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Unconventional Adventures: Tracing Our Energy Lifecycle Almost Turned this Filmmaker into a Terrorist and Polar Bear Snack

Fracking, open pit oilsands mining, underground steam injection, mountain top removal mining, Arctic oil drilling — these are all icons of the world's recent shift to unconventional sources of energy.

Filmmaker David Lavallee recently set out on a three-year journey to track the lifecycle of our energy resources, a project he said not only revealed extreme methods of extraction but also took him to extreme places. Lavallee said filming the energy industry brought him face to face will all sorts of strange hazards, including an anti-terrorism officer with the National Security Division of the RCMP.

We caught up with Lavallee, who just launched an Indiegogo fundraiser to support his film To the Ends of the Earth, to discuss his adventure and what he learned along the way.

What's so unconventional about unconventional energy?

A number of things can make energy unconventional. What I focus on in my film are the methods and geographical extremes that make a resource unconventional.

In the 2008 presidential race, "Drill Baby Drill" was the rallying cry — but "Drill Baby Drill" is fast becoming a thing of the past — it's now "Mine Baby Mine, Steam Baby Steam, and Frack Baby Frack."

These unconventional extraction methods are far more capital intensive, more socially disruptive and also, of course, more environmentally damaging from a carbon intensity/water use standpoint.  

Photo: David Lavallee

Where did tracing our energy lifecycle take you? Anywhere that really surprised you?

There were numerous epiphanies along the way, and each one contributed to the view I now hold — that our economic system (i.e. the grow or die economy) is completely unviable. 

The energy cost of energy surprised me the most. Whether it be nuclear power plants in Utah being proposed to make oil shale (aka 'the rock that burns'), or the Site C dam, which industry wants to power shale gas extraction further north, or the tar sands, where natural gas (some of it fracked) is used to process bitumen — the most striking feature of extreme energy is that it takes so much energy to make it.

In some cases more energy is used than the energy it gives back to society. 

We need to transition to renewable energy and engage in radical conservation of resources if we want our economy to survive this new era. 

What was the most remarkable thing that happened to you while you were researching and filming?

Eating seal at a floe edge, where ocean ice meets the ocean, was a pretty cool experience. At one point an 800-pound polar bear emerged from the water and started making his way towards us, hungry for some of our seal soup. The Inuit hunter we were with fired a warning shot over its head and it sauntered off eventually. 

Meeting the Inuit on Baffin Island was also amazing. I learned about the clash between their 10,000-year old subsistence hunting culture and modern day seismic oil exploration. Seismic exploration up there basically means ships carrying large sonic arrays (air guns that blast the ocean floor looking for oil) and the Inuit have been noticing some deaf seals and confused narwhals as a result.

The mayor of Clyde River told me about a narwhal entrapment in 2008 — which was an event in which a pod of narwhal got confused and couldn't echolocate their way out of an inlet that was freezing over. He suspects it was because their echolocating capabilities were messed up by being exposed to seismic ships. About 500 whales died in this incident.  

Alberta oilsands. Photo: David Lavallee

You said you had a strange knock at your door one day because of your filming activities. Can you explain what happened?

Tensions were running high here in Vancouver during the Burnaby Mountain protest. I was filming with a quadcopter, aka a drone, trying to get footage of the tankers filling up with bitumen. I had heard that there are always supposed to be at least two tugs escorting them for safety, so I wanted to confirm that that was indeed happening. There was no tanker at the time (you can't really see in from the road) but there was an over zealous Kinder Morgan security guard who called in my licence plate.

The next day, an RCMP INSET Anti-Terrorism Unit officer showed up at my door to ask me questions. We had a long and interesting discussion about terrorism in Canada and the lack thereof, as I argued. He told me that what I was doing could be seen as "a precursor to possible terrorist activity" and as such he had to do his due diligence and investigate.

There was a leaked RCMP report a while back showing that there is increasing anxiety in the RCMP about a so-called increase in environmental extremism. The authors of that report have a rather over-active imagination, in my view. I guess when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. 

What do you hope people understand about unconventional energy?

I hope that people understand we are in a new energy age. The economics of oil and gas simply don't work anymore, because we are down into the really dirty crud resources at this point. This transformation will have a profound effect on our society, and we need to prepare for the inevitable. 

I hope people understand that there is cost-parity now between renewable energy projects and the worst oil projects. If governments get with the program and cut subsidies to Big Oil and give them to renewable projects instead, we will be well on our way to a more positive energy future.

It is an ideal time to begin this transition. The economics are on our side. 

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
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