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Winner of the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award , from the Society of Environmental Journalists Canada has one third of the world’s oil source; it comes from the bitumen in the oil sands of Alberta. Advancements in technology and frenzied development have created the world’s largest energy project in Fort McMurray where, rather than shooting up like a fountain in th Winner of the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award , from the Society of Environmental Journalists Canada has one third of the world’s oil source; it comes from the bitumen in the oil sands of Alberta. Advancements in technology and frenzied development have created the world’s largest energy project in Fort McMurray where, rather than shooting up like a fountain in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the sticky bitumen is extracted from the earth. Providing almost 20 percent of America’s fuel, much of this dirty oil is being processed in refineries in the Midwest. This out-of-control megaproject is polluting the air, poisoning the water, and destroying boreal forest at a rate almost too rapid to be imagined. In this hard-hitting book, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk exposes the disastrous environmental, social, and political costs of the tar sands and argues forcefully for change.


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Winner of the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award , from the Society of Environmental Journalists Canada has one third of the world’s oil source; it comes from the bitumen in the oil sands of Alberta. Advancements in technology and frenzied development have created the world’s largest energy project in Fort McMurray where, rather than shooting up like a fountain in th Winner of the 2009 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award , from the Society of Environmental Journalists Canada has one third of the world’s oil source; it comes from the bitumen in the oil sands of Alberta. Advancements in technology and frenzied development have created the world’s largest energy project in Fort McMurray where, rather than shooting up like a fountain in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the sticky bitumen is extracted from the earth. Providing almost 20 percent of America’s fuel, much of this dirty oil is being processed in refineries in the Midwest. This out-of-control megaproject is polluting the air, poisoning the water, and destroying boreal forest at a rate almost too rapid to be imagined. In this hard-hitting book, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk exposes the disastrous environmental, social, and political costs of the tar sands and argues forcefully for change.

30 review for Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

  1. 4 out of 5

    Adrian

    This could be my book of the year. The whole devastating package of environmental, social and economic disaster of digging up the tar sands is laid out while Alberta, as classic petrostate, is blind to it all. Nikiforuk presents 12 steps to rehabilitation at the end but who can believe even one of them is possible in today's climate? That's the down side of reading climate change/peak oil books, it's impossible to finish them and not believe we are all screwed.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Alberta would be a different place if everyone read this book and became part of the provincial discourse. I knew the Tar Sands had a high environmental cost but what this book shows really well is the other costs. First interesting thing I learned is that the Alberta government and the oil industry intentionally call the tar sands, oil sands, even though the substance coming out of the ground is like asphalt and not oil at all. I'll be trying to call it by its real name from now on... For the Alberta would be a different place if everyone read this book and became part of the provincial discourse. I knew the Tar Sands had a high environmental cost but what this book shows really well is the other costs. First interesting thing I learned is that the Alberta government and the oil industry intentionally call the tar sands, oil sands, even though the substance coming out of the ground is like asphalt and not oil at all. I'll be trying to call it by its real name from now on... For the sake of this review I'm going to highlight the sections that really stood out to me but I have to emphasize that every Albertan should read this, it really is eye opening. Chapter 1 talks about the impact the oil sands development is having on the people who work there and the town of Ft. McMurray. It made me think of when we were in Newfoundland, everyone wanted to talk to us about Fort McMurray and how everyone was coming back addicted to drugs. That is a part of the tole the tar sands development is having on people. Chapter 6 is about the tailing ponds which I know about because of the dead ducks a few years back. Nikiforuk talks about how big these "ponds" really are and how toxic they are. They will cover an area of 85 sq miles sometime in the next 10 years and they are not shallow. Some of them have damn walls up to 275 feet tall. The amount of waste is insane and the companies have not come up with a way to deal with it. The "ponds" have no lining so the waste is leaking into the groundwater and the nearby Athabasca river. If one of those ponds were to break and pour into the Athabasca river it would be a disaster of which Canada has never seen the likes. Fort Chipewyan, which is downstream of Ft. Mac on the Athabasca river, has already shown much higher rates of cancer. The doctor who tried to bring it to the government and public attention was attacked and defamed by the Alberta government(more on this kind of thing in a sec.) Every Edmontonian should read chapter 8 because it talks about how bad the air pollution is in upgrader alley to the east of Edmonton. Chapter 9 talks about how carbon capture has almost no science to support it, is not cost effective and will not ultimately keep carbon trapped permanently in the ground. Chapter 11 talks about all the corruption in Alberta and how connected the government and industry are. Talks about how little money we really make from the tar sands and how much we are throwing away. Former premier Peter Lougheed's advice is the path I wish we were on: "slow down; behave like a resource owner, as opposed to a free-market anarchist; charge higher royalties; save for the future, and develop only one project at a time, so that environmental liabilities can be addressed in a proactive manner." READ THIS BOOK!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Hella Comat

    An excellent overview of the tar sands predicament in Alberta. Nikiforuk has researched his topic thoroughly - over 20 PAGES of sources! - and presents a fact filled indictment of "Petropolitics". Did you know that to make one barrel of oil from the bitumen in the tar sands, it takes: - 3 barrels of fresh water - the Athabaska River basin cannot sustain itself with the water being removed - 2 tons of sand - requiring the removal of the boreal forest and wetlands above the sands - 1400 cubic feet of An excellent overview of the tar sands predicament in Alberta. Nikiforuk has researched his topic thoroughly - over 20 PAGES of sources! - and presents a fact filled indictment of "Petropolitics". Did you know that to make one barrel of oil from the bitumen in the tar sands, it takes: - 3 barrels of fresh water - the Athabaska River basin cannot sustain itself with the water being removed - 2 tons of sand - requiring the removal of the boreal forest and wetlands above the sands - 1400 cubic feet of natural gas - and produces 1.3 barrels of toxic waste - which are kept in tailings ponds which leak into the ground water and are held back by earth dams hundreds of feet in height, possibly to result in disasters like the one in Romania where a 150 km long toxic tide flowed into the Black Sea - produces 187 pounds of carbon dioxide into greenhouse gases and an ounce of sulphur dioxide which returns to earth as acid rain This doesn't even take into account the increasing incidences of cancers in native peoples who eat the fish and caribou that are being affected by the toxic waste......

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lester

    This book took me a really long time to read..at least every second page made me angry at 'the human animal'!! Excellent book..frustrating thoughts! So many excellent quotes..but a very simple and in your face one is; "The Alberta government currently spends $14 million a year and employs 117 full-time staff in its Public Affairs Bureau to tell Albertans what to think. It has devoted another $25 million to convincing both Alberta's citizens and U.S. oil consumers that the tar sands are greener th This book took me a really long time to read..at least every second page made me angry at 'the human animal'!! Excellent book..frustrating thoughts! So many excellent quotes..but a very simple and in your face one is; "The Alberta government currently spends $14 million a year and employs 117 full-time staff in its Public Affairs Bureau to tell Albertans what to think. It has devoted another $25 million to convincing both Alberta's citizens and U.S. oil consumers that the tar sands are greener than Kermit the Frog." Now we need to remember that this book was published in 2008!! FOUR YEARS AGO!! We all know that costs did not go down..or stay the same..how very, very 'disappointing'.

  5. 5 out of 5

    MEGAN C

    This book is very informative. I finished it full of righteous indignation. All Canadians should read this. I am disappointed in Alberta and ashamed to be a part of this by doing nothing.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Ingrid Haunold

    This book is a must-read. You'll be mentally exhausted after reading it - and completely disgusted with the oil companies and the government of Alberta, Canada. The province of Alberta has one of the largest oil sands reserves in the world, and they are being exploited on a scale and in a manner that boggles the mind. It's total destruction of the environment; thousands of animals die in the tailing ponds; Alberta's rivers and lakes are being contaminated with toxic waste materials. Rare cancers This book is a must-read. You'll be mentally exhausted after reading it - and completely disgusted with the oil companies and the government of Alberta, Canada. The province of Alberta has one of the largest oil sands reserves in the world, and they are being exploited on a scale and in a manner that boggles the mind. It's total destruction of the environment; thousands of animals die in the tailing ponds; Alberta's rivers and lakes are being contaminated with toxic waste materials. Rare cancers are documented among the population; cancers are also documented in animals, which are often deformed as well; the air is polluted, and so much water and energy (e.g. natural gas) is used to produce oil from oil sands, that not of it makes sense. It is total madness. Read this book - and then think long and hard about your consuming habits.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Wyndy Carr

    I went to one of his talks in Vancouver BC, so it must have been right before the book was published in 2008. He really was prophetic about how it was all going to come down, and the terrible devastation of the land and greed about resources it was going to spawn all over the continent. Winona LaDuke was just on a talk with Toby McLeod for the Sacred Lands Film showings and said that in the past 12 years (with a LOT of work and protest) and now with the Saudi and Russian oil dump crashing oil pr I went to one of his talks in Vancouver BC, so it must have been right before the book was published in 2008. He really was prophetic about how it was all going to come down, and the terrible devastation of the land and greed about resources it was going to spawn all over the continent. Winona LaDuke was just on a talk with Toby McLeod for the Sacred Lands Film showings and said that in the past 12 years (with a LOT of work and protest) and now with the Saudi and Russian oil dump crashing oil prices, 4 out of 5 big pipeline projects have been shelved or entirely stopped, mostly be Native people and ally support (like for Standing Rock), the "massive crack in capitalism" showing broadly under the pandemic.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amanda B

    Absolutely rage-inducing account of the corruption, greed and ignorance that feeds the oil machine in Alberta. Despite that, the author is level-headed and reasonable in his suggested alternatives and solutions.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Derek Falkowsky

    One of the best books I've read in a long time. The history of hydrocarbons and oil politics in Alberta is far more corrupt and consequential than I had ever imagined. Written 10 years ago this book sheds an accurate narrative on current affairs in the Petro-province of Alberta! A must read!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Tsai

    These are just some highlights from the book. This isn't really a review. This book brought up some issues I wasn't even paying attention to. In addition to the environmental side of the tar sands there is the economic side. Royalties from the tar sands are very low. The author also makes a point about how lowering taxes can make people in different to politics. There is a correlation between voter turn out and taxation made. Also, economic loss due to NAFTA. The export of bitumen to refinement f These are just some highlights from the book. This isn't really a review. This book brought up some issues I wasn't even paying attention to. In addition to the environmental side of the tar sands there is the economic side. Royalties from the tar sands are very low. The author also makes a point about how lowering taxes can make people in different to politics. There is a correlation between voter turn out and taxation made. Also, economic loss due to NAFTA. The export of bitumen to refinement facilities in the U.S. equates to loss of jobs in Canada. And due to the price of bitumen being lower than the price of refined product there is a loss of Canadian profit due to not upgrading in Canada before export. pg 113 Canada's Declaration of Opportunity spurs tar sands development through low taxes for development projects. pg 28 2002 Canada became U.S. largest oil supplier. pg 30 2001 Dick Cheney's National Energy Policy developed a framework for an interconnected North American energy network. Look into North American Energy Working Group. pg 31 Wendell Berry quote, "there are such things as economic weapons of massive destruction" pg 35 Kazoom Brookes Postulate pg. 121 "industry and government have championed reductions on carbon production. The emphasis on intensity as opposed to firm caps on carbon production. The emphasis on intensity is a bit of a magic act. While Shell and Imperial marginally decrease the amount of carbon produced per barrel of oil, they wipe out those savings by ramping up oil production.... The postulate dates back to the coal era, when natural resource watchers noted that efficiencies gained by the coal-fired steam engine only momentarily lowered the demand for coal before consumption shot up tenfold. Economists generally agree that increased efficiency in the exploitation of a resource will lead over time to greater consumption, not less. This explains why reductions in energy intensity have yet to translate into reductions in energy demand in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States , or anywhere else. The paradox can be found in everyone's driveways, where improved fuel efficiency has added extra cars to the garage and increased the miles driven annually by the average American commuter, from 9,500 to 12,000 in the last 40 years.(The number of vehicles in Canada has doubled since 1970 to eighteen million and now grows faster than the country's population) Since 1975, airplanes have worked hard to burn 40% less fuel, but the industry has grown by 150 percent..." Makes connection between local food and oil. pg 183 "Relocalize food production. Cheap oil has created a fantasy food production system that delivers Ugandan peas to Europe and Chinese shrimp to the United States. Canada's agricultural policies, designed during an era of cheap fossil fuels, have largely supported the export of cheap grain and meat. Our nation needs a national food quality and security program that protects fertile farmland; rewards farmers for ecological services such as water conservation; properly labels each product with it origin and its carbon energy intensity; emphasizes quality, not quantity; favours small operations over big ones, and encourages Canadians to buy locally grown food."

  11. 5 out of 5

    Franklin

    As a typical muckraker, Nikiforuk exposes a lot of damning facts about the exploitation of the tar sands. In that regard, the book is valuable. At the same time, he fails to put it in proper context. (I don't mean just the mind-numbing parade of statistics presented without the proper context to judge how they relate to each other or what their significance is--which combines with a fair amount of repetition to mar the book.) Each chapter tends to focus on one aspect of the tar sands debacle tha As a typical muckraker, Nikiforuk exposes a lot of damning facts about the exploitation of the tar sands. In that regard, the book is valuable. At the same time, he fails to put it in proper context. (I don't mean just the mind-numbing parade of statistics presented without the proper context to judge how they relate to each other or what their significance is--which combines with a fair amount of repetition to mar the book.) Each chapter tends to focus on one aspect of the tar sands debacle that he wants to expose, and tends to neglect how that aspect is not limited to the exploitation of tar sands but actually corresponds to a broader social problem. He mentions the "resource curse" at times, but at other times acts as if oil--or even just tar sands bitumen--is such a special case that the attributes of the "resource curse" only apply to it. And all of this is without the slightest comprehension of how the "resource curse" grows organically out of the very nature of capitalist production (which is something he's in favor of). As Raya Dunayevskaya put it of an earlier generation of muckrakers, "They wanted government 'cleansed of corruption,' not shorn of its organism, its class composition...."

  12. 4 out of 5

    D

    This book is getting a bit outdated at this point, so it loses some points for that. Overall, lots of the info is good and it's easy enough to just skim over parts where you already get the point or don't need more numbers. The best thing about the book was that it covered a bunch of different angles, though it was far from exhaustive. The worst thing about the book was the use of language and the quick jabs it takes. I take a far harder stance on the tar sands than Nikiforuk, so I'm not spooked This book is getting a bit outdated at this point, so it loses some points for that. Overall, lots of the info is good and it's easy enough to just skim over parts where you already get the point or don't need more numbers. The best thing about the book was that it covered a bunch of different angles, though it was far from exhaustive. The worst thing about the book was the use of language and the quick jabs it takes. I take a far harder stance on the tar sands than Nikiforuk, so I'm not spooked by anything he says, but he seems to let his bias slip sometimes with quick jabs at George Bush, for example. And his way of getting points across has him using language in ways I'm not comfortable with. Comparing politicians to drunks and crackheads doesn't really seem fair to drunks and crackheads and I'm not just making joke when I say that. He's got some weirdly socially conservative politics at times. Also, sometimes he just tries too hard to come up with ways to help you visualize the volumes/amounts/stats he's talking about and lots of them just don't stick, or seem redundant. Anyways, it's not a long book, and easy to skim through and probably better than some other books on the topic. Still, it's not nearly radical or critical enough for my tastes.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Bill O'driscoll

    Journalist Nikiforuk delves into the dirty-energy source that's booming in Canada but still little-known in the U.S. (even though we get an increasing percentage of our oil from it -- from Canada, our single biggest supplier of "foreign oil"!) The stuff is a goop, not drilled for but dug or even melted out using vast amounts of natural gas. It is thus the most energy-intensive source of fossil fuels to acquire, and for this and other reasons the dirtiest oil. the center of the industry, which at Journalist Nikiforuk delves into the dirty-energy source that's booming in Canada but still little-known in the U.S. (even though we get an increasing percentage of our oil from it -- from Canada, our single biggest supplier of "foreign oil"!) The stuff is a goop, not drilled for but dug or even melted out using vast amounts of natural gas. It is thus the most energy-intensive source of fossil fuels to acquire, and for this and other reasons the dirtiest oil. the center of the industry, which attracts worldwide investment, is in Alberta, in the middle of Canada's otherwise largely pristine boreal forest. It's an environmental disaster, far from prying eyes, and because of lax Albertan regulations and taxation policies, as Nikiforuk goes to lengths to document, it does more environmental and even economic harm than good for the local economy. by the way, they're trying to built a north-south u.s. pipeline to more easily send this stuff to refineries in. .... the Gulf of Mexico.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Christofer Reimar

    An eye-opening account of the environmental, political, economic, and sociological effects of the Athabasca Tar Sands. In some ways this book strikes me as a modern day companion to George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, as Nikiforuk offers us a peak into the hidden dysfunctional industrial behemoth of Northern Alberta much like Orwell offered a peak of the grotesque social injustices that occurred in the 1930's in the coal mining towns of Northern England to those in the South. This is particularl An eye-opening account of the environmental, political, economic, and sociological effects of the Athabasca Tar Sands. In some ways this book strikes me as a modern day companion to George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier, as Nikiforuk offers us a peak into the hidden dysfunctional industrial behemoth of Northern Alberta much like Orwell offered a peak of the grotesque social injustices that occurred in the 1930's in the coal mining towns of Northern England to those in the South. This is particularly true of the chapters focusing on the sociological damage in inflicted upon the people of FortMac and Alberta at large (see Ch. 4: Highway to Hell). I will refrain from reiterating Nikiforuk's theses here and simply say I highly recommend that people read this book to see how this massive development is affecting all parts of Canada and the World.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lori Bamber

    Meticulously researched, impeccably written - a deeply depressing account of a Canadian tragedy. Tar Sands documents the economic and environmental inefficiency of transforming tar into oil with today's technology; then it documents the role the tar sands play in transforming a progressive, tolerant and prosperous country into a petro-state that both relies on and supports continued exploitation. Andrew Nikiforuk isn't a radical environmentalist. Like many thinkers close to the issue, he sees the Meticulously researched, impeccably written - a deeply depressing account of a Canadian tragedy. Tar Sands documents the economic and environmental inefficiency of transforming tar into oil with today's technology; then it documents the role the tar sands play in transforming a progressive, tolerant and prosperous country into a petro-state that both relies on and supports continued exploitation. Andrew Nikiforuk isn't a radical environmentalist. Like many thinkers close to the issue, he sees the tar sands as a Canadian treasure, one that could and should benefit generations of Canadians. Instead, he explains, corporate and political "leaders" are in a race to pipe it out, unrefined and at bargain-basement prices, for the benefit of short-term corporate profits and in service of a radical political ideology.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Marcel

    This was a very memorable book. The similes in this book were profound and very... tangibly relate-able. The book succeeded in convincing my then more impressionable mind. I remember sitting in traffic scowling about the grid locked traffic I had to sit in over the recent days after I finished the book. Of course, this is an alarmist style book and looks at the oil/tar sands through a very negative lens. There is another side to this debate. However, it's a must read for anyone interested in oil This was a very memorable book. The similes in this book were profound and very... tangibly relate-able. The book succeeded in convincing my then more impressionable mind. I remember sitting in traffic scowling about the grid locked traffic I had to sit in over the recent days after I finished the book. Of course, this is an alarmist style book and looks at the oil/tar sands through a very negative lens. There is another side to this debate. However, it's a must read for anyone interested in oil and gas. It's definitely made me more conscious of the need to be environmentally responsible and to keep an eye on the oil companies.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kristin

    An educational read about the multitude of problems accompanying the rapid development of the Alberta oil sands. Left me with lots of questions, as it was a fairly superficial read, but unfortunately I don’t think I can muster the motivation to get through a more in-depth book on the environmental science and economics of this as I barely made it through this one. Did find the sections on the associated social and political problems fascinating, though.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Bharat

    Anyone who is interested in what the Alberta Tar Sands are doing to the environment must read this book. Nikiforuk meticulously, and with excellent references, tracks the history of Tar Sands development, the ridiculous waste of resources and the outsized environmental footprint of the ever expanding operation.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Mckenna

    Nikiforuk's damning look at the unbridled development of the tar sands in Northern Alberta is an excellent read. Yes, he has an axe to grind, however; the light he shines into the murky subject is a needed illumination to this project. An excellent book in understanding the the socio-economic and environmental impacts of this project.

  20. 4 out of 5

    James

    This book essentially sums up what most of us already know (or will know after reading): Tar sands are disgusting. With facts upon facts and horrifying stories that will test anyone's bladder control Andrew Nikiforuk destroys the tar sand industry with all their harangue about it. Hopefully, Obama won't approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Gregory Sotir

    A very good introduction to the issues surrounding the Athabasca Tar Sands. At times it veers a bit into other areas (e.g. not sure about the Highway of Death part.) I wish Nikiforuk had included more Native voices and more on intl oil manipulations by US corps and their bought-off politicians.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    Very interesting and eye-opening read! Took me awhile to get through as its filled with numbers and stats and therefore can get a bit overwhelming in parts. I found myself having to put it down for a few days at a time. However such a great book overall! Every Canadian should read this book.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Julia Milner

    Well, that was depressing. If you're looking for a detailed, thoroughly researched reminder of why the tar sands are really really bad, this is the book for you. (Getting a bit dated, since it was published in 2008).

  24. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    This book is a real eye-opener. Instead of looking for more oil, we need to be developing an economy that isn't so dependent on fossil fuels...and fast.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    Excellent little book that is a great overview of the topic.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Angela

    Tragic and very sad. The political corruption and environmental neglect are the most disturbing parts. A must-read for all North Americans, especially Canadians.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    UGH.

  28. 4 out of 5

    John Morris

    Well researched and documented story of the scandal being perpetrated in Alberta. The almighty dollar triumphs again.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Karchmer

    Pretty amazing account and thorough research by this Canadian journalist. Actually enjoying reading it on the Kindle. My first time.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    All Canadians should read this book.

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