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Q&A with Chris Turner on the People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oilsands

Chris Turner’s new book, The Patch: The People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oil Sands, opens with a story about ducks.

Actually, in the context of the oilsands, it’s the story about ducks: more than 1,600 ducks migrating through northern Alberta died after landing on a tailings pond in 2008. It brought worldwide condemnation of the industry, and acted as a catalyst for environmental protests that are ongoing today.

The Patch is the story of what happened long before, and since, the turning point brought about by the ducks: how the industry came to be, how it scraped by through its infancy to become the roaring engine of Canadian industry in the early 2000’s; how its cycles of boom and bust have built fortunes and shifted the gravitational centre of Canada to a once-quiet patch of Boreal forest; and how the same ambitious industrial vision that stoked the fire may yet snuff it out.

Turner’s focus on the people of the Patch makes it unique among the multitude of books on the subject. He brings us into the lives of assortment of characters who have been drawn to the industry: driving first class buses and what were once the biggest dump trucks in the world; pulling a boat out of the water in PEI in time to catch the next morning’s shift in Fort McMurray; and doing shots of vodka with Soviet engineers after touring the subterranean death traps that would be adapted into a high-tech solution for mining underground oilsands deposits.

We spoke to Turner about his new book.

You open the book with the anecdote about the ducks. How important of a moment was that for the oilsands?

The reason I opened with that is because it represented a pivot point. From the industry’s point of view, this looked like another minor little hiccup along the way — business as usual, which at that moment was a roaring success. And the industry had always had local environmental problems, some worse than others, and it was a lot of ducks, but it was still seen as, ‘okay, these things happen, it’s a terrible tragedy but we’ll move on.’

What I was trying to get at by beginning the book with it was to say, this was the moment where the industry’s understanding of itself in a greater conversation nationally and internationally was beginning to shift forever.

What I call in the book this High Modern industrial triumph story was now going to become this ecological tragedy story. They didn’t see that shift coming, and that was part of why I think the duck incident resonated the way it did. It indicated how much the broad general public’s tolerance for that kind of environmental damage had changed.
Why do you think the conversation was changing at that point?

To some degree, the global conversation about climate change was finally maturing. The clarity of the argument was beginning to emerge: that this was about fossil fuels, and about needing to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

That didn’t happen all at once and certainly it didn’t all happen in 2008 — it was still ongoing. But it was the end of the necessity argument, which particularly for the oil business, has long been, and still to some degree remains, their main point: you need us.

I think that what we’re seeing, as the climate change debate has matured, is a direct challenge to that point. To say, maybe we don’t need you. Not only maybe not, but maybe in fact the last thing we need is more fossil fuel. The beginning of that collision in essence was some random duck incident in 2008.
You mentioned the High Modern period, or spirit; what is it about the High Modern that allows or encourages the development of this huge project? 

It creates kind of the broad logic. You can go all the way back to the beginning of the 1900s, where you see pretty broad support; it was understood as a universal good that there was an oil deposit there.

There were these technical questions of how do you unlock it, but the general idea of progress was that you find a resource, particularly one as valuable as oil, you find a way to turn it into a commodity, money is made, work is done, this is the greater good. This is the purpose of an advanced industrial society.

That created the logic or justification for the oilsands, despite all the barriers, despite how long it took to develop it as a viable resource. That consensus was what I refer to as the High Modern worldview: whatever your political stripe, a resource of that value should be exploited.
The technology for SAGD (Steam-assisted gravity drainage) came from the Soviet Union, which was known for its megaprojects. How similar are the giant capitalist oilsands operations and the giant communist megaprojects?

Probably more similar than a lot of the people in the industry like to think even now…in the sense that it really was a government-driven enterprise for generations. You can look at something like Syncrude; when the initial funding for Syncrude nearly collapsed in 1974, it was three governments — the Alberta, Ontario, and federal governments — all stepped up with money. So it was a kind of quasi-Crown corporation at its founding in some sense, although not directed by government, just funded by it.

So there’s probably more in common than anyone would like to think. And I think that speaks to the scale and scope of the energy industry. As much as we like to think of it as these wildcatters and entrepreneurs, like Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, clawing the oil from the earth with his bare hands practically, the growth and the endurance of the industry has always involved huge public-supported backing.

Whether you were in the Soviet Union or in Canada, the way you did it was not all that different. It was similar scale, you were going to need a lot of public support and public money.
The oilsands project has always been dogged by this issue of commercial viability. As you mentioned, that’s what set it back decades, and is still a problem. How has that extra cost influenced the development of the oilsands? 

It became a very technology-driven, engineering-driven enterprise. The conventional oil business, the basic kind of apparatus of getting the oil out of the ground has gotten much more efficient or that much more sophisticated, but it’s still, ‘you drill a well and you pump the oil.’ To make the oilsands viable required inventing or adapting all this technology. You needed — and still need — fleets of engineers to monitor and upgrade and improve and tweak and try new stuff.

The culture of the oilsands, I think, is uniquely a culture of engineers. There’s a strong sense of whatever the problem is, we can fix it, we can figure it out, we just need to put the right tools in place; but then also, people I talked to in the industry have said, part of the reason why we’ve been very bad at responding to criticism is that engineers by their nature don’t think in these public-relations terms very well. They’re not very good at emotional appeals, and storytelling and that sort of thing.

You set the whole book up as sort of a conflict between engineers and their worldview and that of environmentalists and people who think we should be leaving the whole thing in the ground. Can those two worldviews be reconciled when it comes to the oilsands? 

It’s an open question whether they can. I think there is a version of the story, and it’s one that Rachel Notley likes to tell, and some folks in Trudeau’s government like to tell, and some people in the industry, and some people who work in the more policy-wonky and less activist part of the environmental NGOs…which goes, okay, we unlocked this resource, it’s up and running, it’s producing soon to be three million barrels of oil a day, that is an enormous economic boom that will be an excellent stabilizer for the Canadian economy as it transitions to a low-carbon economy and does so in as neat and orderly a way as possible.

And that story is, I don’t think, entirely false.

The messy bit is you don’t start over from zero, today. We don’t begin the conversation about the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion with the fact of the thing itself. There are decades of history, there are decades of distrust and political issues and in the case of First Nations, legal issues, which are all sort of tangled up in what would otherwise be an easier thing to negotiate a compromise on.

So I think there is a middle path there, and probably that’s kind of the path we’ll more or less take, there will probably just be an enormous amount of push and pull from the more dug-in partisans on either side as it goes forward.
You describe the pipelines as having become proxies for protests of the carbon economy generally. The fairness of that aside, how effective has it been in achieving the goals of the movements? 

From my observer’s point of view, it seems that the one thing about the pipeline protests and pipeline politics is that it’s extraordinarily effective as an organizing tool.

So you look at how Keystone XL itself was chosen as the target for protest, and what made it so attractive was that you could get such broad agreement. You had the hardcore climate activist NGOs, but then you also had regional environmental groups who were worried about regional environmental impacts; First Nations and other Indigenous people who were worried about encroachment on their land; ranchers; people worried about aquifers; people worried in the case of Trans Mountain about tanker traffic and its impact on wildlife.

There’s nothing else we’ve seen in the kind of climate change activism world that’s as good at galvanizing resistance and organizing resistance.

How effective is it if the ultimate goal is reducing CO2 emissions, if that’s the main point of it? I get a little less rosy in my assessment, because as long as the global economics of fossil fuels are what they are, whether a particular 500 or 800,000 barrels of oil a day moves down this pipeline or that pipeline is not going to be conclusive, and may not even be the first domino knocked over in a whole series of them. It might be just a one-off proxy war off to the side.
In this current era of protests, carbon taxes, low oil prices, some seemingly intractable problems like tailings, how optimistic are you about the future of the oilsands?

The case for them is only going to get tougher. That seems to be broadly understood in a lot of the industry.

I think it’s understood more and more that there was this crazy 10-year boom, give or take, and that led to this unprecedented and unsustainable level of growth — and that that is now the past. The future is still an open question.

Folks in the industry will talk about their ability to innovate, their ability to reduce the carbon intensity of a barrel, their ability to attack and solve all the environmental questions. I don’t think that’s just window dressing; I think there is serious thought and effort being put into that. Can they do that in such a way and at a fast enough clip to stay competitive as fracking spreads worldwide, as demand maybe before too long begins to significantly be impacted by things like electric cars and renewable energy sources of all types? It’s a really difficult question.

There are still people who I think are aware of all these variables willing to put money into the industry…For example, you just saw Suncor announcing a new project of 40,000 barrels of SAGD. So a small expansion of a SAGD project, rather than these big, 200, 300,000 barrel-per-day mines. I think that’s the direction the industry is going.

And then there’s a whole bunch of variables that could completely change the industry in five or 10 years.
Why did you want to work on this book? 

I’m a Calgarian. It is sort of my backyard.

It’s a story that hadn’t really been told for a general audience without a really significant slant to it. It’s a really compelling story; the backstory, the history of how it came to be is absolutely fascinating. Just a weird chapter in Canadian industrial history that’s never been told in a single story before. If I had had 100 more pages I would have happily gone deeper into the history.

The other thing was, I’ve written and spoken and done a lot of work on the energy transition from the green side — here’s this very exciting new economic basis and movement that’s emerging, and this is going to be a hugely compelling place for people to invest their energy and time and money for many years to come in solving the climate problem…What does it mean to a significant subset of the oil industry in northern Alberta that this shift is underway, and what does the energy transition look like from there?

Probably more importantly, if we are going to talk in some sort of consensus-building way about how Canada manages that energy transition, I think it’s important to understand that side of it as well. So a big part of what I was hoping to do with the book was, if you come into it hating the oilsands and thinking they should be shut down tomorrow, maybe you’ll understand a little bit more about how they came to be and why people are still invested in making them viable. If you come into it as a huge champion of the industry who’s had it up to here with the protests, maybe you’ll understand a little bit more about where that part of it came from as well.

I think the fence is not a weird place to be on this one.

There’s really compelling arguments for and against. Some of the rhetoric that came out of the anti-pipeline movement kind of painted over this notion that it could be very quickly scaled down. If the prime minister woke up tomorrow and thought, ‘We need to shut that thing down in five years,’ how would you ever compensate for that economically, not to mention politically? How would you absorb that shock? And if you don’t have a viable answer for that, then maybe you haven’t thought it all the way through.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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