The Syncrude Canada Ltd. oil plant in Fort McMurray, one of the world’s largest producers of synthetic oil from tar sands


© Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

The extraction of oil from tar sands is the least efficient and most highly polluting of all forms of oil extraction. A variety of techniques are used to obtain hydrocarbons from sedimentary rock.
Canada, one of the world’s largest oil producers, initially used open-pit mines, decimating vast areas of land and razing large swaths of boreal forest. Despite being very costly, tar sands extraction techniques are being used more and more as the price of oil rises due to the international crises affecting primarily the Middle East (1973 embargo, Iranian revolution in 1978, September 11 attack and the subsequent US invasion of Iraq).
New mining technologies requiring massive amounts of water have been developed to exploit the deepest tar deposits. One of the effects of this extraction is contamination by naphthenic acid (a precursor of napalm used in the Vietnam War), with incalculable effects on the flora, fauna and on human communities themselves. Canada’s indigenous peoples who once lived in Canada’s great forests, such as the Cree in the Fort McMurray area, are well acquainted with these impacts. They have been driven off their lands in the name of progress that only oil seems to be able to provide to the richest members of the world’s population. It now seems inevitable that, in the future, part of the world will have lost its forests, its rivers and lakes will be contaminated and we will have a life without health. Despite this ominous state of affairs, we seem unable to imagine consumption without devastation or production processes without exploitation, pollution and waste. So, unless we develop a world of greater social and climate justice, the prognosis – as they say in medical jargon – is grim.

Marco Casarotto