Dirty oil and the future of a continent

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Review: “This is a book that should be read by every Canadian. It should also be read widely everywhere else as the vast majority of us have no idea of the scale of tar sands destruction.”

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Andrew Nikiforuk
Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent
Greystone Books, 2010

reviewed by Martin Empson 

UK-based Martin Empson is the author of Marxism and Ecology; Capitalism, Socialism and the Future of the Planet. He wrote this review for his blog, Resolute Reader.

Capitalism is a fossil fuel system. For historical as well as economic and physical reasons fossil fuels have fuelled the system’s accumulation of wealth. However none of these resources are infinite and as oil in particular becomes increasingly difficult to extract the question of how to fuel the system becomes more and more important. So important is oil, that as one expert points out in this book, a super-tanker must arrive at a US port every four hours.

One solution not discussed in this book is a rapid and immediate shift to renewable energy. A number of studies have been done that demonstrate that this is both viable and possible. I won’t rehearse these arguments here but direct interested readers to this article.

Another answer (one favoured by the fossil fuel companies themselves) is to find alternate sources of fossil fuels. Andrew Nikiforuk’s important book examines one of the most controversial (and I would argue dangerous) sources of the new “extreme energy” — the tar sands. In particular he concentrates on the tar sands of Alberta, Canada.

His story is one that brings together current environmental disaster, with government mismanagement, corporate greed, corruption, destruction on an enormous scale and future climate change. It is not an easy read because it is a horrific example of the way that corporations place their short-term profits ahead of people and planet. But more than this, it is a demonstration of the way that the system itself is geared towards encouraging this.

Rather than being a restraining block on the corporate destruction of the environment in Alberta, local and national government has enthusiastically assisted. Sadly this isn’t simply a result of particularly bad Canadian politicians (though they clearly are). Nikiforuk demonstrates the way that oil rich nations historically have followed the same path, one that gradually reduces restraints on fossil fuel companies at the same time as simultaneously undermining democratic rights.

This is one of those books that are hard to review because you feel obliged to get across dozens of facts to the casual reader. My copy is crisscrossed with pencil marks because I felt every salient point needed to be noted and remembered. For this reason I encourage people to buy or borrow the book as my review cannot do justice. But I want to use a few examples.

Firstly the tar sands are an enormous reservoir of fossil fuel. Readers in the UK or Europe may have no idea of the scale. Nikiforuk points out that the “megaproject will eventually destroy or industrialize a forest the size of Florida.” The attraction of the tar sands to the oil companies has brought enormous investment (some $200 billion so far). The high cost in part lies in the remoteness of the locations, in part because of the difficulty of extracting usable oil from the tar sands themselves.

Two tons of earth have to be dug out of the ground to make a single barrel of bitumen. To extract it requires lots of energy and lots of water. In fact, for every barrel of bitumen companies need to use three of fresh water. Needless to say the water is rarely, if ever left clean enough to be used again. As rivers dry up poisonous tailings pools surround mining areas, killing plants and animals and threatening to leak into water systems. The scale of this is unbelievable, Nikiforuk quotes one ecologist pointing out that a century ago, all water in Alberta was drinkable but now “all water is non-potable and must be chemically treated.” (p79)

The companies involved like to tell the world that this will not destroy the planet. But it is already doing so and not simply because of deforestation and polluted streams. “Each barrel of bitumen produces three times as much greenhouse gas as a barrel of conventional oil.” One company (Imperial Oil) wanted to produce four open-pit mines which would produce more greenhouse gas emissions than 800,000 cars.

Unsurprisingly Canada’s emissions of greenhouse gases in 2004 were up, 51% on 1990. No wonder Canada felt obliged to pull out of the Kyoto treaty.

It gets worse. The area being destroyed by the tar sands extraction is one of the world’s most important “sinks” for carbon dioxide. As Nikiforuk points out, “excavating one of Canada’s best carbon sinks and weather stabilizers to produce a product with three times the carbon footprint of conventional oil may be an example of global freak economics.”

Freak economics it certainly is. Tar sands can in no way prevent peak oil. At best it can slow down the decline very briefly. But even then few in Canada are seeing the benefit. The main beneficiary is the US which gets the oil it needs and frequently does so with subsidisation from Canadian tax dollars. Rarely however do those tax dollars come from the oil companies themselves, who, as the author points out, have lived a life of ease through handouts and deals that mean little of the profits they make from the destroying the country feed back into government coffers.

There is much more to this book. The impact on human health for instance, the appalling destruction of life that takes place when oil towns flourish and cast aside men and women through drink, drugs and workplace accidents or the cancers that arise from the pollution. Nikiforuk is particularly good on demonstrating the way that the Canadian government has become implicit in the tar sands exploitation, as well as the lies that are used to demonstration that tar sands are not destructive, and good for the economy.

Having lauded this book enough I want to make a few criticisms. The first of these is the lack of detailed footnotes. While there is an extensive bibliography the author and publishers have chosen not to footnote the text.This means that we cannot be sure of the source of any of the figures quoted (including the ones I’ve used in this review). This is a shame because as is made clear in the afterword the book has come under criticism from those in the oil industry and government and with material like this one needs to be confident of sources.

Secondly and far more importantly, Nikiforuk does not argue that the bitumen needs to be left in the ground. I think that this is a crucial position that environmentalists, radicals and activists must take with regard to extreme energy. If we are to stop runaway climate change we cannot burn this oil. We have to find alternate ways of fuelling our economy. The risk is summed up by James Hansen who pointed out in the NY Times that:

“Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now.”

Hansen argues that it would be “game over” if the tar sands are extracted. Nikiforuk instead argues that there need to be caps on production from the tar sands and a gradual wind down of the use of fuel from the tar sands. “If North America’s cars and trucks are still running on bitumen in 2030, both Canada and the United States will have failed as modern states,” he says.

I’d argue that if that’s the case in 2030 millions of people will already have died. Andrew Nikiforuk probably argues like this because he feels it is pragmatic, that people want to find a way out that works within the context of the system he has so ably critiqued. Unfortunately everything that he has written demonstrates how unlikely it is that the oil barons and their friends in government are to willingly enact such changes, without significant popular mobilisations against them.

The problem I think lies with Nikiforuk’s location of the problem. He understand that the system is wrong. But the blame partly lies, he argues, with consumers who use the fuel. As he says “Every Canadian who drives a car is part of this political emergency. And every Canadian can be part of the solution.” Later he repeats this line of thought; “Every time I fill up my tank I’m supporting the First Law of Petropolitics and its corrupt morality….I’m spending my children’s inheritance… I’m subsidizing the drug trade… I’m exterminating woodland caribou… etc.”

Given the scale of the problem and the power of those corporations and governments who have created this mess I’d argue that Nikiforuk is wrong here. North American car and lorry drivers use their vehicles because the system they live in has destroyed public transport infrastructure in the interest of the automobile industry. They are the victims of the system not part of the problem.

Nikiforuk is right that car drivers (alongside the majority of other people in Canada) are part of the solution. But that solution lies in a fundamental reshaping of the economy in the interest of people and planet, not the oil companies. Sadly Nikiforuk has made no attempt to demonstrate how Canada could use renewable energy, nor how (for instance) emissions could be reduced by the improvement of public transport. The lack of this alternative undermines the confidence readers might have in the potential alternatives.

If I had one final critique of the book, it would be that it needs to be more anti-capitalist. Few books have for me demonstrated so well the way that the system itself is the problem environmentally. I think many readers of Tar Sands will come away thinking that the system itself is at fault, a system that binds state and capital close together in the quest to accumulate wealth. I would argue that the logical conclusion of Nikiforuk’s book is that we need to overthrow that system. It is disappointing that his conclusions are less radical.

That said this is a book that should be read by every Canadian. It should also be read widely everywhere else as the vast majority of us have no idea of the scale of tar sands destruction. Here in the UK we have our own version of extreme energy — fracking. I’d venture that many of the trends that Nikiforuk highlights will be mirrored in that appalling industry. His book is an insight into the destructive power of the oil industry and the worrying future for all of us if those companies, big and small, aren’t stopped.

Posted with permission from the author.

1 Comment

  • The economic system which makes tar sands exploitation appear logical is at its very foundation dangerously misguided. Consequently it cannot be tweaked right or patched up in some way that is useful. We must get rid of it lock stock and barrel and replace it with a system which nurtures people and planet.