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We checked Neil Young’s facts and here’s the result

Are they too true or just plain false? We looked for answers

Jan 29, 2014

by Alberta Venture Staff

A public relations war is being waged, with the oil sands and Aboriginal rights at its centre. Canadian musical icon Neil Young is aiming to raise $75,000 for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, for legal efforts to stop rapid expansion of the oil sands. To do so he’s been singing and playing his guitar on a tour that he’s named Honor the Treaties.

Reporters have challenged Young on why he’s doing this. The facts he’s mentioned in response have raised hackles in the oil industry, most especially the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). Does that mean Young’s facts are just too true for CAPP to accept, or just plain false?

We looked for answers.

‘Hiroshima’ and health

Having recently visited Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay, and the people there, Young spoke of what he describes as negative health effects that First Nations peoples face from oil sands development. In what was perhaps his most divisive comment, he then described the industrial developments north of Fort McMurray as a Hiroshima-like “wasteland.” This won him scorn from several prominent politicians.

Facts: Is he right? Yes, open pit bitumen mining is ugly, but the comparison with Hiroshima is subjective. At Alberta Venture, we consider the comparison rather offensive.

On health, though, there’s evidence that something’s not right. A 2009 study by the Alberta Cancer Board found people in Fort Chipewyan display rates of cancers 30 per cent higher than statistically normal. But there’s been no follow-up to this study, despite ongoing calls from indigenous peoples in the area for a more comprehensive investigation.

A recent Edmonton Journal story interviewed Dr. John O’Connor, who works in Fort McMurray and the communities. O’Connor said this:

“We still don’t know if there is any connection between health issues in the communities and development in the oil sands. At this point, it isn’t my duty or even the duty of public health to say there is a connection. Government and industry should have to prove there isn’t. That is the way it works everywhere else in the world. Given the toxins and the illnesses identified, I suspect you can join the dots. You don’t want to join the dots, but that’s the way to go about it. You study, do the appropriate testing and be rigorous and scientific about it. The tragedy of all this is that not one public health physician is asking anything, based on the precautionary principle even. The silence is deafening.”


Young: “We made a deal with these people. We are breaking our promise. We are killing these people.”

Facts: Is he right?

We – as in Canada – did make a deal with the Dene, Cree, Metis and other indigenous peoples who’ve long lived in what became the oil sands, through what’s known as the numbered Treaties. They were signed between 1871 and 1921. But before that, a deal was made with these peoples by the British Crown, which controlled much of what became Canada until 1867 (meaning its deals predate Canada and Alberta, which was formed in 1905). In creating Canada, we inherited this land ownership agreement.

And we’ve relied heavily on it, too – the Arctic, inhabited by the Inuit, wasn’t ‘discovered’ and claimed by Canadians, but rather by British explorers. Yet we’re now claiming sub-surface ownership to the North Pole, largely in hopes we’ll find oil. Quite the inheritance.

Ever heard of the Royal Proclamation? Well, the year is 1763 and King George III has just defeated France in the Seven Years War in the new world. But this ordeal has taught him the value and need to form allies with the indigenous peoples already living there. He sets out guidelines for settlement of the new world by British subjects. Among many things in his proclamation are guidelines for land title – or in today’s term, land ownership. The proclamation, often called the Indian Magna Carta, explicitly states that Aboriginal title to land exists until ceded by treaty.

So what are those treaties? Land title and access in Northern Alberta, where a majority of oil sands development exists, was negotiated before Alberta was created. Treaty 8 (signed in 1899) and Treaty 6 (signed between 1876 and 1878) do this – at least in the eyes of Canada, which sees them as treaties that surrender Aboriginal title. Aboriginal peoples, however, see the treaties as sharing agreements that guarantee their ways of life will be protected from the ways of the settlers that came to inhabit the land Aboriginal peoples once used exclusively.

Two different interpretations, then, with one reality. Are we breaking the treaties? Of course this is debatable. It’s one thing to rely on legal interpretations from courts created by Canada (which have, to be fair, quite often sided with First Nation interpretations). But if one considers the near unanimous sentiment coming from First Nations about the treaties being respected or broken, the answer looks, at least potentially, to be yes.

Greenhouse gasses

Young: “The amount of CO2 coming out of the tar sands industrial sites is equal to every car in Canada, every day. I see a government in complete, just completely out of control. Money is number one, integrity is not even on the map.”

Facts: Is that right?

We’ll leave the comments on government and money out of this analysis, but how much CO2 is created by the oil sands every day, and how much is created by cars in Canada?

In 2010, the oil sands, including mining, in situ extraction, upgrading and cogeneration facilities emitted 47 megatonnes of greenhouse gases. This was the largest contribution from any industrial sector in Alberta (representing 38 per cent of total emissions from industry), but was followed closely by electric power generation, which emitted 46 megatonnes. By day, the oil sands emitted 128.8 kilotonnes per day.

Greenhouse gas emissions from private vehicles in Canada, meanwhile, reached 71 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2007. By comparison, that’s 194.5 kilotonnes per day, or 51 per cent more than emitted by the oil sands.

Chinese oil

Young: “This oil is all going to China. It’s not for Canada. It’s not for the United States.”

Facts: Is that true?

The oil from Alberta’s oil sands is not all going to China. Currently, three per cent of it ends up there. In 2012, Alberta exported $67 billion in energy products, mostly in the form of crude oil, along with natural gas and gas liquids. A 10-year review of the province’s exports, by the Alberta government, concluded that between 2002 and 2012, “The main destination of Alberta refinery products is the US, which accounted for 94% of exports in 2012, followed by China (3%) and Japan (2%). The US share has been relatively stable over the 2002 – 2012 period, averaging 94% per year.”

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One Response to We checked Neil Young’s facts and here’s the result

  1. Chris Bird says:

    The numbers you give for the argument between tarsands vs cars aren’t even for the same year. How about giving the numbers for 2013 for both?

    Other than that, I’d say he’s pretty well on the mark until someone can prove differently. I work in the patch in BC, and had no idea what the devastation was like there until recently. I thought fracs were the worst thing in the business until I went to Fort Mac. That makes me ashamed to be a Canadian.