The Integrity of Creation and the Athabasca Oil Sands

 — Jan. 25, 200925 janv. 2009

A Pastoral Letter to The Faithful of the diocese of St. Paul on the Occasion of the Jubilee Year in Honour of St. Paul

“Faced with the widespread destruction of the environment people everywhere are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past… a new ecological awareness is beginning to emerge – the ecological crisis is a moral issue.”
Pope John Paul II, Jan. 1, 1990, Peace with God the Creator, Peace with all of Creation (par. #’s 1 & 15)

“Alongside the ecology of nature there exists what can be called a “human” ecology, which in turn demands a “social” ecology. All this means that humanity, if it truly desires peace, must be increasingly conscious of the links between natural ecology, or respect for nature, and human ecology. Experience shows that disregard for the environment always harms human coexistence and vice versa.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Jan. 1, 2007, The Human Person, the Heart of Peace (par. #8)


Dear faithful of the Diocese of St. Paul, the ecological crisis, described above by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II, is evident in many parts of Canada. Our wasteful consumerist lifestyle, combined with political and industrial short-sightedness and neglect, are damaging our air, land, and water. Personal, social, and political change will be necessary to meet this national challenge.

As the Bishop of the Diocese of St. Paul in north-eastern Alberta, it is my responsibility to provide moral advice and leadership on questions that affect the faithful who live in my diocese. It is therefore impossible for me to ignore the moral problem created by the proposed one hundred and fifty billion dollars oil sands developments in the Municipality of Wood Buffalo because these projects are in “my own backyard,” and have aroused strong ethical criticism. In this pastoral letter I will consider this extraordinary and controversial industrial development from a Catholic perspective.

Whenever I drive to Fort McMurray and enter the city on highway 63, I appreciate reading the prominently displayed motto of the Municipality of Wood Buffalo: “We Have the Energy!” The energy is not only in the sands but is also, as the sign implies, in the very hard working people who live in this northern community. The general public has only recently become conscious of Fort McMurray. They do not know of its history as a trading and shipping center, of its connection to the early fur traders, missionaries, and voyageurs, of its First Nations and Metis communities, of the near fifty year old history of the development of the oil sands industry and the risks the pioneers of this industry undertook. It is not generally known that Suncor and Syncrude in the 1980’s had contingency plans to shut down, padlock, and mothball their plants due to the then very low price of oil, twelve dollars a barrel!

The people of Fort McMurray have a long history of meeting challenges with hard work and dedication. They have worked through some very economically threatening days while maintaining excellent schools, medical and social services, and a vibrant city government. The oil sands plants have a deserved good reputation for fostering team work and innovation, promoting safety awareness, encouraging positive race relations, supporting the involvement of aboriginal entrepreneurs, advancing the role of women in the work place, and financing research and development in the environmental sciences. (1) Syncrude and Suncor have been very good employers. This letter is not written to criticize the efforts of those good people who call the Municipality of Wood Buffalo home. Their labour created a community where many now retire in order to remain close to their children and grandchildren who also work in the oil industry. The critical points made in this letter are not directed to the working people of Fort McMurray but to oil company executives in Calgary and Houston, to government leaders in Edmonton and Ottawa, and to the general public whose excessive consumerist lifestyle drives the demand for oil.

The letter is in four parts:

A. Theological Reflection on Creation

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1,31.)

The environmental movement has been steadily gaining in public support and awareness since the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. This movement has functioned for the Church as a prophetic “sign of the times,” causing the Church to re-examine her traditions and theology in the light of documented ecological distress. Since 1965, from all parts of the world, Catholic bishops have written over forty individual pastoral letters addressing the deteriorating quality of the world’s air, water, climate, and food. Additionally many joint pastoral letters written by regional and national conferences of bishops as well as several papal documents on the ecological crisis have also been written. As a result of this international theological reflection, a global Catholic moral consensus now exists: the environmental crisis is real and it requires a religious and moral response. In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Vatican in 2005, a very significant portion of the text, chapter 10, is dedicated to “Safeguarding the Environment.” (2)

Environmental ethics is no longer of interest only to the specialist or to an elite group of theologians, but is now of great significance for mainstream Catholic life. I will briefly summarize the major themes presented in the Compendium, in papal encyclicals, in the pastoral letters of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Bishops of Alberta and in the many pastoral letters provided by Catholic bishops throughout the world and then apply these principles to the current development of the oil sands:

Foundational Catholic Theological Principles Supporting Environmental Ethics

B. The Environmental Impact of Oil Sands Development

“… creation itself will be set free from its bondage… we wait for it with patience.” (Rom. 8, 21 & 25.)

The above principles are severely challenged by the enormous scope of the proposed oil sands developments and by the environmental damage they will inflict. The Athabasca oil sands deposit represents the second largest known deposit of oil in the world. There are over one trillion barrels of oil embedded in the sands, with an estimated 315 billion barrels being theoretically recoverable. (20)

Because most of the currently proposed oil sands developments are in the region surrounding Fort McMurray and utilize surface mining techniques, (21) this letter will restrict itself to an examination of this industrial process in the Fort McMurray region. The principles I arrive at, however, also apply in general to the Peace River and Cold Lake areas where the in-situ method, in which steam is injected into wells and bitumen is extracted, is more common.

Surface mining of oil sands is a multi-phased, complex operation:

The environmental liabilities that result from the various steps in this process are significant and include:

Destruction of the boreal forest eco-system

All of the oil sands leases slated for development are in terrain classified as boreal forest. This type of ecological site is environmentally valuable because it has the unique ability to store large amounts of carbon in its bogs, peat, soil, and trees. The destruction of boreal forest reduces the earth’s capacity to store carbon and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as it is destroyed. The proposed oil sands projects, if all were to be activated, would remove an area of boreal forest eco-system equivalent in size to the state of Florida. (25) This destruction will also have an adverse effect on wild life especially migratory birds, black bears, and woodlands caribou. When the affected land is reclaimed it is as it did in its original state as a boreal forest. This is especially true of what were once wetlands. (26) To date, reclamation is proving to be much more difficult, slow, and expensive than originally envisioned.

Potential damage to the Athabasca water shed

Two to four and a half barrels of water are required to produce a barrel of oil from oil sands. (27) This water is used to create the slurry of bitumen and oil that is heated and processed. Much of this water is recycled. The process used at the Syncrude oil sands plant recycles water a total of eighteen times and in the past twenty-five years has reduced water usage per barrel by 60%. (28) Also, approximately 35% of the water used in processing bitumen is returned to the water cycle through evaporation. (29) Despite impressive recycling efforts and improvements, for every barrel of oil produced approximately one barrel of water is contaminated in the process and deposited into a tailings pond. (30) At, present, 76% of water allocations from the Athabasca River are for industrial use. This 3.2 billion barrels a year is slated to rise to 4.2 billion barrels when all of the proposed plants are operating. Cooperative ventures between industry, downstream First Nations and Metis communities, and the City of Fort McMurray are striving to arrive at manageable controls for water usage. But a recent report concluded that “Over the long term, the Athabasca River may not have sufficient flows to meet the needs of all the planned mining operations and maintain adequate instream flows.” (31) This possible shortage threatens fish, wildlife, downstream communities, and transportation in the Mackenzie delta. (32) Apart from the environmental issue of polluting one barrel of water in order to produce a barrel of oil, the toxicity of the tailings ponds also represent a very long term threat to the regions aquifers and to the quality of water in the Athabasca River due to the danger of seepage or a sudden and large catastrophic failure of a pond’s enclosure. (33)

The release of greenhouse gases

Very large amounts of natural gas are required to heat water in order to process bitumen. By 2011, it is estimated that the then existing oil sands plants will burn enough natural gas to annually release 80 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is far more than all of the CO2 released annually by all of Canada’s passenger cars. (34) The oil sands plants will then account for 15% of all of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. At present, Alberta produces three times more per capita greenhouse gas emissions than the Canadian average and six times the West European average. The good news is that progress is being made in reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per barrel and the concept of carbon sequestering (pumping CO2 into sealed underground caverns) offers some potential hope in the reduction of emissions. The bad news is that this reduction will not affect the total amount of emissions because new oil sands projects and expansions keep raising the total amount of emissions despite average per barrel reductions.

Heavy consumption of natural gas

To produce a barrel of oil processed from oil sands requires approximately one thousand cubic feet of natural gas per barrel. It is estimated that as proposed future oil sands projects come on stream, 20% of Canada’s total natural gas production will be burned in order to extract bitumen. (35) This means that a very significant amount of relatively clean burning natural gas will be used to produce much more environmentally damaging oil. Also this high consumption of natural gas will likely raise its cost thereby promoting the use of coal and/or coal bed methane as cheaper alternatives. Coal derived energy is more environmentally harmful than natural gas. In summary, enormous quantities of clean natural gas are being burned to produce more environmentally damaging bitumen and the process is likely to bring about other adverse environmental effects.

The creation of toxic tailings ponds

The “middlings” (water, suspended clay and bitumen) that are deposited into tailings ponds settle over time into a layer termed “mature fine tailings,” which compact into a stable suspension that cannot at present be further recycled. This suspension is very toxic containing naphthenic acids, phenolic compounds, ammonia-ammonium with traces of copper, zinc and iron as well as residual bitumen and naphtha. (36) Despite a great deal of research and effort, no fully effective means of neutralizing the toxicity of these tailings ponds has to date been devised although some slow progress is being recorded. (37) There are two proposed treatments for these ponds. One involves speeding the settlement process through the addition of gypsum or other agents and then filling the pond with tailing sand and further reclaiming it by established practices. The second method involves turning the final mine pit site into an “end pit lake,” in which the toxic materials remain settled at the bottom and are covered over with fresh, clean water. If undisturbed, the toxicity remains localized and some aquatic life can return. The problem with these solutions is that the long term integrity of the containment structures is unknown. Toxic materials may in time seep into the Athabasca River polluting it and in succession the Slave River, the McKenzie River and the Beaufort Sea. (38) If a substantial leak of an end pit lake occurred, the result would be catastrophic. Tailings ponds will continue to grow in size and number as the oil sands industry expands. There are now 5.5 billion cubic meters (175,000,000,000 cubic feet) of impounded tailings. This is slated to grow to 11 billion cubic meters. (39) This is an almost unimaginably large amount of toxic material. These toxic ponds will exist long after the plants have closed and will require one hundred years or more of supervision and maintenance.

Any one of the above destructive effects provokes moral concern, but it is when the damaging effects are all added together that the moral legitimacy of oil sands production is challenged. An even more alarming level of concern is reached when the scale of proposed future expansions, (a quadrupling of the number of barrels per day from 1.25 to 5 million,) is taken into account. It is then that the full environmental threat of the oil sands and the resulting gravity of the moral issue involved is most deeply felt.

The ecological objections and fears surrounding oil sands development outlined above are not contentious. Both industry and environmentalists, I believe, would agree that the above is a fair summary of the situation. The concerns environmentalists express are highly credible. The proposed additional oil sands projects are moving forward based on the confidence that technological solutions will be found to these concerns. This drive to development ignores the fact that forty years of research into the oil sands, while it has led to a substantial reduction in some forms of pollution, especially air pollution and water usage, does not at present hold out the hope of reducing environmental harm to an acceptable level primarily because of the enormous scale and rapid development of the projects.

The moral problem does not lie in government and industry’s lack of a sincere desire to find a solution; the moral problem lies in their racing ahead and aggressively expanding the oil sands industry despite the fact that serious environmental problems remain unsolved after more than forty years of on-going research. The moral question has been left to market forces and self-regulation to resolve when what is urgently required is moral vision and leadership.

I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca Oil Sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oil sands constitutes a serious moral problem. Environmentalists and members of First Nations and Metis communities who are challenging government and industry to adequately safeguard the air, water, and boreal forest eco-systems of the Athabasca oil sands region present a very strong moral argument, which I support. The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.

C. An Action Plan to Safeguard Creation

“You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.” (Ps. 8, 6.)

When environmental and moral concerns are raised about the oil sands, they are politely received by government and industry, but are considered to be neither economically nor politically realistic. Environmental and religious objections are dismissed as too idealistic or negative, as minority voices which are unable to rally sufficient public support that would politically justify slowing the pace of development.

I believe public opinion on environmental issues is rapidly changing. Many now in the United States and Canada want government action to protect the environment. Government and industry will be forced to recognize that oil sands development should not proceed until the environment can be adequately protected. Environmentalists have created a list of requirements that industry should meet if sound and sustainable development is to proceed:

I believe that a serious commitment on the part of government and industry must be made to satisfying the above requirements before any further oil sands plants or leases are considered for approval.

D. Conclusion and Closing

“The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.” (Ps. 33, 5.)

I repeat my appreciation to the people of Fort McMurray and to the parish of St. John the Baptist, as well as to the First Nations and Metis people of Fort McKay, Janvier, Conklin, Chard and Fort Chipewyan for their faith witness of family life, hard work, and generosity as well as a genuine love for the Athabasca region and a deep concern for its natural integrity. I trust that this pastoral letter will encourage them in their efforts to protect the environment.

Also I wish to thank the efforts of ecologists working for the oil industry as well as the ongoing work of environmentalists and others associated with the Sierra Club, the Pembina Institute, and the Parkland Institute, as well as the good work done by consortiums of government, industry and environmentalists in the Cumulative Effects Management Association, the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association, and the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program. The people of the Diocese of St. Paul are deeply indebted for their dedication.

I hope you the faithful of the Diocese of St. Paul will contact your Member of the Legislative Assembly and Member of Parliament and tell them that you want responsible industrial development which means one in which the environment is in fact respected and protected. I hope that those of you who work in the oil sands industry or related fields will raise this issue in the workplace and will do whatever lies within your field of responsibility to safeguard the integrity of creation.

Finally, in closing, I wish to share with you a most beautiful insight on the relationship between religious faith and the environment that was given in an address at the Vatican by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on October 18th, 2008 during the recent Synod of Bishops, “On the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” which I was privileged to attend. Patriarch Bartholomew, quoting firstly Athanasius of Alexandria, said:

The entire world is a prologue to the Gospel of John. And when the Church fails to recognize the broader, cosmic dimensions of God’s Word, narrowing its concerns to purely spiritual matters, then it neglects its mission to implore God for the transformation – always and everywhere, “in all places of His dominion” -of the whole polluted cosmos… All genuine “deep ecology” is, therefore, inextricably linked with deep theology: “Even a stone”, writes Basil the Great, “bears the mark of God’s Word. This is true of an ant, a bee and a mosquito, the smallest of creatures. For He spread the wide heavens and laid the immense seas; and He created the tiny hollow shaft of the bee’s sting.” Recalling our minuteness in God’s wide and wonderful creation only underlines our central role in God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world. (50)

Fraternally yours in Christ,

† Luc Bouchard
Bishop of St. Paul in Alberta

January 25, 2009

(1) Syncrude Canada Ltd., “Sustainability Report, 2006,” Ft. McMurray, AB, 2006
(2) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ottawa, ON: CCCB Publications, 2005, pp. 197-210.
(3) Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Social Affairs Commission, “Our Relationship with the Environment, the Need for Conversion,” Ottawa, ON, 2008
(4) Roman Catholic Bishops of Northern New England, “And God Saw That It Was Good,” Boston, MA, 2000.
(5) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ottawa, ON: CCCB Publications, 2005, par. 464.
(6) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ottawa, ON: CCCB Publications, 2005, par. 487
(7) John Haught, God After Darwin, Second Edition, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2008, pp. 158-160.
(8) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Renewing the Earth, Washington D.C.: USCCCB Publishing, Chapter 2B, 1991.
(9) Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Social Affairs Commission, “A Pastoral Letter on the Christian Ecological Imperative, Ottawa, ON, 2003, par. 1
(10) Catholic Bishops of Florida, “Companions in Creation,” Miami, FL, 1991
(11) Alberta Catholic Bishops, “Celebrate Life, Care for Creation,” Edmonton, AB, 1998.
(12) Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, “Roman Catholic – Eastern Orthodox Joint Declaration on the Christian Ecological Imperative,” Rome, 2002
(13) Benedict XVI, “World Day of Peace Message,” Vatican City, 2007, par. 8
(14) Roman Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, “The Call of Creation: God’s Invitation and the Human Response,” London, 2002
(15) John Paul II, “Peace with God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation,” Vatican City, 1990, par. 7 & 9
(16) Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Social Affairs Commission, “A Pastoral Letter on the Christian Ecological Imperative, Ottawa, ON, 2003, par. 7
(17) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Global Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence and the Common good,” Washington D.C., 2001
(18) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ottawa, ON: CCCB Publications, 2005, par. 469
(19) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ottawa, ON: CCCB Publications, 2005, par. 471
(20) Alberta Department of Energy, “Alberta Oil Sands 2006 (updated December 2007,) Edmonton, AB, 2007
(21) Alberta Department of Energy, “Alberta Oil Sands 2006 (updated December 2007,) Edmonton, AB, 2007
(22) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, p.6
(23) Alberta Department of Energy, “Alberta Oil Sands 2006 (updated December 2007,) Edmonton, AB, 2007
(24) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, p.6
(25) Sierra Club website, “Tar Sands and the Boreal Forest,” 2006:
(26) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, pp.10-12
(27) Sierra Club website, “Tar Sands and Water,” 2006:
(28) Syncrude Canada Ltd. website, “Environmental Stewardship,” 2006:
(29) Syncrude Canada Ltd. Website, “Waste Management,” 2006:
(30) Sierra Club website, “Tar Sands and Water,” 2006:
(31) Government of Alberta, Oil sands Ministerial Strategy Committee, “Investing in our future: Responding to the rapid growth of the oil sands development,” 2006, p. 112
(32) Sierra Club website, “Living Downstream – Growing Water Concerns in the NWT,” 2006:
(33) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, p.42
(34) Sierra Club website, Tar Sands and Global Warming,” 2006:
(35) Polaris Institute website, “Dirty Little Secret: Canada’s Global Warming Engine,” Alberta Tar sands Profile Series, 2007,
(36) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, p.36
(37) Syncrude Canada Ltd. Website, “Tailings Management,” 2006,
(38) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, p.43
(39) Jennifer Grant, Fact or Fiction: Oil Sands Reclamation, Drayton Valley, AB: Pembina Institute, 2008, p.39
(40) Kevin P. Timoney, “A Study of Water and Sediment Quality as Related to Public Health Issues, Fort Chipewyan, Alberta,” Sherwood Park, AB: Treeline Ecological Research, 2007, pp. 68-70
(41) Sierra Club website, “Living Downstream – Growing Water Concerns in the NWT,” 2006:
(42) Sierra Club of Canada, Prairie Chapter, “RE: Interim Framework for Instream flow needs and water management system for specific reaches of the Lower Athabasca River,” (response to Ocean and Fisheries Canada’s document of the same name,) 2006
(43) Pope John Paul II, Video address to First Nations and Metis people in Fort Simpson, NWT, 1984
(44) Sierra Club website: “Managing Oil Sands Development For The Long Term: A Declaration By Canada’s Environmental Community,” 2005,
(45) Cumulative Environmental Management Association, “Ecosystem Management Framework for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo,” Edmonton, AB, 2008, CEMA press release
(46) Government of Alberta, Sustainable Resources Development website: “Draft Land Use Framework,” 2008
(47) Tony Clarke, Tar Sands Showdown: Canada and the politics of oil in an age of climate change, Toronto: James Lorimer and Co., 2008, pp. 184-185
(48) Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: dirty oil and the future of a continent, Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008, pp. 100-102.
(49) Sierra Club website: “Managing Oil Sands Development For The Long Term: A Declaration By Canada’s Environmental Community,” 2005,

An annotated list of other sources consulted
#1 Moratorium Now

#2 Terrestrial Ecosystem Management Framework for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo by the Sustainable Ecosystem Working Group of Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), June 5, 2008

#3 “Oil patch split over proposal for partial moratorium” by Norval Scott, Feb. 25, 2008

#4 Pembina Institute, Oil Sands :Reports, Backgrounders, and Position Papers: “Managing Oil Sands Development for the Long Term: A Declaration by Canada’s Environmental Community” Dec. 1, 2005

#5 “Canada’s Oil Sands: Pollution Delivery to the Great Lakes? Oct. 8, 2008 News Release from Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto

#6 A survey conducted of the Globe and Mail by the Strategic Counsel, Jan 24, 2008 “Views Toward Oil Sands Development”

#7 “Wall Street meltdown gives Alberta breathing room for the oilsands” by Satya Das, Edmonton Journal, Oct. 1, 2008

#8 “The Second Coming of Peter Lougheed” John Gray, Globe and Mail Update, Aug. 28, 2008-11-02

#9 Conservation Voters of Alberta “Alberta’s Elder Statesman Speak Out,”

#10 “The Alberta Tar Sands – a telephone survey of Canadians” conducted by McAllister Opinion Research, March 2008, Submitted to Environmental Defence

#11 “Discussion points on a moratorium” July 29,2008,

#12 “Deh Cho leader calls for Tar Sands Moratorium” Feb. 2, 2007

#13 “Push for Moratorium on new oil sands development, Feb. 25, 2008, Canadian Press…

#14 Alberta Wilderness Association, April 23, 2007 “Call for Oil Sands Moratorium Grows Louder”

#15 “First Nations demand oil sands moratorium: united chiefs call development unsustainable”
by Darcy Henton, Canwest News Services, Aug. 18, 2008

Other points with no cited reference:

Posted: Jan. 25, 2009 • Permanent link:
Categories: Documents, OpinionIn this article: bishops, environment, Luc Bouchard
Transmis : 25 janv. 2009 • Lien permanente :
Catégorie : Documents, OpinionDans cet article : bishops, environment, Luc Bouchard

  Previous post: Ancien article : Pope Lifts Excommunication of Lefebvrite bishops
  Newer post: Article récent : Saskatoon churches enter into Covenant during Unity Week