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Oil Flows South, Impacts Flow North

Issue: 48 Section: Visuals Geography: West Alberta, Fort McMurray Topics: maps

November 18, 2007

Oil Flows South, Impacts Flow North


based on cartography and files by Petr Cizek, for OilSandsTruth.org

Mackenzie Valley Pipeline

Multi-billion dollar pipelines are proposed which will transport natural gas from the Arctic Ocean to Alberta.

That the gas from the pipelines is destined for the tar sands was once denied, but plans for a “North-Central Corridor” pipeline make the link clear. First proposed in the 1970s, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline has been criticized for being a giant step in the industrialization and colonization of the primarily-Indigenous north. The development needed to keep gas flowing through the pipeline would affect a massive area of pristine wilderness. Maps projecting the impact of the rapid expansion of northern natural gas exploitation show a dense web of access roads, drilling locations and pipelines covering a vast area (shown in yellow on the map) around Deh Cho, or the Mackenzie River.

Alaska Highway Pipeline

The proposed 2,700 kilometre-long Alaska Highway Pipeline would link Alaska’s North Slope natural gas deposits with the tar sands. The project, estimated to cost as much as $30 billion, would cross several protected areas and First Nations lands covered by Treaty 8.

LNG Terminals

A total of 11 Liquid Natural Gas terminals are planned in Canada, on the west and east coasts. Several US cities have already rejected similar proposals, which have tankers carrying natural gas from Russia, Saudi Arabia and other overseas sources. Local opposition groups have cited the devastating effects of potential spills or explosions. Critics say that importing natural gas shows that Canada is burning through its own supply (over half of which is sent south) at a rate that is unsustainable.

Nuclear Plants

With rising prices and declining supply, natural gas may not be able to fuel energy-intensive tar sand extraction. So far, two nuclear power plants–Alberta’s first–have been proposed in Whitecourt and Peace River. However, Parliament’s natural resources committee concluded that 20 nuclear plants would have to be built to meet expected production growth until 2015. Rising uranium prices have also led to several new proposed uranium mines in the north, including one near Fort Chipewyan.

Tar Sands

Of the estimated 175 billion barrels of oil hidden in Alberta’s tar sands, about 30 per cent is accessible via surface mining. The surface of the earth, including trees, rivers and dozens of metres of “overburden” are removed before the bitumen is trucked away to be processed. The remaining 80 per cent of the deposits are too deep to be strip-mined. Instead, a technique known as “Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage” (SAGD) is used. Steam is pumped deep into the earth, which softens the oil sufficiently to bring it to the surface. While it does not result in the total destruction of life in the area that is mined, the process has been termed “death by a thousand cuts” by some environmental groups. SAGD covers the land with a patchwork of access roads, clearings and industrial equipment. The process also uses more water and natural gas than mining-based extraction, and leads to groundwater contamination, acidification of land and water, and vast increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Heavy Oil

Just south of the main tar sands region are several deposits of “heavy oil”–oil that is closer in form to bitumen than normal crude oil, but still extracted via traditional means. Internal oil industry reports note that it is possible to extract far more oil if SAGD-like methods are used. However, one report notes, natural gas is necessary, and greenhouse gas emissions are far higher when these techniques are used.

Sverdrup Basin

The Sverdrup Basin, says Nunavut Premier Paul Okalik, could contain as much as one trillion dollars worth of natural gas. Nunavut has been in a long fight with the federal government over rights to the Arctic region’s vast oil and gas deposits. In addition to 17.4 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas, the Basin is said to contain 334 million barrels of oil. Okalik says that the federal government drew on Inuit use and occupancy studies to establish sovereignty over the Arctic waters, and that the deposits are within Nunavut’s territorial waters. Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice has simply said that he disagrees.

Oil Pipelines

In recent years, the tar sands have become a central component of US “energy security.” Proposals for increased pipeline capacity and new pipelines indicate where the extracted oil will end up. Three refineries in Canada will receive oil (via Chicago) from the tar sands, but the vast majority is destined for US refineries, automobiles and military equipment. Environmental organizations, Indigenous groups and labour unions have opposed several of the planned pipelines. Concerns about the environmental impact of potential oil spills, unsettled land claims, energy security, and accountability for impacts after the oil boom passes have been cited.

Diluent Pipelines

Because most of the bitumen extracted from the tar sands will not be refined in Canada, and is too thick to flow through pipelines effectively, it is necessary to dilute it. For this purpose, proposed pipelines will bring in hundreds of thousands of barrels per day of light oil for the purpose of transporting the bitumen out of the region.


While energy flows from the gas fields in the Arctic to refineries in Texas, Chicago and California, tar sands excavation is using and polluting water that flows north. Doctors in Fort Chipewyan, for example, have reported high rates of cancer and other diseases, and fishermen have reported catching fish with boils and deformations. Experts warn that if tailing ponds were to breach, the toxic effects could be felt in Great Slave Lake and beyond.

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