Sustainable Colonization: Tar Sands as Resource Colonialism

Sean Parson, Emily Ray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Canada is one of the world’s largest petrostates, owing to large shale oil deposits, also known as tar sands, which can be found within its borders. In recent decades, as the price of crude oil has increased dramatically, corporations and the Canadian state have worked together to open the oil deposits in Northern Canada for extraction and transportation. Despite a stated commitment to environmental sustainability by the United States and Canadian governments, both have endorsed tar sands extraction and transport. Government and corporate entities have tried to reframe tar sands as “ethical oil,” yet all steps in the process involved pose tremendous ecological, social, economic, and cultural threats to First Nations communities in Canada, landowners in the Midwest and Texas, local ecosystems, and the global climate. This practice is part of a long-standing pattern of appropriating and using public and First Nations land for economic development. We argue that tar sands production on First Nations land is a practice of resource colonialism: the theft and appropriation of land belonging to indigenous people in order to access natural resources. By branding tar sands as “ethical oil” and labeling production companies as “sustainable,” the public and private sectors bound up in the extractive economy claim to provide an essential public service while misdirecting attention away from acts of colonialism that make these resources available. In this article, we examine the ways in which corporate and state entities use the discourse of sustainability as a cover for continued resource colonialism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-86
Number of pages19
JournalCapitalism, Nature, Socialism
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 3 2018


  • Tar sands
  • colonialism
  • green washing
  • sustainability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Sustainable Colonization: Tar Sands as Resource Colonialism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this