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How Green Was My Valley, the novel by Welsh writer Richard Llewellyn, is about a young man born into a village of black air, of strikes, of deadly explosions. At the end, you're keen to accompany the hero, Huw Morgan, out of the coal mines.

More than 50 years earlier, Émile Zola had come to similar conclusions in Germinal.

The novelists and filmmakers who adapted these two works for cinema focused on people – particularly the miners. They were sad, happy, passionate, defeated, pure, compromised, creative, dull, intelligent, stupid.

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That is, alive.

Coal Miner's Daughter, Matewan and other stories, in novels and on screen, do not elevate coal mining into the higher reaches of human endeavour. Of course it's dirty. But the activity of putting on a helmet and walking every morning into a pit so the world can turn on its furnaces in winter and its lights at sundown is noble. It's something that thousands of interesting human beings do to help raise their children.

In the spring, President Barack Obama will make a decision about the Keystone XL Pipeline. It has transformed infrastructure into a symbol. Still, Canadian columnists, academics and politicians point out the hypocrisy of Americans, who derive so much of their electrical power from coal. Single American states produce nearly as many tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants as do the oil sands.

This analysis assumes that human beings make rational choices. It assumes that you can counter the power of a symbol with numbers and graphs and jargon. The difference between coal and oil sands is cultural and it's emotional. Human beings work in coal mines. Big trucks work in the oil sands.

The oil sands and the people who have made them the boiler room of Canada are amazing. It's a story of pioneers and risk-takers and scientists and crazies, who slowly and then very quickly transformed a mysterious tar into one of the largest fuel sources on the planet. The next wave of oil sands entrepreneurs will be devoted to environmental solutions. Yet from the beginning, energy companies, lobbying organizations and governments have ignored the characters in the story.

In the summer of 2006, the Alberta government and energy companies brought an exhibition to the National Mall in Washington to "tell the story" of this great resource. At that time, the environmental opposition to the oil sands was a fringe affair. For years, Canadian leaders had disputed climate science as a misinterpretation of "dinosaur farts" and had cast critics as smelly lunatics, greedy for donations.

Alberta did not tell the story of the oil sands in 2006. There was an enormous yellow dump truck and a tent with some facts and samples. I was there and I didn't hear a thing about oil sands people, oil sands characters, drama or conflict. Nothing about the individuals who lived in and around Fort McMurray – first nations and new immigrants – whose lives had changed so dramatically in less than a generation.

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I'm not suggesting that Syncrude and the Alberta government commission novelists and filmmakers to tell stories – even negative stories – about the people who live and love and die around the oil sands. But it's not a terrible idea. In a couple of months, the federal government will release its multimillion-dollar Responsible Resource Development campaign to convince Canadians, again, that our resource industry is important.

The Alberta government, the federal government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers already have spent millions on careful, impersonal, boring campaigns to tell us what we all learned in junior high school: We carry water, we hew wood. We dig stuff up and we sell it, and if we didn't, we'd all be poor. I'm sure the music will be uplifting, and we'll no doubt hear words like innovative, responsible and sustainable. But Llewellyn and Zola would remind us these are abstractions, buzzwords. They will help as much as it helped when we called the oil sands ethical.

We've heard, endlessly, about James Cameron and the fuel he puts in his private jets and helicopters. He's a fraud, but he's a fascinating fraud. The truth is, we're all frauds. And there are some marvellous frauds, from the past and present and from our imaginations, who can tell the story of the oil sands with passion, with pride and shame, with conflict and confusion, with hope and with energy. And we might even believe them.

Todd Babiak is co-founder of Story Engine, a strategy company based in Edmonton and Vancouver. His next novel, Come Barbarians, will be published in September by HarperCollins Canada.

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