigenous Elders’ traditional knowledge and western science, Keepers of the Athabasca (Keepers) are Alberta-based First Nations, Métis, Inuit, environmental groups, and watershed citizens working together for the protection of water, land, air, and all living things today and tomorrow in the Athabasca River watershed. We are an Alberta grassroots Indigenous-led organization without funding from US groups. If, by some miracle, we were offered funding from groups in the US, we would accept it gladly. Most oil companies in Alberta (and the neoliberal and conservative think tanks trying to sell a “responsible oil” narrative) certainly have US funding.

The climate denial currently being shoved in our face was initiated by US oil industry lobbyists – although to be fair, the Alberta Narrative Project now recommends educating Albertans about climate change (albeit, without mentioning polar bears).

With our membership over 3000, Keepers works with Indigenous knowledge holders, western scientists, universities, citizens, and labs who recognize how close to the environmental breaking point we actually are.

Alberta and Canada’s appalling environmental and human rights records are part of the equation. Beaver Lake Cree Nation is in court with Alberta and Canada because the industrial overreach permitted on their traditional territories prevents them from carrying out crucial livelihood activities, like hunting, fishing, trapping, and medicine gathering.

In the Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan areas, despite confirmed rare cancer clusters, Dr. John O’Connor was charged with “causing undue alarm” in 2007. This was widely reported in the media, but the fact that they had to settle out of court and re-instate Dr. O’Connor as a family physician wasn’t mentioned. Alarm is still due, as communities continue to suffer.

Every single regulatory and monitoring agency in Alberta’s shifting sands has changed hands, titles, or mandate over the past ten years.

Cancer rates in this region are 30% higher than the rest of Alberta according to the Alberta Cancer Board, which was disbanded soon after releasing this information in 2008. Although their initial study called for a full and comprehensive health study, that larger and still very necessary health study has never been carried out.

The claim that “bitumen floats” on water is extremely controversial and based on an Environment Canada experiment using tanks, not actual ocean conditions. Studies on real dilbit spills in the US have shown that the diluent evaporates quickly (causing toxic and explosive fumes), and then the bitumen does in fact sink, causing irretrievable pollution. It seems a favourite tactic by those trying to change the factually-correct “dirty oil” label is to leave out key facts.

In another example of false narrative, bitumen is not oil as we know it, contrary to Alberta’s ads running nationally for $23M. The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion is needed to move ever-expanding bitumen production (not oil) from Alberta.

On the call for “jobs,” it was industry who cut back rig workers by 75% in the past 15 years, and are trying for as much automation as possible. The oil and gas industry quietly shelved remediation contracts during the “downturn” in global oil prices in 2015; these contracts were worth millions, and could put people to work for decades. Reading the beautiful fantasy “Green Oil,” written 10 years ago by bitumen-sympathetic journalist Satya Das, we note that every single regulatory and monitoring agency in Alberta’s shifting sands has changed hands, titles, or mandate over the past ten years.


Read more:

State of Denial: how Big Oil peddles soft climate denial by promoting ineffective market-based measures

Billionaires, Bankers and Big Oil Should Pay Climate Costs, not Taxpayers


Keepers of the Athabasca is a solutions-based organization. We are developing a “data visualization” tool with a team of hydrogeologists and Indigenous knowledge holders to help locate where tailings are leaking into groundwater. In 2017 these toxic ponds covered 220 square kilometres with 1.2 trillion litres – and in spite of their enormous impacts they continue to grow.

In the 1980s the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (funded by industry and Alberta) produced hundreds of viable solutions for tailings treatment; a “non-toxic” status could be achieved for an average of $3/m3. None of these solutions were ever employed because industry didn’t want to pay more than $.50/m3.

Keepers have been working on full containment options for tailings, a concept that was completely ignored by Canada’s Oilsands Innovation Alliance. We also participate in multi-stakeholder groups facilitated by both Alberta Environment and Parks and the Alberta Energy Regulator regarding bitumen production and tailings management.

The public deserves factual dialogue, where all sides of the issue are respectful of people and truth. Keepers of the Athabasca calls for any “narrative” about Alberta’s bitumen to reflect the toxic reality that is taking place on the Land and Water and on human and wildlife health. As our Elders tell us, it is important to always be honest, especially when it’s difficult.


Jule Asterisk is the interim Executive Director and Paul Belanger the Co-chair of Keepers of the Athabasca.

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