Canadian rock singer Neil Young has joined the opposition to oil sands expansion in Alberta. With his ‘Honour the Treaties’ tour, Young has drawn attention to criticism of the industry. His strong rhetoric has come under fire from supporters of the oil sands.

By Frank Kuin

Sitting on a stage in front of a large backdrop with an image of a feather and a pen, rock legend Neil Young is taking on the Canadian tar sands industry. The 68-year-old Canadian musician known for his social criticism has sharply denounced the extraction of non-conventional oil from the massive reserves in western Canada during a high-profile concert tour.

“First Nations treaties must be honoured if tar sands expansion is take place,” Young said this weekend in Calgary, Alberta, the business centre of the oil sands. “Our purpose is to bring light to the fact that the treaties with First Nations peoples are not being honoured by Canada.”

The singer was speaking before the final concert of his ‘Honour the Treaties’ tour, symbolized by the feather and the pen. He cited environmental organizations who have identified numerous adverse effects of oil sands extraction, such as air and water pollution, and more cases of cancer among indigenous people living nearby.

De Canadese rockzanger Neil Young tijdens zijn 'Honour the Treaties' tour.

Canadian rock singer Neil Young during his ‘Honour the Treaties’ tour (photo CP).

Young’s tour is in support of legal opposition by the Chipewyan First Nation, an indigenous group from northern Alberta, against expansion of oil sands projects. Proceeds of the four concerts of the tour go to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Legal Defence fund to pay for a legal battle against the expansion of a major oil sands mine operated by Shell.

Shell Canada is planning to expand its Jackpine oil sands mine, a large open pit mine where the company extracts oil by digging out tar sands and turning the resource into bitumen, a viscous form of heavy crude, by a chemical process. A plan to increase the capacity of the operation by 100,000 barrels per day by 2017 was approved by the Canadian government late last year, despite “adverse environmental effects,” in the words of the Canadian Environment Minister.

The Chipewyan First Nation from Alberta’s Athabasca region, a group of over 1,000 people, has taken legal action this month to try to overturn the approval – one of many legal actions by opponents of tar sands operations. According to the suit, the green light for the expansion breaks a number of environmental laws. The Chipewyan also find that they have not been sufficiently consulted about the project, and that their recommendations have been ignored.

Young’s tour is bringing in cash and publicity for the Chipewyan cause. “We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in raising money for legal defense of the First Nations,” Young said in Calgary. With donations, his action has yielded $500,000 (Canadian) for the Chipewyan. “We will be positioned to match the legal power of our opposition dollar for dollar.”

“It’s the most destructive demonstration of something run amok you could ever see”

The singer has come under fire in Canada, however, for his strong rhetoric about the tar sands, a major source of income and employment. He compared the landscape in the oil sands region with the devastation of Hiroshima after an atomic bomb was dropped on the Japanese city in 1945. “It’s the greatest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you could ever see,” Young said at the start of his tour earlier this month in Toronto.

Such statements have provoked a strong reaction from proponents of the tar sands, including the oil sector in Calgary, the Canadian government, conservative commentators and employees of the oil sands. Residents of Fort McMurray, a town in northern Alberta that has grown exponentially thanks to the sector, published photos of unspoiled nature around the town on social media with the hashtag #myhiroshima. Young’s statements have also been rejected as lies on a special website.

The oil sector even launched a counter-offensive: a press conference in Calgary to fight Young’s allegations. “In the case of Mr. Young’s opinions on the oil sands, I would suggest he has the democratic right to be wrong,” said Dave Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). “His rhetoric is ill-informed, it’s divisive, and I think it does a disservice to Canadians.”

Shell Canada was also represented at the media event, though the company did not directly address the legal case over the Jackpine Mine project. It was stressed, however, that the industry is working constantly to improve relations with indigenous groups. Shell has spent $1.5 billion on contracts with indigenous companies, said Stephanie Sterling, vice president of business and joint venture management at Shell Canada.

Young declined an invitation this weekend to debate representatives of the sector directly. According to the singer, he has succeeded in putting the adverse effects of oil sands exploitation on the agenda in Canada. “It’s a win for us, because we’re all talking about it,” he said. “No matter how you feel, there is a discussion going on at the breakfast table. That’s big, that’s real, that’s Canada.”

Winning van olie uit de teerzanden in de Canadese provincie Alberta.

Extraction of bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta.

Oil sands estimated at 170 billion barrels

The oil sands or tar sands of western Canada are one of the largest oil reserves on earth: an estimated 170 billion barrels can be recovered using current extraction methods.

However, the oil cannot simply be drilled from the ground, like in Saudi Arabia. Exploitation of the non-conventional oil is done by a laborious and energy-intensive process that has only become profitable because of high oil prices. Oil companies are investing billions of dollars in facilities to extract the oil.

Production of tar sands oil, which stood at about 1.8 million barrels per day in 2012, is expected to rise to about 3 million barrels per day by 2018. For every barrel, two tonnes of tar sands have to be dug up. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with oil sands extraction are about 3 to 4 times as high as with conventional oil.

Oil sands are controversial because of the environmental impact of the energy-intensive production process, in which sand is chemically separated from a viscous form of heavy crude. Not only do the tar sands operations have far-reaching consequences for the landscape and water in the region, but they are also an important source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Opponents of the tar sands argue it’s a step in the wrong direction to spend large quantities of relatively clean fuel like natural gas on the extraction of relatively dirty fuel like heavy tar sands crude. Neil Young has received support from a group of prominent Canadians, including author Michael Ondaatje, who say that Canada is not honouring its international climate change commitments because of a government policy favouring oil sands extraction.

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One Response to Oil sands have fierce opponent in rocker Neil Young

  1. […] celebrities to draw attention to their concerns. Earlier this year, Canadian rock singer Neil Young went on a benefit tour to raise funds to help the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in its opposition to expansion of the […]

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