Tar Sands

By Andrew Nikiforuk

Tar Sands, by Calgary-based journalist and Governor-General’s Award-winning author Andrew Nikiforuk, is the second recent book to take a critical look at the bitumen boom economy of northern Alberta, coming hard on the heels of William Marsden’s Stupid to the Last Drop. Such interest isn’t surprising given the growing importance of the tar sands as a political and environmental issue. It is, however, a bit of a historical anomaly.

An anomaly because for most of its history the tar sands have been a part of Canada out of sight and out of mind to most Canadians. A thinly populated wilderness and (in the words of one early bitumen booster) “relatively undesirable environment,” it is a place few people visit. Ninety-eight per cent of the current population of Fort McMurray plan on eventually getting out and retiring somewhere else. Government operates as an absentee landlord.

Such blindness and indifference are understandable given the unpleasant consequences of our addiction to oil. Nikiforuk presents these in detail, from the massive and irreparable destruction of the natural environment – turning a good chunk of northern Alberta, including the world’s third-largest watershed, into a toxic moonscape – to the political transformation of Canada into a modern petrostate. What he exposes most of all, however, is the mind-boggling short-sightedness and stupidity of the entire enterprise, not only the lack of any responsible federal or provincial plan for development, but also the absurdity of using so much water and natural gas to separate oil from tar in the first place (a process likened here to reverse alchemy, the turning of gold into lead).

Nikiforuk does overdo the figurative comparisons a bit. While volume may be handily imagined in units of Olympic-size swimming pools, it’s less helpful to know that the area covered by open-pit mining could end up being three times larger than the ancient city of Angkor Wat, or that a megaton of carbon dioxide is “enough to fill one million two-storey, three bedroom homes and suffocate every occupant.” But this is a minor point, and overall Tar Sands provides an excellent guide to all of the environmental issues. The political analysis is also good, sounding a warning about our dangerous energy “interdependence” with the declining American empire and using Thomas Friedman’s first law of petropolitics – that the price of oil and the quality of freedom invariably travel in opposite directions – to make the case for tar’s corrosive effect on our democracy. This view from the commanding heights is complemented throughout with reporting from the ground level of the boomer economy in Tar Nation, a hypercapitalist culture of immigrant labour, overpriced homes, deadly highways, and lots of hard drugs.

In his conclusion Nikiforuk offers “Twelve Steps to Energy Sanity,” an oil-addiction recovery program. And, surprisingly, many of his recommendations seem doable. We can’t avert a disaster that is already under way, but we might be able to prevent things getting horribly worse.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, December 2008.

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