What’s wrong with exploiting nature?

Shock-doc Dirty Oil wants us to hate the massive oil operation in Alberta, Canada. But I couldn’t help feeling awestruck.

Rob Lyons

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Michael Moore and Al Gore have a lot to answer for. They popularised the campaigning documentary, with films such as Roger and Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth, and now new docs are being pumped out faster than Saudi crude. And ‘crude’ is a decent summation of the ideas contained in most of them.

The latest such film to reach our shores is Dirty Oil. Directed by Leslie Iwerks and narrated by Canadian actress Neve Campbell, the film takes us to the Canadian province of Alberta where oil companies have been piling in to take advantage of the huge amount of bitumen and oil mixed with sand. By using a considerable amount of heat and water, the oil and sand can be separated, providing an ‘unconventional’ source of fuel. According to the Albertan authorities, there may be over 300billion barrels of oil in an area of 54,000 square miles — about the size of Florida or nearly seven times the size of Wales (to use the non-metric but internationally recognised unit of shock-horror measurement). With oil prices high, and the US keen to promote energy supplies from stable, friendly states, Alberta is experiencing an oil boom.

Dirty Oil says this has ‘staggering’ environmental costs. The extraction process is messy, leaving huge pools of ‘tailings’, a mix of water and sand with an unhealthy dose of some nasty, bitumen-related chemicals. The film suggests that the pollution from the extraction process threatens the health of local people and wildlife. Worse, the carbon emissions from this ‘dirty’ oil are helping to push the world towards catastrophic climate change.

The film opens by asking Americans where they think their oil comes from. ‘Saudi Arabia’ and ‘the Middle East’ are the common answers. Wrong. As a Canadian journalist notes: ‘For the past seven years, Canada has been the number one supplier of oil to the United States… We are the new Saudi Arabia.’ The press notes for Dirty Oil actually state that: ‘It is a little known fact that America imports the majority of its oil from Canada and not the Middle East.’ But this is nonsense. The biggest single source of America’s oil is America itself; 36 per cent of US crude is produced domestically. It’s a far cry from the glory days when the US produced all its own oil, but it does put into perspective the idea that the US is dependent on unstable dictatorships to keep chugging along, and rather makes a mockery of the idea that the Iraq War was really a war for oil.

The biggest single source of US oil imports is, indeed, Canada – but Canada only accounts for somewhere between 20 and 25 per cent of imports, or about one-eighth of America’s total consumption of oil. Mexico, Nigeria and – you guessed it – Saudi Arabia are all big suppliers to the US, too.

After this dubious start, obviously aimed at convincing Americans that This Stuff Really Matters, Dirty Oil takes us to the new oil boom town of Fort McMurray, where a 26-year-old worker describes how he manages to earn $100,000 per year: driving a truck that’s the size of an average house. The truck is 30 feet wide, 30 feet high and 50 feet long. We are encouraged to fret about these monsters tearing up the landscape. I just thought how cool it would be to drive one. Surely the ability to organise such a huge operation – you need to shift about two tonnes of oil sand to get one barrel of oil, and yet the area produces 1.3million barrels per day – is worthy of a little awe?

The filmmakers interview local indigenous people whose lives have been disrupted by the works. Where once this was an isolated, tranquil landscape, it is now scarred by strip mining and the air in some areas reeks of ‘stink bomb’ fumes from the extraction process. But this is just the latest instance of the industrialisation of wilderness. What gives these indigenous inhabitants the right to the unfettered use of this land? While it is right that oil companies should leave the land in a state where it can be used for other purposes afterwards, there is nothing wrong with making use of natural resources.

As it happens, the strip-mining process that the film focuses on is only suitable for one area – equivalent to one per cent of Alberta’s forests – where the bitumen is close to the surface. In other areas, a different process is used. Steam is blasted deep underground to melt the bitumen and allow it to be pumped to the surface. In terms of its effect on the appearance of the landscape, this looks much more like traditional oil drilling.

Dirty Oil claims that oil-sand extraction is damaging the health of local people. Down river in the town of Fort Chipewyan, Dr John O’Connor claims that he has seen an extraordinarily high number of rare cancers in a community of indigenous people who rely on fishing for food. However, far from investigating his claims – so the film tells us – the health authorities have brought a case against him for causing ‘undue alarm’. The film suggests this is a case of the little man being stomped on by the big corporation. So depressed is Dr O’Connor by these proceedings that he eventually leaves the area and returns to Nova Scotia, broken by a big conspiracy against a whistleblower.

Really? At the end of 2009, the authorities concluded that Dr O’Connor did indeed have a case to answer. Despite alleging that he had seen five cases of a rare cancer in the settlement, it turns out that there were just two. Dr O’Connor admitted that he had got it wrong. The number of cases was still a little higher than expected, but this is hardly a watertight case against the oil-sands operation. Rather than investigating Dr O’Connor’s claims, or at least allowing those who criticise him to put their case, the producers seem to have accepted one side of the story as the gospel truth.

The big claim of the film is right there in the title: this is ‘dirty oil’. The extraction process requires a lot of energy from natural gas, which means that the whole process produces three times as many greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil production. However, some perspective is required. The majority of carbon emissions involved with creating and using petroleum products comes from burning them in vehicle engines. Taking that into account, petrol derived from oil sands in Canada produces only 15 per cent more carbon emissions than petrol from conventional sources.

With greens constantly assuring us that the day of reckoning for ‘peak oil’ is just around the corner, being able to exploit Canada’s oil sands to increase the total world reserves of oil and provide energy security seems a pretty good deal. But Dirty Oil seems uninterested in the wider economic benefits of oil-sands production.

Even if we accept the wilder claims about what climate change will mean for humanity, the answer is surely to move to an economy based on low-carbon technologies, not to fret about particular sources of fuel. Alberta’s oil boom will end when we no longer need the oil. That means developing forms of transport that use electricity not oil, and power sources like wind, solar, geothermal and – most importantly – nuclear. These technologies could have benefits that go well beyond reducing carbon emissions. But they need time to mature and be rolled out. We need economic growth to pay for these things – and keeping the oil flowing is crucial to that.

While Dirty Oil suggests that we shift to renewable energy sources, it also provides a childish view of the relationship between big business and the rest of society. This is ‘big people picking on little people and assuming that they can get away with it’, says a spokesperson for the green group the Natural Resources Defense Council. The film also suggests that it is somehow our individual greed which, by creating demand for this ‘dirty’ oil, is screwing up the planet. But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be better off; the whole world should enjoy the living standards of the average American. Cheap, reliable energy is absolutely essential for that. Alberta’s oil boom is set to continue for many years to come.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Watch the trailer for Dirty Oil:

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