The Gray Area: Alberta Oil Sands

Black or white? Does an issue, and event, anything in life really have such simple distinctions and answers? My opinion is no, there is no such thing as a black or white answer or situation; there are always variables that turn things gray.


A few days ago, I was hanging out with a couple friends of mine, braving the crowds and lines to watch the Avengers on opening night. As is customary, we had to put up with the previews and commercials before the movie and epicness began. (I highly recommend this movie by the way, the hype was well justified.) One of these pre-movie entertainments was a propaganda video about the Alberta oil sands.


I won’t sugarcoat, I reacted quite loudly to it, and made a mini-spectacle of myself. Why, you might ask? Because the video encouraged a one-sided opinion, gleaming over any negatives or unsavory information with constructed positivity. It was advertisement, and yes, I understand that the whole point is to create a pretty video to sway the population. However, this propaganda only offers one story and that, in my opinion, is dangerous. So in reaction to my reaction, my enjoyably contrary friend turned to me and said:

“okay, so why don’t you do something about it?”

So I said fine, I’ll blog about it. Because I’m a writer, and this is how I personally like to make noise.


There are many ways I could have approached the oil sands issue. I’d like to start by saying that I classify it as a “gray issue.” Next, I did some research. Nothing heavy, just some browsing courtesy of Google and Youtube, intending to expand my, and sub-sequentially my dear audience’s knowledge.


I found some pros to investment into the oil sands, and generally the benefits of extracting and refining the crude oil of northern Alberta. The propaganda videos package this information quite understandably. (See for reference) The process is in its infancy, and it takes a lot energy and hard work to refine the oil saturated sands into usable fuel. Investment is profitable, the Alberta government itself receives revenue from these companies. My source said 40% of their revenue, but I didn’t delve to deep into this so I assume information will vary. These companies and operations provide job opportunities and contributes heavily to the wealth of the province. The vast oil resevoirs are also only second to Saudi Arabia in size. As it stands, America also is relying more and more on the oil sands for energy. So here are the economic pros I was enlightened about.


Then there is the less pleasant side, the component that makes everything gray. The other side of the issue that is glossed over in the propaganda video. (see human aspect, and the fact that in order to reach the oil, major damage to the environment is required.  Just some quick points:

  • The Athabaca River: Polluted downstream from refineries. Increase in toxic metals such as mercury and lead, which mutated the fish (reports of people catching two-headed fish) and basically ruined the fun of living next to a beautiful water source for residents and locals. You can’t drink the water, or swim in it. Its basically worse than Mooney’s Bar (for Ottawa locals) or Toronto’s portion of Lake Ontario. This tells us that the system of water monitoring is pretty much useless.
  • Huge amounts of energy and water consumption to extract the oil. The volume of water required for one year of oil extraction is enough to provide water for a city with 1-2 million people.
  • Air quality: Found out on the Lung Association of Alberta’s website that the air quality surrounding the oil sands and the area itself, is deteriorating quickly, filling with Hydrogen Sulphide gas.
  • Illness: In Vivian Song`s Article `Rare Cancer Strikes,” she discusses the abnormally high number of people ill with the rare bile duct cancer that is supposed to only affect 1 in 100 000 people. In the small Native American community of 1200 people, living directly downriver from the oil sands, 6 were diagnosed. Other illnesses such as leukemia were also discovered. The people state that these illnesses occurred after the arrival of the oil sand refinery companies.

What I found regarding health issues and land damage, it was not shocking for me. I knew most of this, and it was the reason why I reacted so strongly to the propaganda video in the first place. What made me stop and think, were the other benefits. I listened to the other side, and now there is a dilemma, because now there are pros and cons. What is the proper course of action in a win lose situation? There is so much harm, and so much good being done here, and I know that I’ve also only scratched the surface of this issue. My gut reaction is to protect the environment, preserve the earth that we live on, because in reality, we’re killing the only world we know. Yet, many families depend on the jobs that the oil sand refineries provide.


The next question for myself, and I suppose for all you too, my dear audience, is what is the next step? Do we even choose to do anything about this? Can we really make an impact at all? Probably.



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