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Canada's climate wars

Chris Turner's new book is a thorough account of how Alberta's oil sands became one of the energy world's hottest properties—and its most controversial

Preston McEachern, a water scientist for Alberta's government, had a startling metaphor. The oil sands had become "the harp seal of the environmental movement", he told me in 2011, at the height of their notoriety—the easiest, softest target to kill.

Anyone who's seen them would know why the projects divide opinion. They make for a huge, ugly fume-belching scar on the landscape—a monumental example of humanity's exploitation of the earth's resources. Or, to the petroleum engineer, a true feat of development and progress, drawing the world's economic lifeblood from a remote landscape.

Either way, McEarchern was right—they're easy to pick on. You can visit the oil sands: rent a car and drive around, asking questions. You can stage a protest in Fort McMurray. You can download data on their CO2 emissions, the heavy metal content in the Athabasca river, corporate spending plans or development proposals.

Try doing the same in Ghawar; ask PdV for some Orinoco emissions data; or picket a Rosneft development in Siberia. One reason Canada's oil sands garnered so much opposition was, indeed, because open developments in open societies make for open goals.

Chris Turner's new book, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, is a rich telling of how Alberta's vast reserve of bitumen—the world's third largest trove of oil, but barely 3% of its supply—came to be at the centre of climate and culture wars earlier this century, turning Canada into an unlikely environmental pariah.

The furore around the oil sands has abated somewhat. Protesters still hope to stop the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline from Alberta to the US Gulf—which has consent from Donald Trump's White House—or prevent other pipelines in Canada from giving the bitumen an outlet to the sea. But a change of government in Ottawa and Edmonton has put more left-leaning leaders in charge, dulling some of the political opposition.

And wider fundamentals have changed too. The rise of American tight oil and perceptions of supply abundance have robbed the oil sands of strategic momentum. The collapse of the oil price has crippled investment more effectively than environmentalists like Bill McKibben and David Suzuki could have hoped.

Some in Alberta's oil patch might welcome less attention. Turner's book shows just how unprepared the industry was for the global spotlight. As the oil price soared between 2003 and 2008, Alberta's landlocked oil became one of the hottest investment stories in the energy sector. Ralph Klein, Alberta's premier, did nothing to control the boom, even returning cash to the province's citizens in 2006 instead of stashing it in a sovereign wealth fund. Corporate capital Calgary thrived. Fort McMurray's social problems mounted.

The oil-price slump has crippled investment and hindered growth

As for the media-relations battle, Alberta's politicians and industry leaders were never on top of the story. The lobby groups would set up trips for journalists and dignitaries, who would visit a few acres of reclaimed land, a mine and a laboratory—and then hail the disaster from New York or LA.

Laying into celebrities for the hypocrisy of flying private jets while declaiming Canada's oil riches—a mainstay talking point of politicians bewildered by the onslaught against them—played well to the base back home, but was a PR failure. When, in 2008, 1,600 ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond, hell broke loose, again. Wind turbines, far deadlier to birds, attracted no such anger.

Lobbying efforts in Washington, recounts Turner, involved tone-deaf stunts like displaying a giant bright yellow oil sands truck with a 200-tonne dump bed on the lawn across from the Capitol. Alberta's politicians seemed awed on a visit to Dick Cheney in the White House, where they were promised a 15-minute hearing. The meeting lasted longer, but a Saudi entourage arriving in DC it was not. Turner doesn't quite say it, but one of Alberta's problems was surely the quality of people running an industry that was suddenly thrust onto the global stage.

Turner stood as a candidate for Canada's Green Party in 2012. But his book is no diatribe against the oil sands. Opponents and boosters will find The Patch a fair account. Both sides pumped out biased data to back their case—the eco-warriors far overestimated the emissions-intensity, for example; the proponents often focused on improving emissions output, not absolute levels—and often talked past one another. "It is either Hiroshima or a wonder of the world," Turner writes of the developments, "a vital economic engine or the most destructive project on earth, and essential commodity or dirty oil, Morder or Fort McMurray." None of this allowed for nuance or compromise, he notes.

Yet, as oil demand continues to rise, some oil sands producers may even start to think about sanctioning new projects again. If the world needs more Canadian bitumen, the discourse around the oil sands—from both sides—needs to grow up. Turner's book would be a useful place to start.

The Patch: The People, Pipelines and Politics of the Oil Sands. Simon and Schuster, Toronto. 2017

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