In light of the current economic crisis gripping much of the globe, the bottom falling out of the price of oil and threats from United States President-elect Barack Obama that they will be seeking more environmentally friendly sources of energy, Alberta’s position as an oil-producing giant globally has taken a very precarious turn and now finds itself with the very real possibility of being left on the outside looking.
Add into the mix the growing criticism of the environmental catastrophe currently taking place in the province’s Tar Sands, and the outlook for Alberta’s future financial security based on oil revenues all of a sudden looks very bleak.
One of those critics is Alberta-based author Andrew Nikiforuk whose new book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent is receiving both high praise and plenty of criticism for its candid and revealing look at the oil industry in Alberta and its effects locally, nationally and globally.
Born in Toronto and raised in California, Nikiforuk, who has resided in Alberta for the past 20 years, will be in Rimbey later this week to give a lecture of the situation and discuss his latest book which comes of the heels of a number of other published manuscripts including, The Fourth Horseman, which he describes as “a quirky look at how disease has changed history”, and, Saboteurs, “a bare bones account of Wiebo Ludwig and his was against big oil.”
The visit will be a return visit for Nikiforuk who said he appreciates both the quaintness or rural communities and their citizens.
“I’ve given talks in the Rimbey area about Saboteurs, sour gas and the impact of coal bed methane on groundwater,” he said in a recent interview. “Rural communities are much richer and human places than urban centres. I really like the gentle outspokenness and openness of people around Rimbey.”
In promoting his latest book, Nikiforuk said he estimates he’s spoken to more than 2,000 people at book signings and lectures in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta that has included a cross section of society from tar sands engineers to real estate boards to the Council of Canadians while his book has appeared on several best-seller lists, mainly in western Canada.
“I wrote the book over several months early in 2008 for Greystone Books because they agreed to publish a short and affordable paper back on an issue the national press hasn’t paid enough attention too. The average reader can expect to be shocked and informed and surprised by the scale of the project and by its mismanagement by the provincial government,” he said.
“The rapid development of the tar sands has dramatically changed the province and the country. It has given Canada a ‘petro dollar’ and made us the number one supplier of oil to the US. It has diminished our environmental reputation abroad and resolutely accounts for the failure of $6 billion worth of climate change plans. We burn money to fight carbon in Canada and the world’ s largest energy project now threatens one sixth of Canada’s freshwater supplies,” Nikiforuk said in explaining his motive for writing the book.
“It has changed labour patterns and become an El Dorado for Atlantic Canada. It has played a role in diminished the manufacturing sector in Ontario and Quebec. It has enriched Ottawa more than Alberta and little money has been saved for future generations and it has spurred a careless economic boom that brought 700,000 people into the province,” he continued. “This great migration stressed out every aspect of social life in the province and all with marginal benefits for Albertans. I just wanted to show ordinary people the big picture and what it means to live in ‘petro state’ that doesn’t save for the future. I wanted to explain why and how Alberta has brought the stigma of dirty oil upon itself and used mostly industry and government data to do so.”
As for a solution to mankind’s dependency on oil, Nikiforuk said it certainly won’t happen overnight and if and when it does, it’ll most likely be because the individual rather than the corporation or the government, had willed it to happen, much like he did.
“The tar sands are an important and significant strategic resource that have been exploited in a chaotic and disorganized fashion with no real national or provincial goal in mind. They are not another Saudi Arabia but a second line of defense against peak oil. They are a reminder that business as usual can no longer continue,” he said.
“Given the amount of water, carbon and money it takes to remove bitumen from the forest and then to upgrade it and put it through complex refining, it is truly a dirty product. When I realized that I consumed 60 barrels of oil a year and what that really means, including I am responsible for the removal 180 barrels of freshwater from the Athabasca River every year as well as 120 tonnes of earth removal,” he added. “I realized that I was living a fantasy life with the footprint of an Egyptian prince. To develop the tar sands without an equal developments in renewable energy is sheer folly and an invitation for global censure.”
As for critics of his latest book, it only stands to reason that those with the most to lose are the most vocal, and that’s exactly the way it panned out, even if it ends up backfiring in their faces.
“Most of the hostility came from the regulator which approved more than 100 projects since 1996 without a comprehensive review of cumulative impacts on people, water or the land. The ERCB, a highly dysfunctional permitting agency, didn’t like the book and posted a letter saying so on their website. That is unique behavior for a regulator. As a result the board just increased interest in the book,” he said.
“Many well informed and concerned people in the patch have found much they can agree with in the book: the lack of fiscal accountability for oil revenues at both provincial and federal levels; the lack of conservation and renewable targets; and the lack of leadership. Many also question the economic sanity of carbon capture and storage and openly welcome the slowdown.”
Conversely, Nikiforuk said he has also received high praise for the book, especially from Albertans despite the fact that the provincial government is for all intents and purposes, at the root of the problems.
“My chapter on ‘petro politics’ has been a real eye opener for most Albertans. It explains why our political culture is typical of most petro states in that oil hinders democracy. To correct the imbalance Albertans must demand that the government no longer run on oil money,” he said. “To restore democracy in a ‘petro state’ you must take 90 per cent of hydrocarbon revenue off the table and put it in a pension fund and force the party in power to run on taxes, like most accountable governments. Cheap and easy revenue debases any government, or any family for that matter.”
During the interview, Nikiforuk also addressed the recent election of Barak Obama as President of the United States and in particular, his announcement that his government would be seeking cleaner and more efficient forms of energy, even if it results in costing billions of dollars to economies such as Alberta’s, which might not necessarily be such a bad thing.
“If the US gets serious about climate change and its oil addiction, it could change the fate of the tar sands in a really good way. Instead of becoming another Saudi Arabia – and that contaminated regime has been the source many dangerous and fanatical ideas, the tar sands will simply becomes a limited second line of defense that should never exceed two millions barrels a day,” he said. “In other words smart US energy policy could make the resource a temporary and transitional supply to a low-carbon economy. There should be plans to largely retire the resource within 30 years.”
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