New Book Pumps Our Resource

June 1st, 2010
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My Open Range column from the June 2010 issue of Alberta Venture magazine:

Black Bonanza author defends Alberta’s turf and pokes a stick at anti-oil sands crusaders

Was it only four years ago the Alberta government parked one of those monster oil sands trucks on the Washington Mall, within site of Congress? It was Alberta’s coming-out party: the industrial gigantism, the galloping growth, the U.S. government’s recognition of the oil sands as real reserves nearly as big as Saudi Arabia’s, the billions in capital being hoovered from a veritable UN of banking pockets, all were points of pride. A different world. The narrative, as they say, has been reframed. Today it’s all about “dirty” “tar” sands, runaway carbon emissions, environmental catastrophe, unsustainable growth, scars to the boreal forest you can see from space. Much of it’s wrong, the rest exaggerated. But then, nobody’s calling out the doom-mongers.

Until now. “Fossil fuels are a one-time gift from nature that has lifted us from subsistence to civilization,” writes veteran Ontario-based corporate historian Alastair Sweeny in Black Bonanza: Canada’s Oil Sands and the Race to Secure North America’s Energy Future. “Synthetic crude from the [oil] Sands is just a great insurance policy for North America.” Sweeny lays out the case succinctly. Not only are the oil sands an immense resource that can be of great use to Albertans and consuming markets for decades, but the greatly exaggerated environmental damage is being reduced by improving technology and tougher standards. Perspective is key: Sweeny notes the allegedly ecosystem-destroying land area disturbed by oil sands development amounts to 0.01% of Canada’s boreal forest – the land area of one large Canadian city.

There’s a lot in this book, from a vividly written history of the century-long struggle by a succession of remarkable individuals to turn the “pitch” seeping out of the muskeg into a marketable product, to the industry and government’s superb job of driving forward more efficient and environmentally benign extraction methods like SAGD. Sweeny also delightfully dismembers “Peak Oil” theory, predicting the oil sands will instead provide “another hundred years or so of energy security.”

In Black Bonanza’s toughest and most daring section, Sweeny charts how the “Tar Wars” campaign is inextricably tied up with global warming alarmism, of which – bless his heart – he’s also sceptical. Writes Sweeny: “…An army of public relations activists were unleashed to turn the Sands from what should be a treasure chest of wealth and energy security, into what Al Gore calls ‘a threat to our survival as a species.’” He adds the crucial point that the anti-oil sands movement isn’t a few plucky underdogs up against “Big Oil”, but a huge and richly funded machine.

In fact, he believes it’s serving as cover for greedy businessmen intent on profiting from concocted carbon exchange markets and bogus alternative energy schemes (for which taxpayers and ratepayers will foot the vast bill). He cleverly hoists the anti-oil-sanders on their own petard, arguing they need to destroy Alberta’s great industry because it stands in the way of setting up the systems they want to game for their own enrichment. Big Oil, meet Big Carbon Trading. Sweeny manages to skewer Al Gore, George Soros, Maurice Strong and Barack Obama’s Chicago cronies – all in about four pages. Every Albertan should memorize the list to understand who we’re up against.

Sweeny’s weakest chapter is the last, “Blue Shift”. Despite his clearly fine nose for dubious claims and motives, he’s oddly eager to believe that in 20-30 years we’ll be driving electric cars powered from nano-technology-enabled solar panels: “The emerging Blue Shift should take us gracefully out of the age of oil, and usher in an era of super abundance right out of a science fiction novel.” Right.

Watching “The Four Feathers” a few years back, it occurred to me that it required a foreigner – Indian director Shekhar Kapur – to appreciate the splendour of the British Victorian mind in its full vanity and folly – plus its glory, moral seriousness and courage. Nowadays most Brits wallow in cultural self-loathing and deny their country’s immeasurable contributions to the world – beyond puking footie hooligans. Here in Canada, maybe it took an Easterner to explain the importance of Alberta’s oil sands to Albertans.

It’s good someone is. Speaking of self-loathing, we too seem to have lost sight of the good that we’re doing – bringing reliable, cost-effective and environmentally reasonable energy to millions. I often get the feeling the average Alberta energy sector executive thinks the Tar Wars critics are more right than wrong. The industry’s two main responses to the existential peril of environmental extremism – avoidance and accommodation – have gotten it nowhere. Worse, moved it backwards, earning the contempt of radical greens and confusion from millions of Albertans who benefit profoundly but largely unawares from the energy sector.

A couple of years back, when some left-wing U.S. mayors tried to organize a boycott of Alberta’s heavy oil, the industry crumbled into finger-pointing factions. SAGD-focused companies turned on their mining brethren: “boycott them, but buy our stuff.” If “united we stand” seems too naive, had none of them heard of Winston Churchill’s observation that an appeaser is someone who feeds the crocodile in the hope that it’ll eat him last? Sweeny also laments what he sees as the industry’s inability to see what it’s “facing is nothing less than a new religion determined to defeat them in a last battle, a ‘Tarmageddon’ if you will.”

Black Bonanza is less a breath of fresh air than a bracing east wind (rare on the Prairies, but it bites). Its message is that it’s tragic seeing an industry created through superhuman determination spanning a century being trashed by fools, louts and scam artists working for their own enrichment in the guise of Earth-focused altruism. I would add: and it would be farcical to let them. Senior people in Ed Stelmach’s government love Sweeny’s book and, I’m told, the premier has decided there’s been enough accommodationism. A more bullish, pro-energy, pro-Alberta approach is needed. It would be a good one to try.

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By George Koch