Prime Minister Harper, the son of an Imperial Oil accountant, has described the megaproject as “an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger.” Over the next 30 years Canada’s bitumen miners will excavate 1,850 square miles of forest, digging enough 250-foot-deep holes to swallow up the state of Delaware. The highly profitable industry has already created enough toxic sludge — six billion barrels — to cover New York’s Staten Island or Washington, D.C. in several feet of waste. Instead of restoring a land of low-lying boreal wetlands and peat bogs, the miners have a legal mandate to create something called “equivalent land capability.” This vague term translates into an engineered landscape made up of manicured, grassy hills and fake lakes containing tons of mining waste.
The scale and pace of the endeavor have shocked Americans and Europeans alike. Canada has failed to conduct a basic risk and liability analysis of the oil sands from which the bitumen is extracted, and in 2008 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development roundly criticized Canada for not properly assessing the project’s cumulative impacts or saving its oil wealth in a dedicated pension fund. While oil sands executives have attempted to rebrand Canada as a “clean” or “responsible” energy superpower, a government-appointed panel examining the state of environmental monitoring of the bitumen industry — co-chaired by Hal Kvisle, former chief executive of TransCanada, no less — found in 2011 that the existing monitoring system was “not a credible program because much of it is run by industry.” At the same time, the U.S. Congressional Research Office, having bluntly described the harmful impact of bitumen mining on forests, wildlife, water quality, and greenhouse gas emissions, warned that oil sands development could strain bilateral relations between Canada and the United States.
Yet the Canadian government, which subsidizes the industry to the tune of $1.4 billion a year (the province of Alberta contributes another $1.1 billion), has been shameless in its defense of bitumen exports and pipelines. Diplomats have vigorously opposed both U.S. federal and state laws on carbon emissions and asked Big Oil to do likewise. The Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., objected to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 because restrictions on the use of high-carbon fuels by the U.S. military might jeopardize bitumen exports. Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs fought hard — though in the end unsuccessfully — against California’s low-carbon fuel standards. Canadian government officials have lobbied so forcefully for the Keystone XL pipeline that a congressional aide likened one Canadian diplomat to an “aggressive car salesman.”