When you think of the corrupting influence of oil and natural gas, you might think of countries such as Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia. Perhaps other nations such as Kazakstan or Turkenistan, although to be fair, Kazakstan seems to be turning a corner in this regard and the natural resources are now being used to help the nation as a whole, rather then a select few.
When we think corruption, the signs are usually, huge influence of the oil and gas industry over governments, suppression of all who oppose the expansion of the Petroleum industry, corruption of all aspects of government and the pocketing of huge sums of money into the numbered Swiss Bank Accounts of the leader of the government.
Perhaps I was naive to think that Canada doesn't have the same corruption, because we are a democracy, where the rules of Law apply. That is until I read the book
Stupid to the Last Drop. The book is subtitled: "How Alberta is bringing Environmental Armaggedon to Canada ( and doesn't seem to care)". The author, William Marsden investigates the Petroleum Industry in Alberta and reveals that it runs the Province. While most of the book is an examination of the Athabasca Oil Sands projects and the impact that is having on the environment, first nations and the general well-being of the Province, he looks at the way the Oil Industry has basically had its way in the Province and how successive governments have cow-towed to them. This has been true durin the regime, or reign of Ralph Klein, perhaps those who are Albertans who read my blog can give me the correct analysis of Mr. Klein's years in office.
The book opens with the story of Manley Natland who worked for Richfield Oil, in Saudi Arabia. He came up with a very clever method of extracting oil from the Oil Sands, he wanted to plant a large number of atomic bombs throughout the province of Alberta. He believed that the subsequent detonation of all those devises would through heat and vibration, free the oil from the sands and allow them to collect into the huge underground caverns that would have been created by the explosion. A brilliant idea with only one slight flaw, besides radiating everything, there would always be the risk of turning Alberta into the world's largest sinkhole, should the caverns begin to collapse.
While we would say the plan is the result of madness, the only difference between what is happening today and what Manley devised is simply the use of atomic weapons. Alberta is on a mission to destroy itself, it seems. The countryside is pockmarked with holes that are the results of drilling for gas and oil, and in many cases, the groundwater has been poisoned for the same reason.
The most fascinating chapter has to be, and they are all fascinating, Marsden's visit to Fort McMurray, ground zero of the Oil Sands project. The oil sands, may be one of the largest reserves of oil on the planet, it alone makes Canada the nation with the second largest reserve of oil, and because of our proximity and our stability makes it of great interest to the Americans. In fact according to NAFTA, Canada is compelled to send as much oil and gas as the States need.
What can be said about Ft. McMurray. The one thing that comes to mind is big. Everything about Ft. McMurray is massive. It is the commercial centre of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a massive 'community' that is larger then Ireland. The equipment used to extract the Oil Sands is massive, the cost of living is massive and the environmental degradation taking place is massive. It is a place where a person can make a lot of money and quickly, it's also a place where you need a lot of money to live; the poverty line for a family up there is $93,000. Yes you read that right, if your income is less then $93,000 a year, you are poor. What is driving the economy of this community, and Alberta when you think about it is the Oil Sands. They are massive and growing in size. They also have a missive effect on the environment, huge tracts of land is being carved up to get to the Oil and whatever is above the Oil Sands doesn't stay there long- boreal forests are being cut down, not for the wood, but to get to the Oil. Peatmoss is being dug up for the same reason, even the rivers and lakes are being emptied to provide water which is needed for the extraction process. The end result of which is contaminated water. The water is dumped into taling ponds. These ponds are surrounded by noisemakers to keep birds from landing. In a famous incident, a flocks of ducks landed on one of the taling ponds and almost instantly died. The leeching of the sludge into the Athabasca River is having a grave effect on the First Nations north of the Ft. McMurray, for example. One doctor reported that very rare cancers were showing up in the communities.
If all this wasn't enough, the author examines the Natural Gas industry, with people turning away from coal burning electrical generators to Natural Gas ones, the demand is greater then what is now being extracted. From the conventional forms, the new form is gas extracted from coal, of which Alberta has a lot- I think those dinosaurs were all Conservatives, they all decided to die in Alberta. The gas from coal is methane and often the result of extraction is contamination. This is due to the fact that coal is relatively close to the surface in Alberta and therefore close to the water table.
But I talked about corruption and while not mentioned it is obvious to any one reading this book that Alberta is corrupt. Consider, there are a number of sweet heart deals with the Petroleum Industry which means they pay almost no tax and even less in royalties. By the way, while Alberta may brag about its' Heritage fund it is puny, Norway, to give an example as reserves of $500 Billion Dollars- that's because the government has its own oil company which owns half of the oil production. Even Kazakstan's reserve is at $24 Billion and growing. In some instances Oil companies pay 1% royalty, and please remember the Oil fields of Alberta are 'owned' by the people of Alberta. It seems to me they should get a few more dollars for their troubles. OilSands companies pay no royalties until they have 'paid off' their initial investments. Which if I'm a clever company ain't never happening. So the people of Alberta are getting ripped off by their own government.
It continues, under the rule of Ralph Klein, the Ministries of Health and the Environment were gutted. They now are officially the arms of Oil Industry, often siding with and defending the Industry. Another governing body, the Energy Utilities Board, which is supposed to oversee the industry is stacked with people connected to and very friendly with Big Oil. If you have a complaint, it is this body you appeal to and guess what happens. With this body and a well gutted Ministry of the Environment, any and all plans to expand the Oil Sands projects are approved with almost no environmental impact study. Oh and it gets worse. Complain and you are pressured, demand studies and they are so skewed as to be useless.
People are being suppressed. I mentioned a doctor working in the First Nations, his name is Dr. John O'Connors. He noticed some very sudden rises in cancer rates in the communities he worked in, and they were all on the Athabasca River. He gave warning after warning of these rates and suggested they might be caused to the chemicals in the river. The Alberta government is now working on having his licence to practice medicine revoked. It seems he is guilty of getting a little too vocal. There are many who will agree that the govenment wants to shut him down and shut him up. The various ministries have become even more political and by that, I mean defenders not of the rights of the people of the Province of Alberta, but of the Petroleum industry.
This is truly an amazing book. Some have accused Marsden of writing a polemic, but then again, when you consider all that is happening, and trust me this review only touches on a few of the points raised in the book, you can understand.
I should point out one more thing, the oil when it is finally extracted from the Oil Sands is shipped to refineries in Texas and Louisiana, where it is refined and then shipped back to Canada. We don't even use our own refineries to get some added value from the sale of gasoline. It's almost the typical Canadian way.
If this book doesn't get you even a little mad at how things are run and gets you figuring out how to join the Green Party of Canada, then you must be President of Syncrude.
I should say, after reading the book I wondered if the Government of Alberta website shouldn't contain the words "A Wholly Owned Subsidiary of SunCor.
Available, hopefully at your local library.