The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands
By Chris Turner
Simon & Schuster, 340 pages, $34.99
Oil's Deep State: How the Petroleum Industry Undermines Democracy and Stops Action on Global Warming – in Alberta, and in Ottawa
By Kevin Taft
Lorimer, 256 pages, $29.95
Calgary writer Chris Turner is a self-proclaimed convert to the school of political realism on issues of energy and environment, while former Alberta politician Kevin Taft is taking to the barricades in the cause of urgent action on climate change.
In two new books, the authors explore Canada's divisive debate over the oil sands and global warming from dramatically different perspectives.
Turner is a veteran writer, the author of several books on environmental themes. In The Patch, he provides a reportorial account of the tensions surrounding oil-sands growth and the global campaign to put the brakes on it. He focuses more on the people of the oil sands than the politics, profiling Canadians who have built prosperous lives in the former boom town of Fort McMurray, Alta.
He also delves into the broader challenges that the sector faces as the world shifts to a lower-carbon economy, but confesses he "discounted politics" when, in his previous work, he made the case for a rapid transformation of the energy economy.
Taft is a former leader of the Alberta Liberal Party, the perennial also-rans of the province's politics. His fifth book, Oil's Deep State, is a condemnation of the oil industry for its role in preventing governments from mounting more determined efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In it, he describes the close collaboration on climate-change policy that often occurred between industry executives and Canadian governments, notably during the premiership of Ralph Klein in Edmonton and the prime ministership of Stephen Harper in Ottawa.
He can be faulted for, as Turner puts it, discounting the broader politics at play in the climate debate, placing the blame for inaction solely at the feet of what might be described as the crude-oil industrial complex.
Both books paint a picture of an oil sands industry that has a heavy environmental footprint and a reluctance to address it, especially as it relates to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming. The fraught regional politics of the country's energy debate were on full display this week when TransCanada Corp. cancelled its massive Energy East crude oil pipeline project, and westerners angrily blamed the Liberal government and local Quebec politicians for its demise.
Turner is more forgiving in his analysis, arguing oil sands critics in the United States and Canada have indulged in rank hyperbole in singling out the oil-sands industry as a game-ending carbon bomb in their anti-pipeline campaigns. However, he also portrays the companies as slow and grudging in their acceptance of the need for change.
For his part, Taft offers a full-throated denunciation of the politicians in both countries who align themselves with energy companies and appear to do their bidding on climate-change policy. Such secretive collaboration, he writes, has led to the embedding of "oil's deep state" in the key institutions of democracy in Alberta, but also in Ottawa and in Washington.
Both books skate over some fundamental facts in the oil sands debate. Any serious discussion of fossil fuels and their role in causing global warming has to contend with two often-competing truths.
First is the serious threat of climate change. The scientific consensus holds that the production and consumption of coal, oil and natural gas result in the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that will cause catastrophic changes to global climate patterns. While there is legitimate debate about the pace of change and nature of local impacts, the science generally predicts rising sea levels, more intensive storms, warmer temperatures, and droughts in some regions, all of which will yield untold human misery and conflict.
Second is the prosperity brought by the age of oil. Growing reliance on fossil fuels – especially oil – drove a vast improvement in living standards, mobility and personal freedom throughout the developed world in the 20th century. The economic benefits of that relatively cheap and reliable fuel are now sought by billions of people in developing nations and the Third World, where energy poverty is endemic and crippling.
Both Turner and Taft allude to another truth: An economy built on an unsustainable energy source – whose emissions are increasingly seen as contributing to climate catastrophe – cannot prosper over the medium to longer term.
Critics of the oil industry focus on the alarming prospects of runaway climate change, only grudgingly acknowledging the prosperity that reliance on fossil fuels has provided.
Supporters lean heavily on oil's economic benefits and the need to address energy poverty around the globe. They either question the science outright or fail to heed the urgency of scientists' warnings.
Taft's book falls squarely in the first camp. His point of view is apparent from the "advance praise" provided inside the book's cover by celebrated environmentalist David Suzuki and Avi Lewis, a New Democratic Party activist who was a key organizer of the Leap Manifesto, which called for no new oil sands pipelines and moving to a fossil-fuel-free economy within 30 years.
Citing scenarios laid out by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Taft sees little prospect that the world will put the brakes on greenhouse gas emissions in time to avert catastrophic impacts of climate change in the latter part of this century.
He diligently documents efforts by fossil-fuel executives – notably oil-industry leaders in Canada – in blunting any effort to do so.
That effort involved working hand-in-hand with politicians, senior government officials, universities and regulators to produce research and craft policies to their liking.
For evidence, he cites reams of e-mails and documents released under Access to Information and in a federal court case involving Bruce Carson, a disgraced former Conservative operative and oil-industry lobbyist.
"Global warming is a death sentence for the fossil-fuel industry, and to delay that sentence, the industry has spent untold millions of dollars and many years capturing key democratic institutions," Taft writes. Hence, his use of the phrase "deep state," which has been recently popularized by supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump, who see an elitist, globalist cadre firmly embedded on the U.S. federal government.
In The Patch, Turner is lining up more with supporters of the oil sands industry than its fiercest critics, though his book is really a search for some middle ground. He describes the complex factors at work as both government and the industry confront the reality of climate change, but move at glacial speed compared with what is needed.
He also spends considerable time exploring the benefits of the oil economy on the lives of Canadians, and the tensions that arise when a resource sector that has become the cornerstone of a provincial economy – indeed, a key part of the national one – is blackballed as unsustainable, if not downright evil.
Turner weaves into his narrative the story of Fort McMurray and the people who have moved there in search of a better life. People like Raheel Joseph, a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in the northern Alberta city in 2007 at the age of 25, with no skills and no plan. By 2015, Joseph is driving a commuter bus for Diversified Transportation Ltd., which hauls workers back and forth between the city and nearby oil sands facilities, and raising a young family in Fort Mac.
And he highlights another truth that is ignored by Taft: The failure to act aggressively cannot simply be laid at the feet of industry, even with its massive lobbying efforts and attacks on climate science. Canadians – enjoying their cars and boats, and natural-gas-warmed and air-conditioned homes – are all "complicit" in governments' slow-footed efforts to effect a transition off fossil fuels.
We're caught, Turner writes, between "the High-Modern age [of fossil-fuel prosperity], and whatever comes after in a world shaken by climate change."
And there will be no quick fixes. "The climate crisis took generations to create," he writes. "It will take a generation or more to solve." Grim realism, for sure, because we don't have a few score years to solve it before the impacts take a tremendous toll.
Shawn McCarthy is The Globe's Global Energy Reporter.