Get Rich Quick at the Oil Sands:

A Complete Guide

Rationalizations

How to Live With Yourself

The Ethics of Working in the Oil Industry

Someone once asked me where I worked. After I told her, she exclaimed “How can you sleep at night?”

This is a valid question and one I've turned over a lot in my head. How can one participate in an industry knowing full well it is damaging the future habitability of earth? I have three answers to this question. The first is that development of the oil sands is a necessary evil while we transition to a post-carbon economy. Secondly, so little is being done to pursue this transition around the world that any miniscule contribution I make one way or the other will make no difference to a world in the process of committing collective climate suicide. Finally most of those who argue for a blanket ban on all oil sands development use tremendous quantities of oil themselves, and would probably change their position were the price at the pump to rise precipitately.

The Oil Sands Are Buying Civilization Time

When I was in middle school I became interested in the future viability of industrial civilization. I read books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succed, Derrick Jensen's Endgame: The Problem of Civilization and Paul Robert’s The End of Oil, and became convinced that we were on the brink of peak oil, the moment global oil production peaked before entering a steep decline. This epochal shift would mark the end of the oil age, and if we failed to sufficiently prepare, the end of industrial civilization. It became almost an obsession. I advised my friends to prepare for the impending apocalypse at every opportunity.

As the last decade wore on the predictions of imminent peak-oil induced global economic collapse failed to materialize. Well sort of. When I was in middle school ago the price of oil hovered around $30 a barrel. $60 a barrel was then thought to be a red line that would derail the entire global economy. Instead the price shot up to $150 a barrel right before the global economic collapse of 2008, before settling down closer to $100 a barrel. Actually it can be argued that $150 barrels of oil played a large part in causing the global economic collapse. Much to my relief (and admittedly mild disappointment since I cannot tell my high school friends “I told you so”) the economy has proven far more resilient than previously thought and managed to limp along since 2008 despite $100 barrel oil.

Oil prices have been rising steadily since the Iraq War in 2003. Recent price drops not included in this chart are likely temporary unless there is another global recession.

As energy analyst Daniel Yergin argues in his book, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remarking of the Modern World, if the global economy can withstand higher oil prices without imploding, it will be a blessing in disguise. High oil prices will spur investment in harder to reach oil, maintaining our current production while incentivizing consumers to make a rapid transition to electric (or hydrogen, but probably not) cars. Oil production will not peak, but enter a long plateau. The shift to a post-oil economy need not be chaotic and catastrophic.

So in reality the oil sands are a necessary evil. They give us breathing room to wean ourselves off oil, and their exploitation can be justified if we use the time wisely to churn out electric cars (and planes, and trains, and ships). Time is short. Conventional oil fields all over the world are running dry. The price will necessarily continue to rise to meet increasing demand, and how long we can sustain this burden, which basically acts as a tax on economic activity, is anyone’s guess. But by working in the oil sands we can at least sleep soundly knowing we are buying time for politicians to rise to the occasion and take the action demanded by our dire circumstances.

We Are All Doomed Anyway

Inextricably tied to our dangerous dependence on oil is the threat of climate change. Demand for every form of fossil fuel is expected to spike in the decades ahead as developing economies become developed and their energy consumption approaches Western levels. We are told that if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change, and the droughts, mass extinctions and sea level rises that entails, we must reduce our carbon emissions 40 to 70% by mid-century, and have them completely phased out by 2100.

Is this likely?

Take China. 1,000 new cars ply Beijing’s congested thoroughfares every single day. Two coal-fired power plants come online every week. China may emit as much carbon in 2030 as the entire world (including China) emitted in 2008.

Tangshan, seen here, did not have a single building over three stories in 2004. Now there are dozens.

Perhaps more disconcerting, China is trying to be green. China is far and away the world’s leader in renewable energy. They have the most wind turbines and the most hydroelectric generating capacity. 87 carbon-free nuclear reactors are in various phases of permitting and construction, almost as many as all the American nuclear power plants ever built. China’s mammoth green energy initiatives accomplish in months feats that would take decades in the West. Cape Wind is a fine example: A proposal to build America's first offshore wind farm in Massachusetts' Nantucket Sound has been held up in court for nine years.

The problem with China is that the power needed to bring over a billion people out of poverty is truly enormous. The People’s Republic must resort to every form of electricity generation just to keep pace with surging demand. Fossil fuels are such a cheap and miraculously energy-dense source of power that restricting their use is economically and politically impossible.

When I was in China I gave English lessons to a clever chemistry student going for his Masters. Hewanted to know how people in Canada thought, what they talked and cared about. I told him some people worried about climate change. He furrowed his brow, thought about this for a moment, then asked me what I meant. I explained about the Kyoto protocol, the oil sands and the Northern Gateway pipeline. He looked almost shocked. He was aware of climate change but making a political issue out of it, let alone worrying about it, is something that had never even occurred to him.

It was my turn to be shocked. I looked out the window across the smog-shrouded quad of Hubei University. I could barely discern the outlines of buildings 100 metres away. How could he fail to understand this was all interconnected? And if he didn’t, who in China would?

James walks through a soupy smog in Tangshan. It stings the eyes and burns the throat.

The inescapable conclusion is that environmental awareness is a luxury. Life in China is extremely competitive, even ruthless. The Chinese have a word for life in the West that roughly translates as “easy mode”. In China life is “hard mode”. Tens of millions still languish in poverty. Telling them they cannot have electricity because their house might be underwater in 30 years is like telling a 20-year-old he cannot eat a hamburger because of heart disease. They can’t be bothered to worry about climate change until they develop and that won’t happen until thousands of coal plants blot the landscape and millions of petroleum cars clog the highways, just like in North America and Europe.

Traffic passes along Highway 63 in front of the Syncrude plant.

I came away from the experience worried and depressed. Canada could halt construction in the oil sands tomorrow. Every country on earth save China could stop emitting carbon tomorrow, but we would still be on track for catastrophic climate change.

This is not to abrogate Canada’s climate responsibilities. Canada has an awful record on climate change. We could be a global leader in this field, investing in green technologies, planting trees and suspending fossil fuel development, or using all the mitigating measures at our disposal for the developments that do go ahead.

Cumulative Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A graph showing total greenhouse gas emissions. While it may be tempting for Westerners to call China the world's biggest emitter, it is easy to forget that we've been emitting carbon for 150 years.

More generally, we in the West have known about climate change for decades and had the means to tackle it. Every American President since Jimmy Carter has vowed to combat America's perilous dependence on oil. Wind farms, solar panels, nuclear power plants and electric cars were developed in the 1970s in response to the oil shocks. There was a chance to capitalize on this early wake-up call. Instead over the past 40 years virtually nothing has been done to deploy these new technologies en masse. America still burns almost a billion tonnes of coal annually. Since we failed to develop a model renewable energy economy in the 1980s and 1990s for the developing world to follow they are now falling back on our tried and true fossil fuel model. We’ve opened Pandora’s Box and trapped ourselves in a world of soaring carbon emissions and unpredictable climate change.

Confronted by this grim reality it is tempting to throw up one’s hands and give in to despair. One climatologist told the Sydney Morning Herald how she hoped the Copenhagen Climate Summit would deliver an international treaty to curb carbon emissions.

But the reality was a massive, epic failure of political will. It broke me,” she says. “The trigger point was actually watching grown men cry. They were senior diplomats from small islands, begging larger countries to take action so that their nations would not drown with the rising seas.”

Thornton pauses, takes a breath. “It still gets me, five years later. That’s when I lost hope that we were able to save ourselves from self-destruction. That’s when I lost hope that we would survive as a species. It made me more susceptible to what I call ‘climate depression’.

‘Climate depression’ is becoming increasingly common among scientists and activists around the world. Can you blame them? I once asked a climatologist who studied the melting permafrost in Canada's tundra what was happening with the world’s climate. The reality, he told me, is dramatically worse than what we are shown in the news media.

“How bad will it get?” I asked.

“Do you ever plan on owning a home?” he rejoined.

I said sure, one day I would. He advised me to do a little extra research before I bought a house: Look at a contour map and make sure the property is at least six feet above sea level. That should just be enough to keep it above the rising tides.

The impact of two metres sea level rise on Vancouver. Find your area here.

It is becoming increasingly evident we've already blown our chance to face climate change head on. Whether I spend my life studying climate science and raising environmental awareness or sinking oil wells in the high Arctic, the end result will be the same. History may judge us, but will it really discern between those who few extract the fossil fuels, and those who demand and consume them—which is everyone? I doubt it. This brings us to the third rationalization, and the one most people in Fort Mcmurray subscribe to.

We Wouldn’t Be Here If It Wasn’t For You

One day a Cree co-worker and I were shovelling dirt under a stifling sun, emptying silt that had gummed up a culvert. I had just arrived in the oil sands and wondered how other people dealt with the ethical issues of working there. I asked him if he thought working in this industry was wrong. He looked thoughtful for a moment then told me about a Greenpeace protest that occurred in September 2009.

Around 25 Greenpeace activists had infiltrated Shell’s Albian Sands. They drove onto an active mine, unfurled banners reading TAR SANDS and CLIMATE CRIME and chained themselves to a 400-ton hauler. You’ll notice in the picture two haulers, a steam-shovel and a line of pickup trucks. Those pickup trucks were driven in by the activists. What do you think powers them? It’s not hydrogen.

Greenpeace Protesters taking trucks to the protest.

“I can see where the protesters are coming from,” he told me, “but how can I side with them? They drove onto the site in trucks. If they rode in on horses they wouldn’t look so stupid.

“I’m the last person to say we should be destroying these lands," he continued, "but I have to feed my kids. If there were jobs building wind farms I’d do that. But there aren't.” His words stuck with me.

Half-frozen muskeg in May.

They also fairly encapsulate the mood of most people in Fort McMurray. We all consume oil. Not just during our daily commutes and summer road trips, but in every consumer good we buy and virtually every piece of food we eat. All of it has to come from somewhere and it probably came from there on a ship, train or truck powered by oil. For now reliance on oil is inescapable. We cannot look at the oil sands in a microcosm, but instead as one aspect of a civilization intent on ignoring the source of this problem which is oil demand. The planet is running out of cheap oil, which is why we are forced to resort to increasingly inefficient, dirty oil. Oil with a dangerously low EROI. The IEA admits that developing the oil sands will be essential to replace declining output from conventional fields. Without them, and without other environmentally devastating mega-projects like the future extraction of heavy oil from Venezuela’s Maracaibo Basin, oil production might fail to meet demand, a situtation that would cause far greater economic disruption than most people realize.

In the short to medium term there is much we can do to minimize the drawbacks of the oil sands. We could improve government regulation and oversight. We could slow expansion. We could put a price on carbon, aggressively see through reclamation efforts, build nuclear power plants, throw all our weight behind carbon capture and storage technology, set aside oil revenues as part of a sovereign wealth fund to promote green initiatives. There are ways to square the circle and it has been done before. But it will take time, money and careful planning. It can buy us time to help us tackle the real problem, oil demand. Yet if we as a society cannot muster the courage to take even these baby steps, what good will it do to vilify those who are just now seeking economic opportunity where it exists? It will serve only to further polarize and alienate, and lead to a debate where both sides talk past the other and the oil companies are given a free hand.