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Alberta's chronicler

David Finch's historical perspective on Canada's energy sector has made him a prominent commentator on Alberta's oil patch. But he still found time to take a canoe trip with Petroleum Economist. Derek Brower braved Calgary's Bow River

ONE OF Canada's most loved story-tellers, Pierre Berton, once remarked that the definition of a Canadian was "someone who knows how to make love in a canoe without tipping it". If anyone could test the hypothesis it is David Finch: a man who doesn't just know how to handle a paddle and glide through white water, but one who builds his own boats and takes on the big northern rivers of the country for fun. Cuba-born and Venezuela-raised he may be, but Finch is every part the quintessential Canadian.

He's a man of action at the desk, too. With 24 books to his name, all around the topic of Western Canada, its history and natural environment, Finch doesn't sit around much – in fact, he stands at his writing desk, in a converted shed beside half a dozen canoes in a Calgary backyard. The latest book, Beat the Pump: What Canadians Need to Know about the Price of Fuel, will be published later this year.

It will tap into an emerging trend towards conservation that is affecting even the drivers of Canada's SUV capital. "People feel like they're getting ripped off," says Finch from the stern of the canoe. "It is an opportunity to teach." Finch hopes a series of TV ads to promote the book – and its message of conservation – will also get the go-ahead.

In Alberta, where the oil industry is the dominant player in the economy, the green agenda has always been a hard sell. But Finch, who by Calgary standards lives a low-environmental-impact life, says high energy prices have caused a groundswell of new sentiment – and it is pushing a greener political agenda.

Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, and Alberta's premier, Ed Stelmach, both came to power saying environmental concerns were not on the programme. "But the public has pushed the agenda," says Finch. Alberta has committed C$4bn ($3.9bn) to green projects – half to beef up the province's meagre public-transport infrastructure and half to develop carbon capture and storage systems.

"Most people don't care about the big geopolitical issues," Finch says as he steers the canoe down a bumpy Bow River rapid. "They just care about saving money at the pump." The latest book will tell them how to do that.

A previous book, Pumped: Everyone's Guide to the Oil patch was a pithy introduction to Alberta's energy sector and included humorous advice to those with a more short-term perspective on how to handle the latest boom – and the bust that, in this part of the world, seems inevitably to follow.

It's Finch's perspective as an historian that gives him insight into the latest problems that affect Alberta's oil patch. A scandal earlier this year, when 500 ducks took their last and fatal bath in a polluted oil-sands tailing pond, was an opportunity for the province to take charge of the oil sands, says Finch. Doing so would have followed an historical precedent. When a blow-out at a rig on the Leduc oilfield, Alberta's first, got out of hand in 1948, the province took over operations in order to manage what Edmonton realised even then could be the province's most valuable commodity.

Indeed, a healthy suspicion of the industry's ability to manage the long-term interests of Alberta's economy runs through Finch's conversation. The recent review of the province's royalty regime – considered one of the most generous to investors in the global energy sector – was an opportunity for Alberta to redress some of the balance, says Finch. But the proposal to increase the royalties has been held up by the lobbying of the firms, whose power in Alberta's pro-business government is strong.

Albertans themselves scarcely realise the strength of the energy sector's influence in their province, says Finch. He points out that for every C$5 in tax the citizen pays, the oil industry pays another C$10. "We're heavily addicted to income from the oil industry." Meanwhile, successive governments have chosen to keep taxes low instead of using the proceeds to invest in infrastructure – or put aside in a heritage or rainy-day fund. Alberta's oil-revenue savings amount to about C$16bn, less than a tenth of Norway's.

Finch is a sharp critic on these issues. But his main interest remains the social history of Western Canada's oil sector. "Early geologists were doing exactly what we're doing," he says, "canoeing down rivers to look at outcrops." While that might trigger images of the early 20th-century pioneering days before Canada's west was fully settled, Finch is too much of a realist to see romance in the industry. People lived next to sour gas, he notes, and the Leduc blow-out left acres of infertile ground – and if anyone thinks Alberta's oil industry is any rosier now, they should spend some time with the roughnecks in Fort McMurray, the boomtown at the heart of the province's oil sands.

Between columns for the local newspaper, a series of other book projects and a spot on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's radio, Finch rides his bike once a day and gets into the boat almost as frequently. He's also become a frequent commentator for journalists, attracted by his position as an independent expert on the sector.

Talk to anyone in the oil patch here and it isn't long before Alberta's poor image around the world comes up. As Finch says, Alberta has "a real public-relations problem on its hands: an actual problem, with dirty oil, and a virtual problem – public perception".

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers seems to recognise this: it recently set up a new website to act as a forum for discussion about Alberta's oil sands and the environment. And solving it will take time – it might even involve a formula that goes beyond Alberta's traditional approach of business knows best.

Indeed, it might need insight from people outside the sector, but who know it well. In another country, Finch might have been a dissident. In Alberta, his views of the oil patch irritate some of its many local boosters, but they would do well to listen to him.

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