Downstream Impact: Building the Canadian Tar Sands Industry with Hereward Longley

The Athabasca country of Alberta once boasted the world’s premier fur hunting grounds. When the energy crises of the late twentieth century put a premium on the region’s tar sand deposits, rich in hydrocarbons useful for synthesizing oil, corporations built an industrial landscape of extraction and processing infrastructure that displaced former occupation and use of the land. The local environment, and the world economy would never be the same.   

In this episode of Stories from the Stacks, environmental historian Hereward Longley, PhD candidate at the University of Alberta, discusses the process by which people transformed the environment of northeast Alberta into one of energy resource extraction, and the impact this has had on indigenous communities, Canadian workers, and international energy markets.

Using Hagley Library collections, including the J. Howard Pew papers, Sun Oil Company records, and more, Longley discovered that the motivations for building the Canadian tar sands industry varied over time. Mid-century desires to establish North American energy security gave way to opportunistic profit seeking during the periods of high oil prices during the 1970s and 2000s. At every stage, the tar sands industry encountered obstacles, including muskeg and enormous expense that challenged its viability. In the face of such difficulties, public investment proved pivotal.

To support his use of Hagley Library collections, Longley received a Henry Belin du Pont Research Grant from the Center for the History of Business, Technology, & Society. More information on funding opportunities for research at Hagley can be found here.

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Interview by Amrys Williams. Produced by Gregory Hargreaves.

Image: Sun Oil Company refinery at Marcus Hook, PA, July 14, 1939, 70_200_11750, J. Victor Dallin Aerial Survey collection (Accession 1970.200), Audiovisual Collections & digital Initiatives Department, Hagley Museum & Library, Wilmington, DE 19807.