Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Book documents discarding of three decades of tar sands knowledge

Book documents discarding of three decades of oilsands knowledge
By Darcy Henton, Edmonton Journal
June 29, 2009

Some might call it '32 lost years.'

When Edmontonian Larry Pratt wrote his book Tarsands in 1976, he warned Albertans about the environmental, social and economic ramifications of rapid development of the oilsands, north of Fort McMurray. Thirty-two years later, Calgarian Andrew Nikiforuk provides in shocking detail in his book, also called Tarsands, just where that frenzied development has got us.

It raises the question: Where was everybody during those three decades?

Nikiforuk, a veteran environmental writer who won acclaim for his book Saboteurs, about Wiebo Ludwig and the Alberta oilpatch, wonders the same thing. He read Pratt's book in the 1980s, a few years after it was published by Hurtig Publishers, and again before he plunged into the subject for his own 2008 book, and was struck by how much the federal and provincial government knew at the time about the long-term problems associated with the project.

"In the '70s, everyone knew what the problems would be," he noted. "They knew the tailings ponds were unsustainable. They knew other methods had to be developed to deal with tailings waste. They knew about the demands on the river. They knew the boom would overwhelm the infrastructure of Fort McMurray. What is so astounding about Larry Pratt's book is he lays all these things out very, very clearly."

At the time Pratt was researching his book, the project was but a toddler, stumbling about on wobbly legs, and Pratt was wondering if it would even make it out of the crib. He had to undertake a major rewrite when one of the major Syncrude partners bowed out at the last minute.

His book focused on the political issues, shining a spotlight on the astonishing clout of the Big Oil lobby, but many of the issues he raised back

then continue to be issues today. Nikiforuk, 54, says Pratt, a University of Alberta political scientist at the time, questioned whether Albertans would ever get full value from the oilsands once the full environmental costs are factored in "and that's a question no one really wants to answer today."

Pratt shakes his head when he recalls the pressure the industry put on the provincial and federal governments to help finance the development to the tune of $2 billion. "I felt when I was writing the book that it really wasn't necessary to fall in line with them. There were other things we could have done, like reducing the use of conventional oil. That's always been one thing the provincial government refused to do."

Nikiforuk says he didn't discover until after his own book went to press that the provincial and federal governments spent millions of dollars studying the impacts and then let the research gather dust on shelves. "By 1984-85, almost all of this research died on the vine and funding had been cut off. The reports stopped and the scientists left these projects. Some scientists have told me the provincial government just did not want to know. If they had the information, they couldn't have allowed the development they did in the 1990s."

He said that since then the Alberta government has approved more than 100 projects "with the worst kind of planning I could think of."

"We ignored every bit of evidence collected by the Peter Lougheed government-- 30 years of knowledge and experience and reports, everything from work on tailings ponds to the royalty regimes," Nikiforuk laments. "And I think a lot of it was purposeful neglect. The guys who approved this stuff didn't want to know there were clear obstacles to rapid expansion."

Pratt, now 65, says he wrote his 200-page book in just four months, sitting at a picnic table in his backyard that summer. "I was pissed off about the power the oil companies were demonstrating--what I would call coercion or economic blackmail," he recalls. "I felt quite radical at that point. I was in not a good mood."

His book, with caricatures of Lougheed and former prime minister Pierre Trudeau trapped in oilsands goo on the cover, sold 13,000 copies and was made into a CBC documentary. Nikiforuk's book, published by Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation, has sold 10,000 copies and is now being updated in a second printing.

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal


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