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Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent

by Andrew Nikiforuk

For the  better part of their history, the Alberta tar sands have been out of sight and out of mind for most Canadians. A thinly populated wilderness and (in the words of one early bitumen booster) a “relatively undesirable environment,” it is a place few people visit. Ninety-eight per cent of the current population of Fort McMurray plan on eventually retiring somewhere else. Government operates as an absentee landlord.

Such blindness and indifference spring from broad-spectrum denial of the unpleasant consequences of our addiction to oil. Calgary-based journalist and Governor General’s Award-winning author Andrew Nikiforuk covers the resultant fallout in detail, from the massive and irreparable destruction of the natural environment – turning a good chunk of northern Alberta, including the world’s third-largest watershed, into a toxic moonscape – to the political transformation of Canada into a modern petrostate. What he exposes most of all, however, is the mind-boggling short-sightedness and stupidity of the entire enterprise.

Nikiforuk does overdo the figurative comparisons a bit. While volume may be handily imagined in units of Olympic-size swimming pools, it’s less helpful to know that the area covered by open-pit mining could end up being three times larger than the ancient city of Angkor Wat. But this is a minor point. Overall, Tar Sands provides an excellent guide to all of the environmental repercussions of our oil dependency.

The political analysis is also good, sounding a warning about our dangerous energy “interdependence” with the declining American empire and using Thomas Friedman’s first law of petropolitics – that the price of oil and the quality of freedom invariably travel in opposite directions – to make the case for tar’s corrosive effect on democracy.

Nikiforuk concludes with “Twelve Steps to Energy Sanity,” an oil-addiction recovery program. And surprisingly, many of his recommendations seem doable. We can’t avert a disaster that is already under way, but we might be able to prevent things from getting horribly worse.