How the Tar Sands Are Crushing Science in Canada

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The Canadian government is currently under investigation for its efforts to obstruct the right of the media and public to speak to government scientists. These policies are widely believed to be a part of the government's unspoken campaign to ensure that oil keeps flowing from the Athabasca tar sands — even if it’s at the cost of free scientific inquiry, the environment, and by consequence, democracy itself.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault officially launched the investigation into the alleged ‘muzzling’ of Canadian scientists earlier this week. Calls for the inquiry came in the form of a recent 128-page report chronicling “systemic efforts” to obstruct public access to researchers — a request that originated from the non-profit group Democracy Watch. The agencies to be investigated include departments of the environment, fisheries and oceans, natural resources, and the National Research Council of Canada.

Plenty of Oil to Protect

Despite this, and somewhat surprisingly, the federal government’s track record on science is actually not terrible. In fact, research budgets are bigger than they were before the current government took office. The problem, however, is where this money is being directed and how scientists are being made to shut-up about their work. It’s no coincidence that anything having to do with the environment is being shown short shrift by the current administration.


Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the ruling Conservatives have unquestioningly prioritized the petroleum industry, and for obvious reasons. It’s estimated that 178 billion barrels of oil are locked within the Athabasca tar sand formations, with some estimates placing it as high as 1.7 trillion barrels. Regardless, that’s a lot of oil, placing Canada alongside Saudi Arabia in terms of its petroleum potential.


The challenge, of course, is getting all this low-grade petroleum, called bitumen, out from the loose mixture of sand and clay. It’s done via an astoundingly environmentally unfriendly process involving surface mining and subsurface production; large areas of boreal forest are cleared to make way. Production requires huge quantities of water which are taken from local rivers, and is subsequently turned into toxic waste.

It’s also a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly all the input energy required to fuel the process comes from fossil fuels. Tar sands production is also highly inefficient; it takes one joule of energy to produce four to six joules of crude oil energy. Traditional oil production returns something closer to a 1:15 ratio.


But this is precisely the kind of information the Harper government does not want to hear — or more accurately, it’s not the kind of information they want the public to hear. In turn, the Conservatives have applied a three-pronged approach to the perceived problem: 1) steering scientific research in desired directions by primarily funding non-threatening areas of research (like genetics and stem cell research), 2) implementing obstruction tactics to prevent the dissemination of scientific research that could undermine the oil industry, and 3) shutting down (or under-funding) any institution or organization that could likewise pose a threat.


This all started back in 2008 when the Tories implemented a policy in which federal scientists were told to direct all media inquiries to national headquarters and not respond to requests to talk about their work. As a consequence, many Canadians, and especially the media, are not hearing about the latest findings, including those published in prestigious journals. Canadian scientists are starting to slip on the world stage.


The Toronto Star, Canada’s most widely read newspaper, had this to say about its experience in trying to report on how climate change is affecting the Arctic and Antarctic after contacting scientists at NASA, Environment Canada, and Natural Resources Canada:

Emails to the U.S. government scientists were personally returned, usually the same day and with offers to talk in person or by phone.

Emails sent to Canadian government scientists led to apologetic responses that the request would have to be routed through public relations officials. Public relations staff asked for a list of questions in advance, and then set boundaries for what subjects the interview could touch upon. Approval to interview the scientists was given days later. In all cases, a PR staffer asked to listen in on the interviews.

Government scientists who were contacted for this story informed the Star directly and through intermediaries that they did not want to comment, fearing repercussions.

But one researcher with well over a decade of experience in the civil service, who asked to remain anonymous because he said both management and his union have told him he could face penalties for speaking out publicly, called the situation “absolutely embarrassing.”


These measures have not gone unnoticed outside of Canada. In early March, Nature criticized the Harper government for its actions, saying it’s time the Tories set its scientists free. Other international media outlets which have spoken out include the Economist and the Guardian.

At the same time, the government has defended its position on science, stating that, “Government scientists and experts are readily available to share their research with the media and the public. Last year, Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies.”


Commissioner Legault's challenge will be in determining the degree to which these policies are truly obstructive.

But as already noted, Tory policies go beyond just muzzling. Other apparent slights against science include the elimination of the National Science Advisor position, the scrapping of the mandatory long-form census, slashing federal funding for Canada’s Ozone Network, ending the Experimental Lakes Area project, and the end to the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.


And alarmingly, as Maclean’s John Geddes reported, the RCMP supported efforts to create science that contradicted the body of peer-reviewed research.

Eroding Science, Eroding Democracy

A democracy is only as effective as its voters; if its citizens are being deliberately kept in the dark about important issues, then fully informed participation cannot happen.


At the same time, as Canada continues to overemphasize the role and importance of its oil sands, the country is turning into something else.

Writing in the New York Times, Canadian professor Thomas Homer-Dixon noted that the oil industry is “twisting our society into something we don’t like,” and that “Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.”


He continues:

Countries with huge reserves of valuable natural resources often suffer from economic imbalances and boom-bust cycles. They also tend to have low-innovation economies, because lucrative resource extraction makes them fat and happy, at least when resource prices are high.

Canada’s record on technical innovation, except in resource extraction, is notoriously poor. Capital and talent flow to the tar sands, while investments in manufacturing productivity and high technology elsewhere languish...


Indeed, the quest to uphold the integrity of the tar sands project is proving to be problematic on a number of levels. It’s stifling the dissemination of important scientific research, instigating environmental destruction, disrupting economic development, and interfering with the democratic process.

It will be interesting to hear the results of Legault's inquiry — and what might be done about the current state of affairs in Canada.


Sources: Toronto Star here, here, and here; Macleans; New York Times.

Images: ollyy/Shutterstock; National Geographic; Macleans.