Drill, maybe drill: The people and politics of Alberta's oil "patch"

Author Chris Turner looks for a "middle path" in the burning debate over bitumen.

Author Chris Turner has written a new book on the political hot potato of Alberta's oil sands.

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Author Chris Turner has written a new book on the political hot potato of Alberta's oil sands.

Just about everyone in Canada knows someone who has gone to seek their fortune — or just a decent-paying job — in the “Patch,” and everyone has an opinion about whether Alberta’s oil sands are an economic miracle or an environmental blight. In his new book, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, journalist Chris Turner has tried to forge a middle path, arguing that the political hot potato that is the Patch has obscured the real issues about our energy future. And no matter what, Turner told Metro in an interview, the boom times in the northern outpost that came to be called “Fort McMoney” will likely never roll again.

There’s already a lot of interest in the oil sands. What do you have to say that’s new?

People across Canada and around the world feel very passionate about the oil sands, pro or con. But the thing itself is not well understood. The full story of how the industry came to be, how it came to grow at the time that it did, had never been told.

What do you think are the most misunderstood things about how the oil sands work?

Fort McMurray is a boom town full of young men making crazy money and living wildly. That’s a tiny sliver of what Fort McMurray actually is. Fort McMurray is an interesting, diverse, multicultural city that did basically the urban transformation that happened in Canada over 50 years, in 10 (years). Two, the industry itself. I think a lot of people believe there are a handful of companies that have trucks going to large open pit mines, and think that’s the industry. The majority now actually comes from in situ mining, and that’s not well understood. There tends to be this sense that oil prices shot up over 100 bucks 10 years ago and boom, we started investing in this crazy thing. In that, gets lost the fact that the industry was heavily subsidized (before that), and existed for half a century with public backing.

The debate about the Patch became a debate exclusively about pipelines for basically a decade. It was so polarized. What was the impact of that?

The oil sands are going to be part of Canada’s economic landscape for at least another generation, regardless of whether any particular pipeline gets approved. The symbolic power of uniting against the pipeline was very important for climate-change activists when they felt very, very frustrated and lost in the larger debate. There wasn’t going to be an international climate treaty. The United States had no climate policy, really. Canada’s government was openly mocking climate action. And here was this opportunity to galvanize not only climate activists but Indigenous activists and people worried about local impacts of pipelines and make this the rallying point. But along the way, we conflated the symbolic importance with the actual importance. The (trans mountain) pipeline will not impact emissions in any significant way. It just won’t. The price of oil affects that. Demand affects that. There was this sense that if you stop the pipeline, you stop the industry. And that does not reflect reality.

Oil prices have been relatively low for the past three years. Then there were the Fort McMurray fires. And finally, something more qualitative happened: The sense that Alberta is an endless font of easy money and good jobs for the rest of Canada started to go away. Has something changed permanently in the Patch?

There was a necessary coming to an end of an almost uncontrolled growth phase. And that was inevitable — no boom lasts forever. And it coincided with the fires and a downward trend in oil prices. What fundamentally has changed is that it’s exceedingly unlikely that there will ever be boom times like the ones just passed (again). Even if there’s a rebound in oil prices. Even if there is interest in developing new oil sands sites. It will be smaller, much more measured growth. I don’t talk much about the future in the book, because talking about the future of energy is a good way to make yourself look foolish. We rarely see what’s coming until it’s upon us and past us.

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