In 1959 Alberta approved a berserk scheme to set off an atomic blast at Fort McMurray, liquefying the oil sands and freeing a trillion barrels of riches. Engineers with U.S.-based Richfield Oil Corp. rated it a 50-50 chance of economic success. Then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker killed the idea. “Certainly not,” he said.
Alberta remains unhinged on the subject of oil sands and their elusive promise of fabulous hidden wealth that would turn the province into a Saudi fiefdom. Thwarted plans for A-blasts and pipelines have fueled conspiracy theories: Edmonton would be a Big Oil mecca if not for the intrigues of Dief or Ottawa bureaucrats or National Geographic magazine or environmentalists – especially environmentalists. “Foreign socialist comrades,” former Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver used to call them.
Unsustainable Oil documents the psychosis. “Bullshit predominates,” writes Dr. Jon Gordon of the University of Alberta; “The industrialization of the bituminous region of Northern Alberta is a manifestation of a cultural belief in limitless progress and endless expansion.” Gordon recalls taking a 2008 Suncor tour of Fort McMurray’s open pit mine when a company guide spotted a deer near the road: “Deer and other wildlife like the extraction plant and mining site because there is no hunting allowed,” the guide insisted.
Gordon is a talented writer. Unsustainable Oil profiles the Alberta sands as a phenomenon both cursed and celebrated in art and commerce and media, and nitpicking of selective facts. “The public debate about bitumen occurs within a highly polarized context in which it often seems there is no common ground,” Gordon notes.
An example: Canadians are told by opposing commentators that “the tar sands are the largest contributor to the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada”; or that “oil sands emit just 5 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gases – less than, for example, the emissions from all of Canada’s cattle and pigs.” We are assured that development will “industrialize a forest the size of Florida”, and that conversely “the oil sands do cover an area the size of Florida, but only 2 percent of that area will ever be mined.”
“As far as I can tell all of these claims are true,” Gordon writes; “Mustn’t we, then, consider every claim made about the development to be more or less bullshit”; “Suncor gives visitors to its website the chance to ‘Join the Conversation’ – on a page titled ‘Talking About Yes’ – where individuals can comment on threads like, ‘An Ipsos Reid survey shows that 80% of us believe that conversations about the oil sands should be based in science. What information do you want to hear about?’ Interestingly, that thread had zero comments when I visited.”
Undisputed by all is Alberta’s emotional investment in the oil sands, in the manner of sharp-edged discourse that dominates conversation in one-industry towns. If the mill literally stinks, it’s the smell of jobs. “Taxes and royalties paid by bitumen companies pay for health care, so if you like health care you can’t be against bitumen extraction,” as Gordon puts it. “The decision to develop bitumen is a trade-off, and the global considerations trump the local; the urban trumps the rural; the many trump the few.”
Alberta has tried to drag the whole country into this dark conversation. “Engine of the economy,” they claim – though this too is demonstrably bs. The provincial Department of Energy counted 136,200 oil sands jobs at the peak of production, in a two-trillion dollar national economy with a workforce of 18 million.
Unsustainable Oil is pungent and funny and eloquent. It profiles oil sands as a cultural happening that’s driven Canadians to polar opposites. It works.
By Holly Doan
Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts and Fictions, by Jon Gordon; University of Alberta Press; 288 pages; ISBN 9781-7721-20363; $45