Canada’s carbon footprint is not just a step but a giant leap beyond what’s been claimed. A six-year study pulls back the curtain on the environmental debacle, revealing emissions rates that dwarf industry figures.

(Joe Sohm / Visions of America / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It may be unsurprising to learn that Canada’s oil and gas industry has been self-servingly underestimating carbon emissions from the tar sands, but the sheer scale of deception is stunning. According to a scientific study that’s been in the works over the past six years, emissions from the tar sands in northeastern Alberta are anywhere from 1,900 percent to 6,300 percent greater than what the industry has self-reported.

These findings directly contradict the Canadian government’s claim that tar sands oil, which requires a much more intensive process to extract crude oil from a mixture of water, sands, and heavy hydrocarbons, is no more emissions-intensive than any other type of oil.

Researchers from Yale University’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s air quality research division, and Peking University’s College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, carried out the study. Published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal on January 25, this research is the second report in the past year to conclude that current emissions measuring methods only catch a fraction of the tar sands’ environmental toll.

For the most recent survey, which gathered data over four months in 2018, scientists undertook more than a dozen flights over tar sands mining facilities and drilling sites with carbon dioxide analyzers. This approach contrasts with the industry’s government-approved, ground-based measurements, which involve subsequent lab analysis.

“Holy Shit”

One of the report’s lead scientists, John Liggio, from Environment and Climate Change Canada, expressed shock at their findings:

The magnitude of the observed emissions from oil sands operations was larger than expected, considering that it was roughly equivalent to the sum of all other anthropogenic sources across Canada when including all the motor vehicles, all the solvents, all the other oil and gas sources, and everything else reported to the inventory.

A long-time Canadian environmental campaigner was less sanguine in his assessment.

​​“I suppose ‘Holy s***’ isn’t printable,” Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart told the Independent. At the same time, Stewart noted that the findings of the study, which also looked at the emissions’ impacts of air, water, land, and wildlife, would come as no surprise to nearby indigenous communities, who have been sounding the alarm on the negative public health impact of the tar sands for decades to no avail.

“We are told this is all within the limits and OK but this report backs up what the communities living in these areas experience — it is so bad they cannot open their windows because it hurts their lungs to breathe — especially at night,” Jesse Cardinal of the indigenous-led group Keepers of the Water, told the Guardian. The study has received more attention in the UK, with both the Guardian and the Telegraph covering it more extensively than Canadian media.

Indigenous Concerns Brushed Aside

In 2008, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in northeastern Alberta launched a lawsuit against the provincial and federal governments. They argued that untrammeled resource extraction has made it impossible for the nation to exercise their Treaty 6 rights, including hunting, trapping, and fishing. Sixteen years later, the case still hasn’t gone to trial, and the First Nation is running out of money for the litigation.

“There are multiple places we can no longer go to,” band spokesperson Crystal Lameman told indigenous broadcaster APTN. “There are multiple examples of roads that are no longer accessible, trails that are no longer accessible, by way of lease pads or no trespassing signs put up by industry. There are species of medicines and flora and fauna that we can no longer find.”

Residents of Fort Chipewyan, a hamlet outside Fort McMurray populated largely by Cree, Chipewyan (Dene), and Métis peoples, have long suspected that tar sands pollution was causing rare forms of cancer in the population, a suspicion with which fly-in physician Dr John O’Connor went public in 2006, resulting in his colleagues unsuccessfully attempting to get his license revoked.

Alberta Health Services conducted two investigations into these claims in 2009 and 2014. The first study found an increased rate of various cancers in Fort Chipewyan between 1995 and 2006, but didn’t examine whether they were caused by “the effects of possible environmental exposures.” The study highlighted that investigating such a cause would require examining a group of residents who have lived in the community for twenty to thirty years.

The 2014 study, covering the years 1992 to 2011, found that Fort Chipewyan’s overall cancer cases matched the expected rate for its size. However, it detected unexpectedly high instances of cervical cancer, bile duct cancer and, lung cancer among women. Dr James Talbot, Alberta’s then chief medical officer of health, maintained that there was no connection between the high rate of these cancers and pollution.

Then Alberta Liberal Party leader Dr Raj Sherman, who unsuccessfully ran for the governing United Conservative Party (UCP) in the 2023 provincial election, called the report a “whitewash,” owing to its “extremely narrow focus.” Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation chief Allan Adam called for an independent study, “where government and industry have no participation in it.”

That year, the Athabasca Chipewyan and neighboring Mikisew Cree First Nation commissioned University of Manitoba environmental scientist Stéphane McLachlan to conduct a study. He discovered increased levels of toxic pollutants, including arsenic, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, in the flesh of moose, muskrats, and ducks. The study concluded that the limited impact on community members resulted from a decline in the number exercising their hunting rights.

The report found a correlation between working in the mines, consuming large quantities of traditional foods, including fish, and elevated cancer rates, but couldn’t demonstrate a causal relationship. Despite this finding, neither government nor industry has conducted further studies, although efforts to minimize the impact of tar sands extraction on the environment and public health continue.

Imperial Oil was aware as early as 2019 that toxic tailings from its Kearl tar sands mine were leaking into the Athabasca River. It concealed the risk posed by the leak from the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree nations until February 2023, when 5.3 million liters of contaminated wastewater overflowed from a holding pond.

Chief Adam said this negligence stems from “environmental racism.” “If this was the city of Edmonton or Calgary that this happened in, they would notify the public right away,” he said at a press conference. “For them, dealing with the Indian problem is to poison us and get rid of us eventually.”

Trudeau’s Chance to Make It Right

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has publicly committed to combating climate change and advancing reconciliation with indigenous peoples, making these issues a key part of his brand. He has fallen short on both fronts. In his victorious 2015 election campaign, Trudeau promised to fulfill all the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s ninety-four calls to action to improve indigenous rights. According to the Yellowhead Institute, an indigenous research and education center, the Liberal federal government has completed just thirteen of these calls, and didn’t fulfill a single one in 2023.

Trudeau has failed to meet a single emissions reduction target his government has set and is on track to continue failing unless he takes drastic actions. His government partially funded the American Association for the Advancement of Science study that found industry emissions figures aren’t to be trusted. The question is whether he will do anything about it.

The federal government is currently developing a cap on oil and gas emissions. They are undoubtedly facing intense pressure from the industry and its advocates in the Alberta government to weaken the regulations. Scheduled to start in 2026, this delay gives fossil fuel companies ample time to continue business as usual before they’re expected to gradually reduce emissions — at a far less stringent rate than other sectors.

The true scale of the industry’s environmental toll should make any weakening of the regulations a nonstarter. But resisting industry pressure isn’t enough. The federal government needs to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for the damage they’ve caused to the people and planet — and make them pay up.

This work has been made possible by the support of the Puffin Foundation.

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