Alberta Oil Sands Mining, Canada

The Alberta oil sands span approximately 142,200 square kilometers in the Canadian province of Alberta, “an area comparable to the state of Florida”[1]. Oil sands are unconventional reserves as they are solid at room temperature and require heating in order to flow. Canada’s oil sands are considered a “significant contributor to the recent growth and expected future growth in the world’s liquid fuel supply.” Local indigenous communities have been negatively affected, however, by the ongoing extraction of oil sands resources.

The Alberta Oil Sands and the ACFN

Location of Alberta Oil Sands within North America and Alberta (Alberta Geological Survey 2013).

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) is made up of approximately 1200 people who mostly live within the oil sands region. ACFN reserve lands “are located on the south shore of Lake Athabasca, on the Athabasca Delta, and on the Athabasca River.” The ACFN states that they have “used and occupied…traditional Lands…for thousands of years, hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering to sustain ourselves from the lands, to carry out our livelihood and to practice and to pass down our culture.”

Development within ACFN Traditional Lands (Global Forest Watch 2014)

The ACFN have pursued multiple lawsuits in recent years “challenging public policy, individual tar sands projects and inadequate environmental protection in Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands region.” An ACFN Elders’ Declaration on Rights to Land Use explains the logic behind the legal challenges. The Declaration charges that their land has been destroyed “without proper consultation, mitigation and compensation,” and that “everything we do we here, we do to protect our rights to land use, livelihood and culture.”[2]


Oil Sands Development and Local Sustainability

Traditional critiques of oil sands development tend to focus on greenhouse gas emissions[3], but less explored are sustainability issues that threaten indigenous culture and identity. A 2012 study concluded that “water and land impacts are inherently local” and oil sands extraction will “change the quality and availability of water and land resources”[4]. A change of this type is significant given that the Elder’s Declaration contends that sufficient –in terms of quality and quantity – territorial lands and waters are essential to their culture, identity and well-being.

The ACFN believes that fishing is “keeping alive our community’s connection to our Traditional Lands,” and thus the results from a 2013 study concluding that “oil sands lake ecosystems have entered new ecological states completely distinct from those of previous centuries,”[5] suggest a potential threat to culture and identity. Woodland caribou, an important source of food for ACFN people, are predicted to be extirpated within 30 years[6] and research has found that the oil sands development has negatively affected the habitat and health of local caribou populations[7].

Ecological change is particularly detrimental considering Chipewyan ontology “is based on the assumption that one must maintain a harmonious communication with nature, especially animal persons”[8].

In order to explain the lack of attention given to the ACFN people, the theory of environmental racism posits that historical racism has made it more likely that communities of color are located near environmental “bads” and that being near environmental “bads” make inequalities worse[9]. It is well documented that historical racism has left First Nation communities marginalized[10] and socioeconomically depressed[11]. A recent UN report illustrated the fact that Canada’s over 1.4 million aboriginal peoples’ history has been blotted with “notable episodes of devastating human rights violations”[12].


“Human Development Index, [First Nations] and Other Canadians, 1996-2006” (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada 2011)
Environmental racism not only reflects inequalities, it also reproduces them. The ACFN’s traditional land being used for oil sands development has led to specific ecological threats to culture and identity. Environmental degradation in communities whose culture and identity is intertwined with and dependent on its natural environment threatens to reproduce inequalities, similarly as to as was done by residential schools, in a way that is hard to represent quantitatively due to culture and identity’s intangible elements. In this light, adequate economic remuneration or aboriginal employment may not be able to compensate for such fundamental losses.

“Community Well-Being Average Scores: Inuit, First Nations, and other Canadian Communities, 2006” (Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada 2011)

Historic marginalization has led to a situation in which Alberta First Nations populations, despite being located near vast resources reserves, are significantly disadvantaged socioeconomically, especially when compared to other Canadian communitiesThe paradox of plenty is the curious situation in which areas rich in resource development suffer from poor development outcomes[13]. The paradox has been applied to Alberta as a whole[14], but more specifically helps explains ACFN marginalization by focusing on the importance of resource access. The ACFN has many mineral claims within its traditional lands but lacks meaningful political access to and representation in institutions to ensure that resource rents are directed back to the community.

The Impact of Rising Production

Oil sands production jumped from 19,947 thousand cubic meters in 1990 to 112,599 thousand cubic meters in 2013. An annual production forecast predicts that oil sands production will double in the low case scenario by 2047. In order to explain the rapid production expansion and the accompanying marginalization, we will apply some theories to this case.

“Athabasca Oil Sands Planned Production” (Wikimedia N.D.)

We first turn the concept of the resource pyramid[15]. At the top of the pyramid are high-quality and easily extractable deposits. As you move down the pyramid, “the quality and/or accessibility declines and productions become more difficult and expensive”[16]. There are usually vast reserves at the bottom of the pyramid and “the economic threshold for producing deposits further down the pyramid is partly a function of commodity price [and] is also moved by the development of new extraction technologies”[17].

The resource pyramid helps explain the implication of Canada’s vast reserves on sustainability.  Canada’s reserves are mostly made up of lower-quality oil sands at the base of the resource pyramid, which emit 3.2 to 4.5 times more greenhouse gas emissions during extraction and upgrading than conventional oil[18]. The resource pyramid also helps to explain why the break-even cost for oil sands development is between $60 and $65 compared to conventional Canadian oil breaking even at $44.

The significance of these two explanations when combined is that the economic success of oil sands development is based on profits generated from high-volume, high-polluting extraction and not a large spread between the price of oil and the cost of production. The reliance on high-volume extraction affects First Nation communities directly by further ensuring the degradation of their land and water environment. Furthermore, it dampens the prospects of effective indigenous resistance because it is harder to resist multiple developments.

We can also look to the intersection of global politics and technology for an explanation. The history of oil sands development and expansion is linked to the effects of the 1970s oil crisis. Oil sands extraction began in 1967 and high prices driven by reduced Middle-East output allowed early large-scale oil sands developments to be financially successful[19]. When global oil production rebounded in 1985 and drove prices back down, oil sands projects were losing money on each barrel produced and neared complete shutdown[20]. Technical innovations that reduced the cost of producing a barrel from $35 to $15, however, allowed corporations to retain profitability[21]. Among these innovations was the development of in-situ mining methods in order to extract deposits previously considered too deep for extraction. Advances in in-situ technologies have been a major factor in the jump in oil sands production[22].

In order to help explain why technical innovation led to increased production, it is useful to turn to the treadmill of production model. The treadmill of production model posits “advances in technology, primarily induced by owners of the means of production seeking to increase profits, drive the expansion of production and consumption synergistically […] because all sectors of society […] depend on continued economic growth to solve problems”[23]. The model helps explain the rapid growth of oil sands production by explaining the development of in-situ recovery methods for oil sands extraction as a means to increase profitability and drive economic growth.

Alberta’s reliance on oil sands royalties is explained by the dependence on continued economic growth to solve problems[24]. Alberta can avoid internal strife by dispersing the benefits to the entire population via low taxes, low unemployment, and generous social services. The costs of resource development are conveniently borne by First Nations communities whose historical marginalization has given them few means to resist such development. The reliance of government on resource revenues could help explain further why First Nations concerns regarding ecosystem integrity are ignored; the government values growth highly and is willing to tolerate harmful ecological effects.

Future Outlook

In order to ensure cultural survival, further attention should be given to the political framework for First Nation consultation[25]. A clear, institutional framework for consultation regarding development is imperative, given that oil sands extraction is likely to continue to occur[26]. To finish on an optimistic note, it is hoped that a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favor of aboriginal land title will have positive implications for the plight of the ACFN and other oil sands First Nation communities.



[1] Jordaan, S. M. (2012). Land and water impacts of oil sands production in Alberta. Environmental Science & Technology, 46(7), 3611-3617.

[2] Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. (2010). ACFN Elders’ Declaration on Land Use. Accessed October 23, 2014.

[3] Charpentier, A., Bergerson, J., & MacLean, H. (2009). Understanding The Canadian Oil Sands Industry’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Environmental Research Letters.

[4] Jordaan (2012).

[5] Kurek, J., Kirk, J. L., Muir, D. C., Wang, X., Evans, M. S., & Smol, J. P. (2013). Legacy of a half century of Athabasca oil sands development recorded by lake ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(5), 1761-1766.

[6] Schneider, R. R., Hauer, G., Adamowicz, W. L., & Boutin, S. (2010). Triage for conserving populations of threatened species: the case of woodland caribou in Alberta. Biological Conservation, 143(7), 1603-1611.

[7] Wasser, Samuel K, Jonah L Keim, Mark L Taper, and Subhash R Lele. (2011). “The influences of wolf predation, habitat loss, and human activity on caribou and moose in the Alberta oil sands.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9, no. 10 (December): 546-51.

[8] Smith, D. M. (1998). An athapaskan way of knowing: Chipewyan ontology. American Ethnologist, 25(3), 412-432.

[9] Mohai, Paul, David Pellow, and J. Timmons Roberts (2009). “Environmental Justice.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 34, no. 1 (November): 405-30.

[10] Hedican, Edward J. (2013). Ipperwash: The Tragic Failure of Canada’s Aboriginal Policy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

[11] Kobayashi, Audrey, Laura Cameron, and Andrew Baldwin, eds. (2011). Rethinking the Great White North: Race, Nature, and the Historical Geographies of Whiteness in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press.

[12] United Nations, General Assembly (2014). “The situation of human indigenous peoples in Canada: report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, James Anaya.” A/HRC/27/52/Add.2, available from

[13] Bridge, Gavin. (2009). “Material Worlds: Natural Resources, Resource Geography and the Material Economy.” Geography Compass 3, no. 3 (May): 1235. Accessed November 5, 2014.

[14] Emery, H., & Kneebone, R. (2011). Alberta’s Problems of Plenty. Policy Options, 32(5), 10-16.

[15] Bridge (2009), 1224.

[16] U.S. Library of Congress.  Congressional Research Service (2010).U.S. Fossil Fuel Resources: Terminology, Reporting, and Summary  by Gene Whitney, CRS Report R40872 Washington, DC: Office of Congressional Information and Publishing.

[17] U.S. Library of Congress (2010).

[18] National Energy Technology Laboratory. (2008). “Development of Baseline Data and Analysis of Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Petroleum-Based Fuels.” DOE/NETL-2009/1346, 13, table 2-4.

[19] Sweeny, Alastair (2010). Black Bonanza : Canada’s Oil Sands and the Race to Secure North America’s Energy Future. Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons.

[20] Sweeny (2010). 120-2.

[21] Sweeny (2010). 123-4.

[22] Alberta Geological Survey (2013). What are the Alberta oil sands. June 12. Accessed October 23, 2014.

[23] York, R. (2006). Treadmill of production. Retrieved from

[24] Boessenkool, K. J. (2010). Does Alberta have a Spending Problem?. University of Calgary, School of Public Policy.

[25] Reddekopp, N. (2013). Theory and Practice in the Government of Alberta’s Consultation Policy. Constitutional Forum, 22, 47.

[26] O’faircheallaigh, C. (2007). Environmental agreements, EIA follow-up and aboriginal participation in environmental management: The Canadian experience. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 27(4), 319-342.


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