"We can’t pretend that this was parachuted in by a bunch of evil oil giants. We were all part of making this happen." -- Chris Turner
Alberta’s oil sands have become the front line of a high-stakes collision between two conflicting world views: one of industrial triumph, and the other of environmental stewardship. Award-winning writer Chris Turner’s "The Patch" offers readers the first objective, beautifully written, single-narrative portrait of the oil sands, untangling the web of vested interests and showing just how deeply the oil sands affect all our lives.
The following highlights are from a conversation with Chris Turner about his book, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oils Sands. To hear the full interview, click the link above, or subscribe to our podcast. Lastly, this interview was made possible with the generous support of the CBC.
Sarah Aronson: What can you say about the North American love story with pickup trucks?
Chris Turner: What can I say about that? I can say certainly the pickup truck has taken on a deep symbolic value for a lot of people who own them. It’s not just how they get around. It says something about who they are, their ability to handle any task that comes at them, go anywhere they choose, carry a bunch of stuff with them. The pickup truck is how you help your friends: “Oh, can I borrow your truck? I need to take this thing to the dump,” or whatever. So there really is, I guess a kind of love affair surrounding people and their trucks. And guys love to customize them and put bumper stickers and things that identify “this is who I am in my truck.” Yeah, it’s a real identity thing.
I learned a lot of new truck vernacular while reading your book, called The Patch. And for our listeners unfamiliar, will you just begin by describing “the patch”?
Right, so the patch that I’m describing. . . "the patch" is one of these industry shorthand terms for a number of different places where there’s been a lot of oil and gas development. This is one about the oil sands region of Northern Alberta. So basically this very large industrial site in Northern Alberta, a good 4.5 hours northeast of Edmonton where there is more than three million barrels a day of oil produced from bitumen, which is this very heavy, sludgy stuff—it’s not your typical crude oil—basically it has to be mined or else liquefied and then pumped to the surface. It was a thing Canadian entrepreneurs and the Canadian government had been playing around with looking for a way to make profitable for nearly a hundred years and then suddenly in the late 1990's it became a very profitable business indeed.
What do you think most Americans don’t comprehend about the Alberta oil sands?
Well I think to begin with most Americans, if they’ve heard of them, think they’re something that rose out of virgin soil in the last 10-15 years. Whereas this is something that successive Canadian governments and Canadian companies—a mix of the two—had been trying to turn into a viable resource for a century and it was very much a government-led, government-funded to some degree, project. This was not a handful of big oil companies coming up with some crazy scheme and drilling holes in the earth, as you see with, for example, with the wave of fracking. The oil sands was already a really large industrial project by the late 1970's—it was a failing industrial project at the time, it was not making money—but by that point you already had significant public investment, a lot of momentum at the provincial level of government here in Alberta and then nationally to make it work. We’d put a bunch of time and effort into it. It’s oil, you know, “if you have it you use it”—remains the attitude. So once it came onto the radar of American climate change activists and the American government talking about pipelines, it was already a really large and growing industrial force.
At the end of the book when the narrator comes in, when you come in, I was heartbroken when I read this sentence, “I am dug in is what I mean.” Why do you think you had to write about your own complicity?
Because I think it’s really unhelpful to pretend that the scale and scope and power of the oil industry is something that exists outside of our daily lives and daily choices. I’m not a big fan of what’s called “hairshirt environmentalism,” where you personally go without to make a show of your sacrifice, but I do think we need to recognize there’s only so much you can do on the supply side of the fossil fuel industry until there are really serious things done about the demand. As long as demand continues to grow, and it is, in the course of my writing the book and the extraordinarily-pitched debate over what was to happen with Keystone XL pipeline, you know the United States added 4 million barrels of oil per day to its production so we’re not winning the war at this point on the demand side. There’s still extraordinary demand for the commodity itself and so I think that’s what I wanted to make explicit there. And also because I think, particularly in the case of the oil sands, there had been a tendency, even among Canadians quite proximate to it to act as it was this other-worldy thing, this aberration that had occurred, as opposed to an extension of the backbone of our economy. And so we do have to take a certain amount of responsibility.
I don’t like to go too far into the, you know, “How’d you get to the protest?” Oh, you didn’t. . .
You didn’t ride your bicycle.
Even if you did, what’s the bicycle made of? I don’t like that particular part of the debate. But I do think you do see here in Canada for example, regions being pitted against each other, as if we aren’t all part of the same economic equation. As if, again in the case of Canada, our RSP’s which are the equivalent of 401k’s to an American audience, all have energy stocks in them that profited off this boom. That doesn’t excuse the industry’s excesses, but I do think it gets to how we can’t pretend that this was parachuted in by a bunch of evil oil giants. We were all part of making this happen.
About the Book:
Each day, the Alberta oil sands make the news across Canada, as pro-pipeline and anti-pipeline stories clamor for attention in our news feeds. No matter one’s stance, the choices made about the oil sands and its future development will, without a doubt, define Canada’s twenty-first-century resource economy and its carbon footprint.
Alberta’s oil sands have become the front line of a high-stakes collision between two conflicting world views: one of industrial triumph, and the other of environmental stewardship. Award-winning writer Chris Turner’s The Patch, offers readers the first objective, beautifully written, single-narrative portrait of the oil sands, untangling the web of vested interests and showing just how deeply the oil sands affect all our lives.
Approaching this global enterprise through the eyes of those who live in it day-to-day, Chris found a great challenge in gaining access to those who could shed light on the Patch. As Chris writes: “Despite claims from both proponents and critics of the oil sands that they just want their story heard, there was remarkably little in the way of cooperation on several fronts. It was only through backdoor sources—industry contractors and locals on the ground in Fort McMurray, anonymous off-record employees in Calgary, activists working on regional campaigns—that I pieced together the full story of The Patch. I would argue that no agenda is well served by refusing to allow more light in; it only amplifies the distortions. The Patch’s story is an important one, and it is still being written, and it should be shared.”
About the Author:
Chris Turner is an award-winning author and one of Canada’s leading voices on climate change solutions and the global energy transition. His bestsellers The Leap and The Geography of Hope were both National Business Book Award finalists, and The Geography of Hope was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. His feature writing has earned nine National Magazine Awards. He lives in Calgary with his wife, Ashley Bristowe, and their two children.