Join me on my ride through the oil sands of media. A snapshot of my life: Picture me as I ride my blue bicycle on the trails along (aptly named) Black Gold Drive. While riding, I daydream about my life.
Pedalling beneath a QE2 Highway overpass, I stop and look up to watch semis rolling north, a parade of trucks headed to Fort McMurray and parts between. Loads bloom with pipes, spools and pieces of pumpjacks to extract that “black gold” from the earth. Not surprisingly, there are fewer and lighter loads today, due to current low oil prices plus high oil reserves 1 and no Keystone XL pipeline2 yet.
Besides the drone of highway traffic, there’s little else in my landscape. I can’t see the stupefying Rockies through my windows or any bucolic scenes of nature. And yet I pay a lot of money to live here.3 That’s because, love it or hate it, I’m connected to Oil Country, Alberta.
Home for me is Leduc, a few minutes south of Nisku with its drill rig manufacturers, and a few hours south of Fort McMurray with its ground zero oil sands. Tradespeople and industries have flocked to the smell of oil buried in our sandy soil, soil made rich with dinosaur bones.
While pedalling my bike, pondering what I find in the media, I have an epiphany: my life plays out like a movie. I am living a script that makes me feel uneasy as the actor I’ve been cast.
Some days I feel like Lorraine Bracco’s character Karen Hill in the movie Goodfellas.4 She lives in a world surrounded by mafia wives she can’t relate to and criminal actions she can’t condone. But. She can’t walk away from the money. And she doesn’t, until it’s too late. Will this be the same fate when my partner’s job is eliminated, that we waited too long to leave?
Other days I am Matt Damon in Promised Land.5 He represents a natural gas corporation, intent on wooing rural folks to lease their drilling rights. Damon’s character is troubled after he discovers more about the residents and their roots. Simultaneously, he doubts his company’s ethics.
When Damon is fired after admitting to land owners that fracking is risky, his co-worker casually said, “It’s only a job.” But. To the land owners, it’s their lives and livelihoods.
Just like in Alberta: it’s our lives and our livelihoods. Read that however you like, as in our cherished land and our cherished oil industry jobs. Now pick a tarry side and try to stay on it.
Challengers with passion
Before I hop on my bike, I watch business news and read online articles: ever-present celebrities fervently support the pro-environmental cause. One of those who buzzed around our oil hive is actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Both the Alberta government and the oil industry busily defended the oil sands after Mr. DiCaprio visited Fort McMurray, the hub of oil sands industry, and Fort Chipewyan, a small community that has attracted the global spotlight on health and environmental worries.6
DiCaprio released a video that warns about climate change and “depicts the fossil-fuel industry as a robotic monster stomping over the Earth.” In the self-narrated video entitled Carbon, he demonstrates his position against industry: “They drill, they extract, making trillions of dollars,” and “We must fight to keep this carbon in the ground.” 7
His latest film Before the Flood shows him urging world leaders at the UN to act on fossil fuels.
Neil Young is another passionate challenger of the environmental footprint. Pipeline issues are “scabs on our lives,” he said, and “Canadians must band together to ensure their constitution includes the right to live in a healthy environment.”8
He’s sticking to the comparison he made in opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, that the oil sands resemble Hiroshima after the atom bomb.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu also toured the oil sands region.9 He was in the 1,100-person northern Alberta First Nation. During a conference on treaty rights and the environment, Tutu had strong words for the audience: “The fact that this filth is being created now when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed.”
But there’s conflict here, considering the Athabasca Chipewyan’s ACDEN group of companies earns $270-million in annual revenues through industrial contracts with oil sands producers. On one hand, there’s a need to protect the traditional lands on the First Nation, 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray; on the other, community business interests are also essential.
“I have to balance everything out, in more ways than one,” Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Adam said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a hypocrite.” 10
Others should feel like hypocrites, if I continue to ponder. After all, Archbishop Tutu flew from Africa to Canada and what powered his jet? Oil. Then there was the fuel required for his helicopter tour of the oil sands.
Others yet pull out their rah rah pom-poms: “You must be seen to be doing good,” said Sue Van Aalst, Government Relations for Suncor. 11 “What Yes Can Do” is the name of an upbeat Suncor campaign. “We want to build trust with Canadians,” she continued. “We want to be seen as a company that connects and demonstrates a commitment to the triple bottom-line: social well-being, economic prosperity and a healthy environment.”
Dream on. In the teeth of eco-challengers, bottom-line cheerleading alone won’t cut it.
While the oil sands are and will continue as a shiny target for eco-activists determined to end fossil fuel production, these activists are ignoring the demand for fossil fuels. This demand for fuels that heat homes and help produce food won’t dry up quickly, despite ambitious plans for alternate energy.
Back to my snapshot: At the end of the movie Annie Hall,12 Woody Allen tells a joke. A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, “Hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken.” Then the doc says, “Why don’t you turn him in?” Then the guy says, “I would but I need the eggs.” In Alberta, replace “eggs” with “oil” and the joke still works.
Where utopia meets dystopia
Cons. Pros. I’m bombarded by a gusher of media that features polar-opposite sides of oil sands development. I try to understand each argument, providing I receive the complete and honest picture. In spite of my research, I am caught in a nether region between utopia and dystopia.
Like Chief Adam, I feel like a hypocrite. And like Matt Damon’s character, I am troubled. After all, my husband is a welder and he makes equipment for the oil industry. That’s why we’re in Alberta. I’m living the script, but I’m not bragging about it. More often, I dodge when asked what we do.
Which side should I support, the environmentalists who struggle to protect our world, or the oil companies that pay for my movie channels (it’s a long cold dark winter here)? I’m more concerned for the next generation. How will their media present the story?
At age eight—prior to dreams of oil and economies—I built a utopian community out of toothpicks, glue and Magic Markers. My utopia included a home with a TV in every room, a nearby school and a corner store. Today, I fear my utopian dream is growing dystopian, with nightmarish vignettes of desolation, ruined water sources, polluted air and an exodus of people heading anywhere else.
Since my crystal ball is hazed with fly ash and my daily news feeds leave me dizzy, all I can hope for is middle ground, where environmentalists and oil companies meet halfway. May this happen before I join the dinosaur bones.
And may this oily story not end like the original Planet of the Apes. 13 The structure peeking out of the sand won’t be the Statue of Liberty’s torch, but the broken wheels of my blue bike.
* * *
1. Tony Seskus, “Canada’s oil price woes reaching an ’emergency situation,’ Cenovus CEO says,” Canadian Press, November 14, 2018, https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/oil-production-cuts-1.4905776.
- Emily Sullivan, “In a setback for Trump, judge blocks Keystone pipeline construction,” NPR, November 9, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/11/09/665994751/judge-puts-keystone-xl-pipeline-on-hold-pending-further-environmental-study.
- Elissa Carpenter, “Albertans pay highest proportion for life’s essentials,” CBC News, December 19, 2017, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/stats-can-costs-prices-essentials-food-shelter-transportation-alberta-spend-1.4455826.
- IMDB, Goodfellas, 1990, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099685/.
- IMDB, Promised Land, 2012, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2091473/?ref_=nv_sr_1.
- Lauren La Rose, “Alberta oil sands prominently featured in DiCaprio’s climate change film,” Global News, October, 2016, https://globalnews.ca/news/3026914/alberta-oilsands-prominently-featured-in-dicaprio-climate-change-film/.
- Clive Owen, “Alberta riled by Leonardo DiCaprio’s position on oil sands,” The Globe And Mail, May 12, 2018, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/alberta-riled-by-leonardo-dicaprios-position-on-oil-sands/article20187391/.
- Camille Bains, “Pipeline issues are ‘scabs on our lives,’ rocker Neil Young says,” The Star, November 12, 2014, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2014/11/10/pipeline_issues_are_scabs_on_our_lives_rocker_neil_young_says.html.
- Kelly Cryderman, “Tutu’s harsh words prompt new focus on oil-sands fight,” The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2018, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/tutus-harsh-words-prompt-new-focus-on-oil-sands-fight/article18942264/.
- Simon Houpt, “Extreme makeover: Athabasca edition,” The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2018, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/rob-magazine/extreme-makeover-athabasca-edition/article21316586/.
- IMDB, Annie Hall, 1977, Quotes http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075686/quotes.
IMDB, Planet of the Apes, 1974, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071033/?ref_=nv_sr_3
Shannon Kernaghan writes about business, relationships and everything between. For years she wrote a weekly newspaper column where she praised or provoked, depending on the fake news of the day. She has 10 published books. Listen to her stories at www.ShannonKernaghan.com