Andrew Nikiforuk is no stranger to environmental controversies. In his new book, the author of Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Big Oil and Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent brings us an intimate account of an Albertan woman’s complex, frustrating, and frankly soul-diminishing attempt to take down a powerful Canadian energy company. Her primary struggle is against the invasive and often destructive practice of oil fracking. What begins as a concern about groundwater quality turns into an international fight against the world’s most powerful industry.
We don’t meet Jessica Ernst, dubbed “Canada’s Erin Brockovich,” right away. Nikiforuk opens the book with a retelling of the gruesome 1985 explosion of a Dress for Less department store in Los Angeles, an event that ignited a continent-wide discussion about hydraulic fracturing. The scene is a meticulously detailed prologue to Nikiforuk’s story, which is, without a doubt, a carefully researched behemoth. Slick Water is not only an educational read devoid of confusing legal and environmental jargon, it also features a powerful protagonist to represent the problem.
One of the first things we learn about Ernst is that she’s a childhood rape survivor. Initially, Nikiforuk’s invocation of Ernst’s trauma seems jarring, but he draws meaning from it. Throughout his book, Nikiforuk implies that, like rape, fracking involves not only a major power imbalance, but also shameless abuse of that power. The book is a damning and risky portrayal of Encana Corporation, the key alleged abuser in the tale, which Nikiforuk characterizes as the company that “had knowingly raped her community’s aquifer.”
Throughout the book, there’s a subtle feminist undertone: Ernst is living proof that powerful men shamelessly and egregiously muzzle women, simply because they can. But Nikiforuk also demonstrates that practically nothing can stop Ernst – if a door is slammed in her face, she’ll fearlessly knock its hinges off in her determined quest for justice.