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Trapped in Black Tar

Andrew Nikiforuk tells how the oil sands made Canada a suburb of Fort McMurray.

By Charles Campbell 6 Nov 2008 |

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Nikiforuk: 'This is the Third World.'
  • Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent
  • Andrew Nikiforuk
  • Greystone (2008)

"Sometimes I feel like I'm living in Russia or Nigeria, I swear to god." Andrew Nikiforuk is on stage at the Capilano Performing Arts Theatre, reflecting on life in Alberta as an outspoken critic of the tar sands. Yet one of the most decorated magazine writers in the country spared little as he carved up the captains of industry and politicians behind Alberta's massive oil boom, in front of about 200 people on Oct. 26.

Drawing on his new book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent, Nikiforuk forcefully outlined a very ugly business. He described the tar sands development as the largest capital project in the world, at $200 billion since 1996 when the associated pipelines and refineries are rolled in.

Then he set out the stakes. The development of the world's dirtiest oil has made Canada the biggest supplier of the United States' massive energy needs for the last seven years. "While we were having our donuts at Tim Hortons, we were becoming what Stephen Harper calls an 'emerging energy superpower.' "

Nikiforuk also set out the consequences. Not just the environmental ones -- we'll get to those. The political ones. "We are now a petro-state," Nikiforuk declared, with a wildly fluctuating petro dollar, noting that in Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia the consequences are not too subtle. "In Alberta, it's a little more subtle."

The implications of all that oil lucre sloshing loosely about in politics and society are rather profound, Nikiforuk argued, noting that the only real democracies in the Middle East are the countries without any oil. In British Columbia, he says, our complicity is being bought with the tar sands' dirty money. Toxic sour-gas wells that feed the tar sands' own enormous energy demands are putting $2 billion a year in the B.C. government's coffers. The feds are getting $5 billion to $6 billion a year in tar sands–related corporate tax revenue, Nikiforuk estimates. "They've used it to lower your taxes."

He quoted Thomas Friedman's twist on preacher Jonathan Mayhew's famous 1750 dictum: "There is no representation without taxation." In other words, if oil companies are the ones improving governments' accounts, then governments will do the oil companies' bidding, not ours.

Meanwhile, he told the Capilano crowd, with all the money bubbling up in Alberta, citizens worry more about cashing in than building a community. Voter turnout for provincial elections is 40 per cent. Fort McMurray, at the centre of the tar sands development, delivered a 14 per cent turnout in the last provincial election.

The tar sands boom, which Nikiforuk asserts has drawn more than 12 times as many foreign workers per capita as the United States -- 70,000 applications in 2007 alone -- has also produced grim social consequences. Crack cocaine is easier to get in the work camps than a pizza, and prostitution is rife, Nikiforuk says. Inexplicably, "transvestites are very popular."

And when the tar sands workers go home to places like Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, he adds, they bring their problems home with them.

Of course, the environmental consequences of the boom are astonishing. Each day, the tar sands produce the greenhouse gas equivalent of 12 million cars, and consume enough natural gas to heat six million homes. "The federal government found it would take 20 nuclear reactors to do that work."

Mammoth destruction

The tar sands development could ultimately encompass an area the size of Florida. "You can see the craters from the moon." Fifty per cent of the landscape being destroyed is wetland. "We don't know how to replace wetland."

A 2008 industry-funded study suggested that the "steam-assisted gravity drainage" projects (as opposed to the open-pit mines) could extirpate caribou, bear, moose and fish from between one and three million acres. Water in the Athabaska region is in decline by 30 percent since the 1960s, Nikiforuk said. The process of extracting oil from the sand requires vast quantities of water, and produces enormous volumes of toxic waste. Nikiforuk said a dozen tailings ponds cover 50 square kilometres, held back by sand dams that rival the Three Gorges dam in size. "They're all leaking."

Nikiforuk asserts that efforts to monitor the effect on the Athabaska watershed, part of the third-largest river system in the world, is pathetic. In 2004, Nikiforuk said, federal scientists declared that the monitoring program "was designed to find nothing."

"This is Third World," Nikiforuk observes. "It's really disturbing that this would happen in a country like Canada."

Targeted by big oil

Nikiforuk himself has paid a price for his forceful reporting, but it's still a modest price by Third World standards. As he nursed a cup of green tea the next morning in the empty restaurant of his Robson Street hotel, he said he figures he's banned from the Calgary writer's festival, Wordfest, because its major sponsor is Encana. Certainly the spin doctors at the Energy Resources Conservation Board, which is supposed to regulate the industry and protect the public, have him in their sights. The board accused him of promoting numerous falsehoods in a letter posted on its website, after he criticized natural gas well monitoring at a small-town meeting. Nikiforuk, of course, disputes their view.

If you're looking for a case of someone who's really been targeted, there's no better example than John O'Connor, a physician and the former medical examiner for Fort McMurray.

Tar Sands outlines how O'Connor's work in downstream Fort Chipewyan raised his concern, first because of the stories he heard of deformed fish and then because of the health problems he encountered, including renal failure, lupus, hyperthyroidism and a particularly troubling rare bile duct cancer linked to industrial pollutants. He learned that the province had ignored scientists' calls for a health study in the area in 1996, 1999 and 2004. In 2006, he renewed calls for a detailed study. "Where is this cancer coming from?" O'Connor asked. "I'm not saying stop the oil sands. I'm just asking questions."

Scientists from Health Canada, Environment Canada, and Alberta Health responded to his advocacy by filing complaints with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, accusing O'Connor of causing "undue alarm," overbilling, "irresponsible practices," engendering mistrust, and blocking access to medical files. Although O'Connor was cleared of all charges except that of causing undue alarm, the complaint effectively silenced him for a year. The social consequences of the boom also affected him. Nikiforuk said one son was beaten up by a drug addict, and another became addicted to crack. In 2007, O'Connor moved to Nova Scotia.

While the Alberta Cancer Board finally decided earlier this year to study cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan -- the rate of bile duct cancer in Fort Chip could be as much as 400 times that of the general population -- Nikiforuk writes that "no provincial or federal agency has offered to do its own review of the cancerous ponds or their seepage rates into groundwater and the river."

'A country adrift'

Tar Sands' detailed and devastating critique of regulatory failures is compelling reading. No less troubling is the complete absence of a governmental plan for the development of the tar sands, beyond as much as possible as soon as possible. "There's no energy plan, there's no water plan, there's no climate plan," Nikiforuk told The Tyee. "We really are a country adrift."

Alberta's royalty on the raw tar sands bitumen is set at just one per cent until industry recovers all its capital costs. Even former Alberta energy minister Murray Smith described that as a "give it away" approach. "We have to discipline this project, because right now this project is in charge," Nikiforuk said.

Few dare to challenge the status quo in a province that just voted overwhelmingly to return the son of an Imperial Oil executive as prime minister. And few in the media acknowledge it when they do, although both national and Alberta media did take notice when former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed spoke up
in a Calgary speech last year about the pace of development and the environmental consequences. "We think we're mavericks?" Nikiforuk intoned at the Capilano theatre. "We're not mavericks."

Nikiforuk shakes his head at the lack of attention given to the tar sands story in the Canadian media. He figures it's a bigger story in the United States. He doesn't suggest it's a conspiracy so much as simply pure inattention. "Somebody made the assumption that this was all normal," he told The Tyee. "When the Klondike happened, we had reporters there," he told the crowd at Capilano. "We even had great poets there."

Nikiforuk doesn't spare much rhetoric on how important this story for Canadians: "The rest of Alberta has become a suburb of Fort McMurray. Parts of British Columbia have become a suburb of Fort McMurray. The whole of Prince Edward Island has become a suburb of Fort McMurray."

Sleep rocked by explosions

In British Columbia, there's certainly very little sense that the Peace River natural gas boom is linked to the tar sands, just as there's not much awareness of the environmental damage caused by gas exploration and drilling. Then there are the considerable human and animal health risks posed by sour gas, which Nikiforuk explored in his Governor General's Award–winning 2001 book, Saboteurs: Weibo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil (Macfarlane, Walter & Ross).

Until the two October bombings of Encana pipelines south of Dawson Creek, and the associated letter to a local paper calling oil and gas companies terrorists, the only thing most people knew about Peace River gas was that it inflated the provincial government's surplus. But then city dwellers aren't much at risk of having a sour gas well operating 100 metres from their front door, as is currently permitted.

The mere possibility of an Encana pipeline to Kitimat feeding oil-tanker traffic on our coast has caused more alarm in urban B.C. than what's already happened in the Peace district. Nikiforuk said British Columbians need to do more to challenge the province's regulation of the industry. "You should congratulate Gordon Campbell on following through on the carbon tax," he told the Capilano audience, but at the same time insist on better regulation, higher royalties, and a legacy fund to ensure the revenue creates lasting benefits.

Nikiforuk worries, though, that the bombings in B.C. will actually constrain debate, just as he doubts the ability of the RCMP to catch the culprit. What does he make of reports that convicted saboteur Weibo Ludwig is not a suspect? "The letters that went out during Ludwig's campaign bear the same characteristics..." he said.

Governments addicted to revenue

Andrew Nikiforuk vacillates between cynicism and a little bit of hope as he considers the future. In Alberta, he said there's a sense, even in the business community, that the tar sands are out of control. "People have really seen the quality of life diminish in the province." He thinks it's possible that a new party and leader will emerge -- essentially conservative but with an emphasis on the conservation component.

He thinks it's possible that we might eventually heed the example of a country like Norway that has salted away oil and gas revenue in a meaningful legacy fund. He thinks the public will accept carbon taxes when they are properly explained. He even believes that large sums of money aimed at carbon sequestration may come Alberta's way to simply leave that sticky bitumen in the ground.

But he believes change is going to take a while.

"The B.C. government is so wedded to the income that they're not going to properly regulate the industry," he said. In Canada, much depends on what happens in the United States. "Let's face it -- Canadians are followers." But he believes the national parties on the left will eventually be forced to act together. In the world as a whole, he thinks it will take $200-a-barrel oil to get us to act.

"We are not serious about any of this yet."

Read an excerpt from Tar Sands: "Declaration of a Political Emergency."