For all the wealth they potentially possess, Alberta’s vast petroleum reserves have proved a mixed blessing at best. Even the industry’s staunchest defenders have to concede that the laborious extraction of oil from sand has left the province’s economic fortunes lurching unpredictably from boom to bust. Add to that the resulting ecological degradation that necessarily flows from wringing usable bitumen from sand and clay and the promise becomes murkier still. Two timely books by Alberta writers Chris Turner and Kevin Taft offer insightful if somewhat differing perspectives on bedeviling issues around oil sands development.
Calgary journalist Chris Turner’s engaging and balanced The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands is a wide-ranging survey that mixes history, geology, technology, and politics with detailed stories of people who work in the industry and are directly affected by its volatility. The Patch, while not always painting a pretty picture of the oil sands, generally refrains from being overly judgmental.
The book’s prologue revisits in detail a story that made international headlines in 2008 when more than 1,600 migrating ducks met a gruesome end after mistaking a toxic tailings pond north of Fort McMurray for a lake. The birds, unable to take off again after their bodies became covered in oil, eventually disappeared into the goo.
But Turner never strays far from the awareness that one Canadian’s “dirty oil” is another Canadian’s livelihood. The narrative is substantially enlivened by the stories of individuals who rely on the oil sands to buy groceries and pay their mortgages. These include a Pakistani immigrant and weekend cricketer who drives a bus that ferries workers to various mining sites; a fisherman who divides his time between his lobster boat and working as a crane operator; and a young Indigenous man who works with heavy equipment when he isn’t monitoring his fur trapline.
Turner deftly weaves together the personal and the political, the local and the global. In the process, he gives general readers a top-to-bottom, broadly contextual perspective on the past, present, and potential future of an important, if problematic, Canadian resource that produces as many as 2.4 million barrels of oil per day. The latter portions of the book focus on the precarious economic viability of the oil patch, not only because of the way it has become tangled up in the debates over pipelines and climate change, but because of a fracking boom south of the border that has made the U.S. less dependent on Alberta oil. An example of Turner’s scrupulous attempt to maintain a balanced perspective is a series of “yes, but” summations. For example: “The oil sands is the largest new source of carbon pollution in Canada – but its emissions intensity per barrel has been dropping steadily for years.”
Kevin Taft’s detailed and prosecutorial Oil’s Deep State: How the Petroleum Industry Undermines Democracy and Stops Action on Global Warming – in Alberta, and in Ottawa is, by contrast, a more polemical examination of Big Oil’s pernicious influence on Alberta politics and, more broadly, the climate change debate.
The dwindling return on oil-related royalties is also a topic in Oil’s Deep State. Taft documents how the petroleum industry successfully lobbied to shrink the public’s share of the wealth, while demonstrating how former Premier Peter Lougheed’s conscientious stewardship was overturned during the regime of Ralph Klein and his energy minister, Patricia Black (later Nelson), who worked for the oil industry before and after her time in government.
The evidence Taft offers is familiarly damning: the revolving door between the cabinet table and the corporate board room; the funding of supposedly impartial research through donations to universities by vested industry interests; the sidelining of public officials sounding the alarm about climate change; and so on. The result, in the author’s estimation, is a provincial government that has been effectively “captured” by an oil industry whose grip on public policy has only slightly weakened under the tenure of current NDP Premier Rachel Notley.
If history is precedent, the fortunes of the oil patch will likely continue to rise and fall, but the debate around its long-term viability in the face of rising temperatures and sea levels will only intensify – not just here in Canada, but globally. Both these books make valuable contributions to that discussion.