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Shifting Sands
February 1, 2008 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Shifting Sands. A great series from the Globe and Mail on the Alberta Tar Sands: An Empire Made of Goo, Black gold, Texas tea, The hollowing out of small Atlantic towns, Where rich and poor Albertas collide, Norway the gold standard for managing oil wealth, The climatic costs of rapid growth.
posted by chunking express (32 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wired introduced this interesting story to me in this article from 2004.
posted by tdstone at 8:53 AM on February 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Thanks for this - I didn't know the Glob had done this series. Speaking as someone living in Calgary and working outside the oil sector, this boom cycle has been tough; our income doesn't keep pace with the cost of living, and trying to keep staff has been almost impossible. Lots of people are being left behind in this, and my non-profit is constantly dealing with people who moved here only hearing about the "good times" without realizing there is no housing (a vacancy rate below 1%) that is even close to affordable unless you have a very good job.

And, of course, we now have the specter of nuclear power being used in the province to extract the oil from the tar sands. The provincial government is lurching from spending announcement to spending announcement at the moment, in anticipation of an election. It feels like there is no real plan out there, just a willingness to spend our way out of whatever problem cropped up today.

The province is on a bender; we're drunk, out of control, and I'm really worried about the hangover we're going to wake up with someday. I was around for the last bust, and it wasn't pretty.
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:04 AM on February 1, 2008


...on a bender; we're drunk, out of control, and I'm really worried about the hangover we're going to wake up with someday.

Ralph Klein in a nutshell.
posted by GuyZero at 9:13 AM on February 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


Just to keep going, we haven't learned - the Norway article is the perfect example of what we should be doing; using the oil revenues to build up more savings and focus on diversifying the economy away from the oil and gas sector. There used to be a bumper sticker around here in the 80s - "Lord, give me another boom and I promise I won't piss it away this time". Well, it's here and guess what?
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:15 AM on February 1, 2008


My family moved from Alberta to Nova Scotia in the mid-nineties, and our house out west -- a typical suburban home on a cul-de-sac -- sold for about $299,000, which was roughly the same price my parents paid for it five years earlier. It's priced well over a million dollars now.

Funny thing about the tar sands: It takes so much energy to mine, transport, extract, transport, refine, transport, and transport the oil that there really isn't much point mining it in the first place, except for the "making money" part.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:23 AM on February 1, 2008


(i.e. It's not the oil, it's the industry.)
posted by Sys Rq at 9:27 AM on February 1, 2008


You know what's a stupid thing to base your entire economy on? Strip mining for tarry sand, to seperate the tar from the sand with steam, then crack it by burning natural gas. It's pretty fucking hard to imagine something with a worse environmental impact, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, the devastation of the land under which lies this foul stuff, and the creation of huge tailings ponds full of toxic sludge that is leaking unbelievable amounts of carcinogens into a vast, previously unspoiled watershed.

Enjoy the boomtimes, Albertans. Before you know it, you'll be done eating your province alive, and all that'll be left is what you shit out.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:29 AM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Never used baby shoes:

"Thanks for this - I didn't know the Glob had done this series."

A Glob series about the tar sands. You did that on purpose, right?
posted by Mike D at 9:33 AM on February 1, 2008


A Glob series about the tar sands. You did that on purpose, right?

Yes, but not in the way you perceive it. My parents (very right-wing types) refer to the Globe and Mail (the Toronto based national newspaper) as the Glob.

I probably shouldn't have explained this, and let you all think I was being very clever.
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:52 AM on February 1, 2008


The oil sands interest you, I see. I shudder to think what a carbon tax would do to these guys. As I wrote in the last thread, Petrobank's technology might minimize some of the carbon issues.

On a related note, Suncor gave Voyageur(.pdf) the go-ahead. $20.6 Billion. That's a lot of coin.
posted by Kwantsar at 10:16 AM on February 1, 2008


refer to the Globe and Mail (the Toronto based national newspaper) as the Glob.

Yeah, it's the "Glob of Mail". Doesn't everyone call it that?
posted by GuyZero at 10:20 AM on February 1, 2008


I call it the Mop and Pail.

[NOT GLOBEANDMAILIST]

Actually I quite like reading the G&M for srs bzns news. The Star for more local & lifestylish stuff. The Sun makes excellent toilet paper, while the Post is very good for insulation.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 10:29 AM on February 1, 2008


One of the profs in the history dept at Queen's back in the early '90s had a parody front page on his office door with a masthead that read "The Glib & Stale." That was before the Guardian Jr. redesign, though, when it still looked like a nineteenth-century B&W broadsheet.

Me, I think if they'd just put pretty much the entirety of their op-ed page out to pasture, they might be able to resuscitate the front section. Rest of the paper does its best on shrinking budgets.

'Course, I would say that, I cash cheques from them regularly.
posted by gompa at 10:36 AM on February 1, 2008


Actually I quite like reading the G&M for srs bzns news

Captioning every front-page picture in the bidness section of the Glob with "SRS BZNS!" would make the Globe about 1257% better.

In all seriousness, for those that don't know, the drunk binge analogy for Alberta's economy is about as accurate as it gets. There will be a crash. It will be ugly.
posted by GuyZero at 10:44 AM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Somehow I've never been able to get the phrase "Globe and Mayo" out of my head. Like a kitchen still-life.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:55 AM on February 1, 2008


Seconding GuyZero's assessment of the boom as drunken binge. If you read all the way through Doug Saunders' (meticulously reported as always) piece on the Norwegian model, you get to hear Alberta's dimbulb energy minister apologizing on behalf of the local plutocracy like Andy Capp on the doorstep at 4am, trying to explain why he's got no choice but to finish the mickey in his hand:

The attention Norway pays to planning its after-oil economy and promoting economic diversity must strike a chord with many Canadians. But the Canadian who has the most control over the use of the country's oil money is not listening. Mel Knight, Alberta's Energy Minister, said in an interview during a recent visit to London that he does not believe his province has any lessons to take from Norway.

“First of all, Norway is a country that is a federal jurisdiction. And if we were to turn over all of our resources in Canada back to the federal government, perhaps they would operate the thing differently.

“But our Constitution in Canada dictates that the province of Alberta has the mandate to deal with our own natural resources. We feel that wealth generation in the province of Alberta is worth something, and that to put that money back in the hands of Albertans, and let those people do what they do best with their money, is a better opportunity for us.”


Oh sure, honey (*hic*), that Norway guy stayed sober, but he was th' designated driver. He had to stay sober. I di'nt even have my car with me. I couldn't drive. So I (*hic*) had to get plastered, see?

Hey, you know, if you extend the metaphor, you could think of the tarsands tailings as like the reeking vomit all over the passed-out dude's shirt or something. Ha-ha!

*weeps for his Calgary-born daughter's future*

posted by gompa at 11:01 AM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I forgot to mention: Of all the people I know (there are many) that went west, a few have come back. The usual explanation for their return is not expenses (which actually aren't that bad once you figure in the taxes), but rather the people and culture. It seems hockey, football, Nickelback, and bigotry, much like the real estate, are valued quite a bit higher out there.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:05 AM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's the "Glob of Mail". Doesn't everyone call it that?

I always assumed it was a Western thing; many people I know from Toronto seem to consider the Globe as "the" newspaper to read, so I guessed it was one of our typical knee-jerk HURFDURF Toronto responses.

There will be a crash. It will be ugly.

I've lived here all my life, but I'm thinking of moving because I'm afraid of what it will look like. So much opportunity squandered - we could be leading the country in alternative energy production and research, or developed some of the fledging high-tech that came here (briefly) in the 80s, but its all oil all the time.
posted by never used baby shoes at 11:24 AM on February 1, 2008


So I (*hic*) had to get plastered, see?

I am reminded of the Spanish circa 1500 when they were bringing back gold from The New World by the boat load. It was like the oil sands, but even easier. And WOW just look how the Spanish economy turned out! The gold made them rich for a day but it destroyed their economy in the long run.

I'd love to say how much better it is to build a knowledge economy and some real industries like we do in Ontario, but the Ontario government's idea of a progress is proping up the auto industry. *sigh*
posted by GuyZero at 11:25 AM on February 1, 2008


I was born in Calgary, but spent many years away, just as all of this stuff was gathering steam.. It's amazing how much things in Calgary, and probably Alberta as a whole, have changed. The wealth here right now is astounding, but only if you work in the right industries.

I have some friends who work in oil and gas, and there are a few who truly believe that this is the boom that will never end. Environmental impacts? "Nobody wants to live that far north anyway." Long-term sustainability? "The tar sands won't run out of oil in my lifetime." It's really quite depressing. Global warming? Peak oil? "Left-wing hysteria. You're being an alarmist."
posted by mariokrat at 11:37 AM on February 1, 2008


The drunken behavior of the Alberta government is enough to convince me that we should change the constitution to move some control of natural resources back to the federal level (and I'm a Westerner, so by rights I should say OMG NEP! to that). The greed in Alberta is ridiculous. A carbon tax would help a lot too (again, OMG NEP!) and is probably the only thing that would have a real impact on the environmental destruction.

The Globe has always been The Mop and Pail to me too.
posted by ssg at 12:31 PM on February 1, 2008


I've lived here all my life, but I'm thinking of moving because I'm afraid of what it will look like.

Me too. I'm planning to live in B.C. in five years.
posted by chugg at 1:12 PM on February 1, 2008


It seems hockey, football, Nickelback, and bigotry, much like the real estate, are valued quite a bit higher out there.

Well, now I feel compelled to provide at least one or two shades of contrast.

I moved to Calgary five years ago after building my life and career in Toronto for nearly a decade. (My wife's a Calgarian and we were starting a family and couldn't afford a house in downtown Toronto, is the short answer for why.) It was impossible to miss the truly grotesque surface of the boom - the sprawl, the conspicuous consumption, all that - but I soon found a small, vibrant, nurturing arts and culture scene, engaged civic officials, activists and planners, all dug in to fight long-haul battles against a moribund status quo. Pretty much all of them are still fighting, and starting, finally, to win more skirmishes than they lose. (Sierra Club Chinook Chapter founder Brian Pincott, for example, was elected to City Council last fall.)

More than anything, I found a lack of pretense and self-importance in nearly all walks of life that was hugely refreshing after all that T.O. posturing (especially in the media circles I know best).

Change takes a good long while, and they used to routinely bulldoze gorgeous old buildings in Toronto too as recently as the '80s, and anyone who thinks Brampton's any closer to real sustainability than Southwest Calgary doesn't know what the hell they're talking about. And here in Calgary I actually feel like I might be able to get close enough to the levers of power to make a difference. I vascillate myself on the prospects for success, but for now I'm making my stand here.

One final data point: I recently wrote a book on climate change and sustainability, and last night I gave a lecture/slideshow thing on behalf of a new citizens' group called ReThink Red Deer in Red Deer (which for the non-Albertans in the crowd, is a town whose stereotypical inhabitant looks upon Calgary much as Lot's wife did on Sodom, and under the auspices of a god of similar vintage). It was -25 in Red Deer last night. Basement auditorium of the local library. Audience well over 100, standing room only. Several town councillors in attendance, plus the mayor, who presented me with his official Christmas photo, in which he's posed holding my book in his lap.

Is that enough to counterbalance the tarsands travesty? Well, probably not. Yet. But it's a start.
posted by gompa at 1:33 PM on February 1, 2008


Nice work gompa! I think Calgary's new 'unofficial' plan for all new public works is to have them LEED certified. At least they're doing something.
posted by chugg at 1:40 PM on February 1, 2008


Me too. I'm planning to live in B.C. in five years.

Just make sure you move far enough into BC that you aren't in Calgarian second home territory. The Kootenay/Columbia region of BC is where Albertans go to do their most conspicuous consumption (big empty homes, snowmobiles, quads, mud bogging trucks, massive SUVs, etc.)
posted by ssg at 1:48 PM on February 1, 2008


I know. I was in Vernon last summer and even that place is ridiculously busy. I was thinking the Queen Charlotte's or something.
posted by chugg at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2008


One final data point: I recently wrote a book on climate change and sustainability,

That's you? Awesome. My wife was at the launch; I haven't read the book yet (just had a chance to read the first chapter before my wife snatched it back), but it looks fantastic - exactly the kind of discussion that is needed around these issues (I also really enjoyed Planet Simpson, btw).

Thanks for sticking up for Calgary - I have the same experience of it that you do, but being a born and raised Calgarian always makes me wonder if my opinion is tainted somehow.

Now I'm seriously thinking about a meetup.
posted by never used baby shoes at 2:39 PM on February 1, 2008


Now I'm seriously thinking about a meetup.

It happened once before, and it wasn't bad for an inaugural. I'd be game.

posted by gompa at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2008


Done.
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:59 PM on February 1, 2008


GuyZero: Ever heard of Dutch disease?

Also, you can go back at least as far as the Roman Empire if you're looking for governments that survive (or in the long term, not) via resource acquisition.
posted by A dead Quaker at 4:28 PM on February 1, 2008


> Virtually every major oil company in the Western world has picked up a piece of the action, investing nearly $90-billion to create what promises to be the biggest industrial project on Earth and sparking predictions that Canada will become what Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls an "energy superpower"...Estimates vary, but environmental groups says it now takes two to four barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca plus 750 cubic feet of natural gas and about two tons of oily sand to produce one barrel of oil. The process produces two to three times the carbon emissions of a conventional oil well and creates toxic waste water, called tailings, that cannot be allowed back in the river.”

God help us.

Thanks for posting this; I missed the first couple of installments in the paper version of what I will now think of as The Glob, and I'm glad to have been reminded of it. The whole thing seems like utterly depressing madness to me, and almost metaphorically-indicative of just how addicted to oil (and cash) our society is. "Clean air and water? Who needs it when there's money to be made!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:49 AM on February 2, 2008


And the expected election call. No mention of the tar sands in anyone's platform yet.
posted by never used baby shoes at 3:28 PM on February 4, 2008


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