Ten Books to Contextualize the Alberta Tar Sands

By Stacy Nation-Knapper, Andrew Watson, and Sean Kheraj

Athabasca Tar Sands, 1892. Source: Library and Archives Canada.


Last year, Nature’s Past, the Canadian environmental history podcast, published a special series called, “Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues”. Each episode focused on a different contemporary environmental issue and featured interviews and discussions with historians whose research explains the context and background. Following up on that project, we are publishing six articles with ActiveHistory.ca that provide annotated lists of ten books and articles that contextualize each of the environmental issues from the podcast series.

The eighth and final episode of the series examined the history of the Alberta tar sands, arguably one of the most significant contemporary Canadian environmental issues. This episode featured a panel of speakers from the 2013 American Society for Environmental History who participated on a plenary titled, “The Fossil Fuel Dilemma: Vision, Values, and Technoscience in the Alberta Oil Sands.” We also interviewed Dr. Andrew Weaver, a climatologist from University of Victoria, member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and a Green Party of BC Member of the Legislative Assembly.

Nature’s Past Episode 38: Histories of Canadian Environmental Issues, Part VIII – Tar Sands


Here are ten books to contextualize the Alberta tar sands:

Chastko, Paul. Developing Alberta’s Oil Sands: From Karl Clark to Kyoto. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.

Focused on the politics of tar sands development in Alberta, particularly the inconsistent tensions between the federal and provincial governments, this book thoroughly explores the decisions taken at both the local and national level that contributed to Canada becoming a world leader in petroleum production. Divided into two parts, pre- and post-1945, Chastko identifies the importance of industry and scientific expertise in Alberta to the discovery of feasible techniques for separating the bitumen from the sand, before moving on to the role that foreign markets, federal-provincial tax structures, and emerging environmental concerns had for the growth of the industry in Alberta during the postwar years.

Clarke, Tony, Jim Stanford, Diana Gibson, Brendan Haley. The Bitumen Cliff: Lessons and Challenges of Bitumen Mega-Developments for Canada’s Economy in an Age of Climate Change. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2013.

Written primarily from the perspective of public policy and economics, this publication nevertheless relies on historical perspectives in its analysis of the challenges facing tar sands development in 2013. By comparing bitumen to other important commodities in the history of Canadian economic development, such as fur and timber, Clarke et al. characterize the manner in which tar sands development has been pursued as a ‘staples trap’ in which economic development is based on providing raw resources with little value added to the economy. The authors also highlight the threat of ‘Dutch Disease’ in which high oil prices cause the value of the Canadian dollar to rise, thereby discouraging investment in other sectors of the export economy.

Finkel, Alvin. The Social Credit Phenomenon in Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Chapter 5, pp.99-140.

Only a portion of this book on the rise of the Social Credit movement and its governance in Alberta between 1935 and 1971 deals with the history of the tar sands. Finkel focuses on the emergence of reform politics and economic restructuring during the Depression, and the postwar turn toward more conservative and reactionary policies. In each case, a strong component of this political movement was the insistence that western Canada should control and benefit primarily from the development of its own resources and economic growth. It is during this time period that the bitumen of the tar sands are developed and within this context that petroleum serves as one of the main vehicles for crystalizing the politics of western exceptionalism.

Gismondi, Mike, and Debra J. Davidson. “Imagining the Tar Sands 1880-1967 And Beyond” Imaginations, Issue 3-2 (2012), 68-103.

An excellent introduction to the topic, Gismondi and Davidson use a series of 38 photographs to explore the history of the tar sands from the 1880s to the 1960s. By using visual representations to explore its political, economic and environmental impacts, the authors demonstrate that imagining the tar sands has always been a critical aspect of convincing the public, government, and industry to invest in the development of non-conventional oil in Alberta. Despite the drastic changes in the scale of development, a remarkable consistency distinguishes the depictions of the tar sands from booster days to the modern mega-project era of Suncor.

Marsden, William. Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta in Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn’t Seem to Care). Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2008.

Written by a journalist, the scope of this book is the contemporary political and economic circumstances of twenty-first century tar sands development rather than its history. By situating the bitumen of Alberta’s tar sands within the context of the strategic geopolitics over oil, Marsden demonstrates that in recent years tar sands development has been steered as much by transnational demand for bitumen as it has by domestic circumstances. Yet this book also explores the effects tar sands development has had on regional politics and the environment by revealing how the provincial government undermined efforts to regulate the industry and buried evidence of its impacts on local ecosystems and human health.

McDougall, John N. Fuels and the National Policy Toronto: Butterworths, 1982.

Although this book is not specifically about the tar sands, its emphasis on the politics of fuels and energy in Canadian history is essential for understanding the forces at work within Canada that shaped the development of bitumen in Alberta. Using coal and natural gas rather than bitumen for his analysis, McDougall tracks the emergence of anxieties related to securing markets for the country’s energy producers on the one hand, and the needs of the country’s energy consumers on the other. During the twentieth century, the push for national self-sufficiency and the introduction of a National Energy Policy in the 1970s largely shaped the context within which the tar sands were developed.

Mitchell, Timothy. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. New York: Verso Books, 2011.

This book is not specifically about the tar sands, but the big ideas Mitchell presents about the relationship between the production and consumption of energy and the creation and stability of democratic politics provides an important lens for understanding the history of Alberta’s tar sands. In particular, Mitchell argues that the concentrated energy available in carbon-based fossil fuels enabled large concentrations of people, mass politics, and the leverage for labour to demand greater equality within society. By tracing the rapid adoption of coal during the nineteenth century, and then petroleum during the twentieth century, this book raises interesting questions about the place of bitumen in Canadian society and politics.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2010.

This book explores the contemporary context of the tar sands by juxtaposing the western world’s insatiable demand for cheap fossil fuel energy with the inability of Alberta bitumen to satisfy the demand. By situating tar sands development within the context of society’s oil dependence, journalist Andrew Nikiforuk reveals that Canada’s new role as the US’s primary source of oil has resulted in short-term political decisions that cater to the business interests of large-scale extraction industries. Not only will the scale and pace of development have long-term environmental and health consequences both at the local and global levels, but the outcome for Canada’s economy and energy security is uncertain.

Pratt, Larry. The Tar Sands: Syncrude and the Politics of Oil. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1976.

This book traces the government-corporate negotiations between the Province of Alberta and Syncrude to open the Athabasca tar sands for production of synthetic oil during the 1960s and 1970s. By focusing in particular on the efforts of the oil lobby, Pratt reveals the highly-organized and well-funded tactics employed by the oil industry to coerce the government to approve largely unregulated tar sands development. Written by a journalist at the same time as the events were taking place, this book is incomplete but has since become an essential text on the history of Alberta’s tar sands.

Sheppard, Mary Clark, ed.. Oil Sands Scientist: The Letters of Karl A. Clark, 1920-1949. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1989.

This book follows the career of scientist Karl Clark from his early involvement experimenting with methods of separating bitumen from sand to his central role in the establishment of commercial development of synthetic crude from tar sands. This book combines a brief biography of Clark with a collection of his correspondence to various colleagues, government agents, industry specialists. In many ways, the research and work of Clark mirrors the progress of tar sands development in Alberta. As Clark made new breakthroughs, he shared his work with oil industry engineers, and encouraged the government to open the resource for development.

To listen to the complete podcast series, visit Nature’s Past.

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