Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Right Wing Backlash against "Tar Sands: The Selling of Alberta" Documentary

Another hatchet job on oilsands
Industry threatens sovereignty, doc says
Gary Lamphier, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Saturday, March 15

EDMONTON - I fully expected a one-sided slag job, featuring the usual assortment of capitalist-bashing, America-loathing lefty ideologues.

I wasn't disappointed. Thursday's airing of Tar Sands: The Selling of Alberta, on CBC Television's Doc Zone, was merely the latest in a string of sensationalist hatchet jobs on Alberta's key industry, courtesy of the national media.

The Great Lakes may be a toxic soup, with millions of Canadians exposed to God-knows-what -- see recent 400-page study leaked to the U.S.-based Centre for Public Integrity for details -- but that's apparently of marginal interest to the Toronto media.

These days, the CBC and its ideological brethren have got a Big Hate on for Big Oil, specifically those money-grubbing Barons of Bitumen in Alberta, and they're not about to be distracted by any piddling toxic messes elsewhere.

The oilsands, oops, "tar" sands, in derogatory greenie-speak (question: so what do we call the world's low-grade metal deposits from now on? dirt mines?) have been blamed for everything from global warming, to rising cancer rates in Fort Chipe-wyan, to depleting water levels.

They may account for a small fraction of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions -- between four and eight per cent -- and a thin sliver of global emissions (about one tenth of one per cent), but when the self-styled truth tellers are on a mission, they're not about to let the facts mess up a hot storyline.

Now, according to the CBC's doc, we're told that oilsands projects aren't just a runaway train -- a point, in fairness, that many Albertans would agree with -- or bad for the planet. Seems they also pose a grave danger to democracy itself, and a threat to Canada's national sovereignty.

Apparently, selling stuff to the U.S. is bad, bad, bad. We all lose. Or so goes the film's murky reasoning. (Better not tell Ontario's foreign-owned auto industry, which has been almost entirely dependent on U.S. customers for half a century.)

According to the film's promo bumf, the one-hour doc, "captures the intersecting storylines of a remarkable cast of characters eager to cash in on the oil boom" in Fort McMurray, from lobbyists to working grunts to industrialists.

Nothing new in that. With global oil prices north of $100 US a barrel and $100 billion-plus worth of oilsands projects in the pipeline, there's a bucket load of money being made in "Fort McMoney," we're told. Wow. That's quite the revelation.

But Alberta's Boomtown has a dark side, we're warned. Families are being ripped apart. Newfie dads have been forced to leave the Rock and emigrate to (ugh) Alberta in pursuit of (gasp) -- a well-paying job! Horrors!

Evidently, this is wrong, on so many levels, even in a country that shamelessly expects the rest of the planet to send 250,000 of its best and brightest to our shores each and every year.

In Fort McMoney, drug dealers lurk in the shadows, the film's narrator tells us. (Cue cheezy soundtrack.) Heck, the place is so frenetically busy it's like Hong Kong. (Huh? Hong Kong? Are we talking about the same place?)

Such massive industrial growth has triggered soaring housing costs, traffic snarls, and growing illicit drug use, we're told -- problems that apparently don't exist in other cities.

Too bad the producers didn't share their shocking intelligence with Melissa Blake, mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which embraces Fort McMurray and the oilsands. I'm sure she'd like to know wuzzup.

On the other hand, since the feisty mayor actually professes great affection for Fort McMurray, despite its flaws and challenges, maybe her comments would have complicated the film's tidy, one-track script.

Look, let's get real. Yes, there are lots of issues around the oilsands. Any thinking person knows that. I've written many critical columns myself.

But it's easy to take cheap shots, as this film does. The oilsands are big, they're visible, they're messy, and there's nothing pretty about them, even if they do generate a huge amount of wealth for Canada, as well as Alberta.

But industry is never pretty. Ever been to the Chemical Valley near Sarnia, Ont., where 40 per cent of Canada's petrochemicals are produced? It's one of the most polluted places in the country. I know. I used to live there.

As for the film's claims that Alberta is selling its soul and its sovereignty, even a cursory look at the facts shows that the oilsands are more Canadian -- and Albertan -- than ever.

Almost all of the biggest players -- including EnCana, Syncrude, Canadian Natural Resources, Suncor, Petro-Canada and Nexen -- are Alberta firms, run by Canadians. Yes, foreign firms like Norway's Statoil are hiking their stakes. But the oilsands are overwhelmingly a homegrown story.

As for the much-hyped claims by enviros that Alberta's oilsands mines are destroying Canada's boreal forest, I suggest they consult their maps.

As my colleague Gordon Jaremko reported Friday, all the oilsands mines that have ever operated in Alberta cover an area roughly equal to a tiny fraction of one per cent of Canada's 3.2 million square kilometre boreal forest.

One final point. The oilsands will never dominate world oil markets, as the CBC doc suggests. Output will never come close to the 11 million barrels a day level postulated by one of the film's self-styled experts. That's pure fiction. Which is what this film amounts to.


© The Edmonton Journal 2008

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