Canadian Politics, Economy and Foreign Policy, Environment and Climate Change

Scouring Scum and Tar from the Bottom of the Pit

Faced with the undeniable reality of “Hubbard’s Peak” in global conventional oil supplies, the world’s largest multinational energy corporations are now hell-bent on squeezing oil out of tar in northern Alberta, like junkies desperately conniving for one last giant fix in a futile attempt to quench America’s insatiable “addiction to oil” (described so eloquently by President George Bush II). Along the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, a sub-arctic town almost 1,000 kilometres north of the U.S. border, tar literally seeps out of the riverbanks where Aboriginal peoples once used it to patch their birch-bark canoes. But most of the tar sands lie hidden below northern Alberta’s boreal forest, in an area larger than the state of Florida.

The first serious effort to dig huge tar pits along the Athabasca River to steam out the oil began in 1963 with the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company developed by Sun Oil Ltd., later to become Sunoco, and eventually Suncor. By 1967, the company’s scion, J. Howard Pew, self-proclaimed “champion of free enterprise and enemy of godless communism,” had sunk $240 million (over $1 billion in today’s currency) into this project in an effort to wean Americans from dependence on foreign oil — Canada being considered an American territory. However, this Pew family project was less than successful, since separating the tar from the sand and then turning it into crude oil requires huge amounts of energy, steam and water. Even after the tar is melted down into bitumen, it still has to be “upgraded” into synthetic crude oil by adding hydrogen, usually made from natural gas.


In 1996, WWF threatened to sue the federal government for approving Canada’s first diamond mine due to the absence of any protected areas in the central arctic region. WWF then withdrew its lawsuit in exchange for the government’s commitment to develop a Northwest Territories Protected Areas Strategy. Since this strategy was approved in 1999, WWF has not formally identified, much less established, any protected areas in the central arctic, while only two areas have received temporary protection elsewhere in the Northwest Territories under this strategy.

In Alberta, the once-feisty Edmonton branch of CPAWS is pursuing a similar approach around the tar sands, where it is promoting four protected areas, all of which have low oil potential and no leases. This pattern of environmental organizations adopting a docile “low-hanging fruit” strategy soon after being bankrolled by the Pew has been thoroughly documented by American activists and investigative reporters, including Jeffrey St. Clair, Alexander Cockburn, Mark Dowie and Felice Pace.

Setting Up Fronts

Until the early 1980s, the Pew religiously followed J. Howard Pew’s founding mission “to acquaint Americans with the evils of bureaucracy, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people, and the values of the free market” by funding right-wing extremists like the John Birch Society and the Heritage Foundation. Since then, the Pew has adopted a much more sophisticated strategy of setting up dozens of socially progressive “front groups” across North America like the CBI, an innovative right-wing twist on classic Marxist-Leninist organizing tactics.

In 2003, the CBI established the “Boreal Leadership Council,” composed of WWF, CPA WS, Ducks Unlimited, Suncor, Tembec, Alpac, Domtar and several First Nations. Its goal is to implement the “Boreal Conservation Framework” by protecting at least half of Cana- da’s boreal forest, with the remainder available for “leading-edge sustainable practices.” Concerned that this arbitrary benchmark of protecting half the boreal forest has never been scientifically justified, the David Suzuki Foundation did not endorse the framework. As pointed out by the free-market environmentalist Larry Solomon of Energy Probe, the “Boreal Conservation Framework” actually amounts to a massive resource giveaway requiring government subsidies, as industrial development in the far northern boreal forest is currently uneconomic under market conditions.

Lacking any accountable governance structures and directed by carefully chosen Pew operatives, front groups like the CBI not only fund but also insist on entering into partnerships with established advocacy organizations. Thus, the front group can serve as a “drag anchor” on any activities that are excessively disruptive to the status quo. According to an employee of CPAWS, the CBI is now reviewing and vetting their draft press releases. A project officer of a major Canadian foundation recounts tales of environmental organizations pleading with him for grants, desperate to break their dependence on the Pew/CBI as their sole funding source.

The Sierra Club of Canada originally took a hard-line position against the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and the tar sands. In a wacky turn of events, shortly after receiving funding from the CBI/Pew, Sierra Club endorsed the Pembina-orchestrated “oil sands declaration” and threw its support behind the Alaska Pipeline as the “lesser of two evils” on the entirely false assumption that none of the Alaska gas would go to the tar sands. Sierra’s flip-flopping continues with its most recent announcement that it now wants a moratorium on further oil-sands development.

The only bright light in this deep, dark pit of depravity is a report entitled Fuelling Fortress America, released in March, 2006, by the Parkland Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Polaris Institute. This report clearly advocates a moratorium on further tar-sands development, a national energy policy and exemption like Mexico from the “proportional sharing” clause of the NAFTA free-trade agreement, which only allows Canada to reduce energy exports to the United States in proportion to reductions of our own consumption.

“Canadian Oil Is Ours”

While allegedly supporting boreal conservation in Canada, the Pew is also busy addressing American foreign policy regarding the tar sands. With its partner, the $6-billion Hewlett Foundation, which also funneled $1.85 million through the Pew to the CBI in 2004, the Pew established the “National Energy Commission,” a bipartisan group of twenty energy experts. This group includes James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA and a member of the “Project for a New American Century,” which advocated pre-emptive war and the invasion of Iraq as early as 1998. In its 2004 report, “Ending the Energy Stalemate,” the Commission advocated, “a $300 million increase in federal funding over ten years to improve the environmental performance of technologies and practices used to produce unconventional oil resources” in Alberta’s tar sands and Venezuela’s Corinoco heavy oil belt. Overall, the Commission advocates $36 billion in government subsidies to the energy sector to be financed though the sale of carbon credits.

Canada’s tar sands and arctic natural gas have been on America’s foreign-policy radar screen at least since 2001, when Dick Cheney’s “National Energy Policy” report stated that the continued development of the tar sands “can be a pillar of sustained North American energy and economic security.” Last year, American politicians were outraged by a relatively small Chinese investment of $225 million in the tar sands, which prompted energy analyst Irving Mintzer to blurt out the widely held but publicly unspeakable opinion of Beltway insiders: “The problem with the Chinese is that they don’t know that the Canadian oil is ours. And neither do the Canadians.” Mintzer is also a co-author of the report, U.S. Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century, commissioned by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

In 2005, Dick Cheney’s “National Energy Policy” was transmuted into legislation called the “National Energy Policy Act,” with the support of the “Set America Free Coalition,” a front group of the “Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.” A member and advisor to both organizations, James Woolsey proudly proclaims that, “We’ve got a coalition of tree-huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, hawks and evangelicals,” including the Natural Resources Defense Council, a regular recipient of millions in Pew and Hewlett funding, which has also become involved in a boreal-forest campaign in northern Manitoba.

In addition to providing $13.6 billion in subsidies to the energy sector, the National Energy Policy Act has a “Set America Free” sub-section, which establishes “a United States commission to make recommendations for a coordinated and comprehensive North American energy policy that will achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2025 within the three contiguous North American nation area of Canada, Mexico, and the United States.” Since the United States currently imports 60 per cent of its oil supply, this continental self-sufficiency will require much additional Canadian and Mexican oil. Furthermore, the Act establishes a Task Force to initiate “a partnership with the Province of Alberta, Canada, for purposes of sharing information relating to the development and production of oil from tar sands.” Finally, the Act requires the Secretary of Energy to update his/her assessment of domestic heavy-oil resources to include “all of North America and cover all unconventional oil, including heavy oil, tar sands (oil sands), and oil shale.” However, this legislation merely formalizes the continent-wide “deep integration” that has been well underway with the establishment of the “Security and Prosperity Partnership,” which released its “Oil Sands Experts Working Group” workshop report in March, 2006.

Beware of Foundation Grants

Canadian environmental organizations should think long and hard about accepting money from and becoming financially hooked on the largesse of gigantic American foundations. Although there is no recent evidence of such activities, the CIA has a long history of funneling money through philanthropic foundations to achieve American foreign-policy objectives by co-opting the soft, non-radical Left, as carefully documented in Francis Stonor Saunders’ book, The Cultural Cold War. In 1976, a select committee of Congress found that CIA funding was involved in nearly half the grants made by 163 foundations in the field of international activities.

While countries like Sweden and Iceland are seriously planning to break free from oil by 2020, multinational corporations are busy digging Canada deeper into a tar pit, determined to become history’s last kingpin pushers to oil junkies across America and around the world, no matter the consequences to the planet’s climate. The double tragedy is that so much potential opposition to this self-destructive lunacy has been readily defused through a wad of cash, an addiction just as cunning, baffling and powerful as oil itself. Members and individual donors to environmental organizations need to hold their leaders and staff to a much higher standard, making sure that they match their rhetoric with results instead of just bouncing from one mega-project cash cow to the next in an endless hustle to line their pockets with lucre.

Canadian Dimension July/August 2006

This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. SUBSCRIBE NOW to get a refreshing and provocative alternative delivered to your door 6 times a year for up to 50% off the newsstand price.


  • There are some challenges regarding oil sands.  You may be interested in our recent interview with Gerry Protti, Vice President of EnCana.  You can view it free (no registration required) at or just read the transcript here:

    #1. Posted by Matt on July 11th 2006 at 4:08am

  • Dear Petr,

    Great article, well-researched (as usual).  There should be a documentary made based on your article.


    Geoff Bowie

    #2. Posted by Geoff Bowie on July 13th 2006 at 6:44am

  • The information that Dr. Werner Kurz now works for Ducks Unlimited is incorrect. He is still the Canadian Forest Service.

    This is potentially a very important article, though I have not yest studied it carefully, and I am very concerned that the first and most easily verifiable claim I stumbled upon turns out to flat out wrong.

    #3. Posted by Steve Cumming on July 16th 2006 at 3:08am

  • I just came across a publication by Canada’s Boreal Initiative and the Pembina Institute titled “Counting Canada’s Natural Capital” Assessing the Real Value of Canada’s Boreal Ecosystems.  In the acknowledgements it reads Dr. Werner Kurz (Ducks Unlimited)

    #4. Posted by Geoff Bowie on July 18th 2006 at 7:29am

  • The “Counting Canada’s Capital Report” can be found at (
    Prepared by Pembina Institute for the Canadian Boreal Initiative, the report lists Dr. Werner Kurz as affiliated with Ducks Unlimited in the acknowledgements section. However, Dr. Kurz is also listed with the Pacific Forestry Centre in Victoria.

    #5. Posted by Peter Cizek on July 19th 2006 at 9:45am

  • Peter,
    How can this be? Where are the Canadians? Will they squander their inheritance to fuel Americas automobile fetish? Since when do we sacrifice our most precious living resources to cause even greater Global degradation? Canadians please wake up. We only want to exploit your lands. We will burn up all your fuel, leaving you hopeless in the cold and dark. Don’t be fools.

    #6. Posted by Michael Christensen on August 1st 2006 at 8:49am

  • Please Read for your interest

    “Oil Sand Kyoto and the Nuclear Option”

    Downloadable from

    #7. Posted by G.D. Lewis on August 19th 2006 at 2:57pm

  • One has to be aware of a false front

    another organization called

    Clean Air Stategic Alliance that has the look of an enviromnetalist site when you dig deaper has oil all over it. The bord of directors “STakeholders” are from “Shell” conico phillips etc. all oil people
    The possition on their board reseverd for a first nation representative has been vacant for some time.

    Another is the “Hydrogen Pathways programe” run by the UNCD Univercity of California at Davies. The sponsores behind the programe are Shell BP ExxonMoble
    and many others that sell and distribute Natural Gas
    The more Hydrogen Cars sold in California the richer these corperations get. The Hydrogen comes from the steam reformation of natural gas even if Enron was still arround then they too would be sponsors.

    The producers of the documentry film
    “Who killed the electric car” should hear about this

    Fastenating connections right

    #8. Posted by G.D. Lewis on August 27th 2006 at 12:41pm

  • Petr,

    Have you heard of reactions to your “j’accuse” from any of the eco groups or the Pew itself?


    #9. Posted by Chris O’Brien on September 8th 2006 at 2:18am

  • Suncor begat Pew. Pew funds the ecos. Therefore, Suncor “funds” the ecos. Throwing in the nefarious CIA/Cheny wrinkle for spice is slick.

    What if Pew isn’t a big oil front? What if it has an eco conscience? What if big oil has a green streak, albeit small?  A lot of the corporate nasties of old set up trusts that continue to provide benefit beyond their founders expectations: Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefellor, DuPont, etc.

    Possibilities, I think.

    Considering the source of this article, I’d say there’s a far greater possibility that the author is connecting dots in order to discredit a movement that will inreasingly make life difficult for him.

    Give your penchant for digging and dot connecting, why not do an expose on that sheep in wolves clothing, Pew?

    #10. Posted by grassyknoll on September 9th 2006 at 9:39am

  • This article is an interesting attempt to analyze a situation regarding resource acquisition and usage from the perspectives of corporations, governmental bodies, and environmental groups. This article leaves out two key players in the game: cities and people.

    The gold rush brought people and cities into a region where they could not otherwise afford to populate. The oil sand rush applies pressure to do the same to northern Alberta. This behavior has, since the dawn of man, reduced overcrowding in old cities by building their younger sister cities. For modern examples look at California, Oregon, and British Columbia.

    The idea that Canada’s North should remain pristine, unproductive, and vacant places population density pressures on the less affluent peoples of Canada and the world. This also places economic pressure on aboriginal peoples to move into more crowed regions where they are more likely to lose their heritage and “status” which may be Canada’s most sinister conspiracy in operation. This would leave northern Canada open as the number one wilderness playground for the rich 2% of the world.

    In the light I have shed, this article seems elitist at the very least.

    #11. Posted by Lee on September 10th 2006 at 9:34am

  • Thank you, Peter, for laying out so clearly what we have known in the enviro world for years now about Big Enviro and our Canadian North. ~ Grass roots, membership funded environmental organisations are very important as independent “radical” voices to speak for the land that connot speak for herself.

    Shell Canada is attempting to develop a coal bed methane project on Klappan Mountain in northwestern BC that will pollute the headwaters of the Stikine, Nass, Skeena, and Finlay Rivers. The massive volume of methane for tar sand conversion appears to be one of the reasons.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Stan Tomandl, Chair, Friends of the Stikine Society

    #12. Posted by Stan Tomandl on October 25th 2006 at 5:53pm

  • Thank you, Stan, for illustrating the need to pick your fight and stick with it while it makes sense but please don’t exaggerate the problem. I t makes us all sound uninformed.
    I have followed the coal bed methane situation in Wyoming for the past 15 years. Minor production had already begun and the constituency in that northeastern part of Wyoming was not going to shut it down without some very convincing evidence. The dissolved solids in these wells were very high and it was obvious that the discharge was going to pollute the entire watershed without treatment yet the plan was to release the water directly from the well head. As the years went by the stink and pollution became obvious as the particulate and precipitate began to build up. But the local farmers were not convinced.
    The farmers were using the discharge directly to water their cattle in this arid climate. Tracks of green, healthy, new grass appeared and grew downstream. The local herds of deer and antelope grew substantially with this new water and food source. The methane levels in the air dropped since this methane no longer escaped on its own but was collected and captured.  Fifteen years later the local wildlife is still thriving, the farmers have seen no dire effects, and the local watershed has improved.
    The locals in this area lost all confidence in Big Enviro. More methane wells have gone in. No matter what environmental warnings are given the locals temper them with the predictive failures of the past. The land does speak for herself and sometimes she tells us we’re wrong.
    Be careful,

    #13. Posted by Lee on October 29th 2006 at 6:26am

  • Although I found the conspiracy theory angle entertaining, the criticism of some the enviros trying to stand up to the oil sands was a bit much.

    I did a bit of my own digging - investment capital on the table for oil sands in Alberta - more than $100 billion according to most recent news reports. Who’s basically the only voice standing up for the environment in all this? - a few of the ENGOs disparaged in this piece.

    The Pembina Institute’s excellent website it actually the best expose of the oil sands I have seen. Dozens of hard-hitting papers to download, movies and pictures of oil sands impacts, and a declaration from December 2005, pre-dating this Cizek’s opinion piece calling for a moratorium on all new projects and approvals.

    Not bad for a purported lacky of the oil sector.

    Its not the enviros to blame, nor is it these industries - they are just doing what they can get away with. We set the rules through the elected representatives we let do this to us. Lets stop fighting among ourselves and the holier than thou attitude, and make our elected officials protect us with development rules that respect the environment.

    #14. Posted by Dan Belaney on February 23rd 2007 at 3:16pm

  • The ‘Oil Sands Declaration’ ( issued on December 1, 2005 does not anywhere use the word ‘moratorium’ and does not clearly demand that the pace and scale of tarpit development be even slowed down.

    Having said this, over a month AFTER my article was published and AFTER former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed called for a moratorium himself, the Pembina Institute and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society did call for a moratorium on further tarpit development on August 1, 2006 in their report ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’ ( Thus far, WWF and Ducks Unlimited, the other ‘partners’ in the Canadian Boreal Initiative, have not called for a moratorium.

    We do indeed live in strange times, when Canada’s timid mainstream environmental organizations, who are coincidentally now bankrolled by petroleum interests, cautiously wait to follow the lead of arch-conservatives like Lougheed before daring to speak their minds on public policy.

    #15. Posted by Petr Cizek on February 25th 2007 at 2:58pm

  • I have been really puzzled by the effort (and money) being put towards convincing the public that protecting Canada’s boreal forests is critical in the fight against global warming.

    An international study lead by Timo Vesala (University of Helsinki) was published on Jan. 3, 2008.  It studied 30 monitoring stations in northern forests (Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and Europe), with twenty years of data from 1980. They found that as the temperature increases the boreal forests are switching from a carbon sink to a net source of carbon earlier in the autumn.

    In Canada, the environmental groups seemed to go into damage control and flooded the media with their message that the boreal forest is indeed a carbon sink.

    CanWest News (Jan. 5, 2008) ran the headline “Canada’s Boreal Forests Fort Knox of Carbon”.  There were quotes from Natural Resources Defense Council (Canada Program) and ForestEthics whose spokesperson said the boreal forest “is to carbon what Fort Knox is to Gold”.

    The Globe and Mail (Jan. 4, 2008) ran the headline “Boreal Forest is a critical shield against global warming.”  It stated how the Pew Trust has invested $ 40 million over the past seven years to protect the Canadian boreal forest, “one of the world’s largest carbon storage systems.” There were quotes from the Canadian Boreal Initiative.  The findings of the international study were not referenced.

    It is all very curious.

    As well, I do not understand why at The Ethical Funds Company annual Portfolio Managers Symposium (July 9, 2007 in Vancouver) the keynote address was given by the Canadian Boreal Initiative.  The other presentations were given by Suncor and Domtar.  The Ethical Funds Company is Canada’s leading manager of socially responsible mutual funds.  Company staff had produced a Sustainability Perspectives (March 2007) titled “Head in the Oil Sands?  Climate Change Risks in Canada’s Oil and Gas Sector.”  The report states that four oil and gas companies are responding appropriateley to the challenges of climate change (Suncor Energy, Shell Canada, Royal Dutch Shell Group, BP plc), and are rated as “Low Risk Companies” for investors. “We believe that, with effective action and the right market incentives, this sector can be viewed not as the enemy but as a key ally in tackling climate change.” Strange.

    There is lots of stuff going on here to merit another article, if not a book.  What I believed were environmental groups working towards what I thought was their goal are not what they appeared to be.  I will not be donating again this year.

    #16. Posted by Lois on March 13th 2008 at 10:15am

  • Hundreds, if not thousands, of dead ducks, dwindling and increasingly contaminated water resources, rising cancer rates, rising autoimmune diseases, exploding energy consumption and skyrocketing GW emissions.  Yeah, everything’s fine in Alberta.

    #17. Posted by Kevin Aubie on May 5th 2008 at 5:26am

Commenting disabled.

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