Costly Fix

Power, Politics and Nature in the Tar Sands

By Angela V. Carter

by Ian Urquhart
University of Toronto Press
2018/$39.95/368 pp.

Over a decade in the writing, U of A political science professor Ian Urquhart’s new book is worth the wait. Costly Fix is a critical, comprehensive assessment of how Alberta and Canada got mired in the tar sands, an industry with massive socio-ecological and economic consequences. And it arrives just as Canadians are coming to terms with the climate crisis, recognized by Urquhart as “the most important environmental challenge facing modern civilization.”

Costly Fix surveys the development of the tar sands from the 1920s to the first months of Rachel Notley’s NDP government, explaining how “explosive, exponential, frenzied” growth turned parts of northern Alberta into an environmental sacrifice zone. The book convincingly establishes how, contrary to a dominant ideological commitment to free markets, tar sands growth relied on extensive provincial and federal government support. Urquhart exposes the hypocrisy of the oil industry demanding governments withdraw environmental or fiscal regulation that would “burden” the sector, all while depending on extensive financial and research subsidies. “Industry’s passion for free market ideology,” he observes, is “very selective.”

Urquhart also dispels the myth that the tar sands sector has faced financial duress over the past few decades. While firms experienced moments of decline, as in the 1986 oil price crash, they used these brief moments of crisis to press for permanent concessions from government and were able to “just print money” when prices rebounded. Corporations used this myth to impede royalty increases, resulting in provincial and federal governments implementing fiscal regimes that “enriched the already profitable” industry.

Urquhart details how firms leveraged profits to mount a formidable lobbying force. He demonstrates how industry undercut opposition through a “counter, coopt and compromise” strategy. This included attempts to silence or “temper” First Nations resistance by negotiating confidential impact and benefit agreements and by helping create Aboriginal oil corporations that now have a stake in the extraction. Likewise, Urquhart describes egregious cases of Alberta governments doing little to prevent environmental catastrophe—even the NDP’s tar sands emissions “cap” in reality permitted a 68 per cent increase in emissions over 2014 levels.

This pro-oil consensus leaves all the risks of tar sands development to citizens while handing over a windfall to corporations. Why, Urquhart asks, has there been no effective opposition? His answer is multifaceted. Trade unions have allied with oil companies—even as firms considered workers as a cost to be shed as technology advanced. First Nations communities were presented with “a fait accompli” by Alberta and Canada that their lands were nothing more than bitumen extraction sites; tar sands companies convinced many to benefit economically from the environmental degradation. Provincial environmentalists focused on reforming tar sands development rather than opposing it, until the scale of the ecological calamity caught international attention in the late 2000s.

The situation seems insurmountable. Yet Urquhart’s critique provides insights into how citizens might begin to decarbonize Alberta. Organized labour must be at the forefront, joined by universities aligned with the public interest as well as environmentalists and Indigenous communities emboldened by transnational movements. And governments must lead. Just as the tar sands could not have been developed on the basis of free market deregulation, neither can a low carbon society and economy grow without extensive public support—an important point as Albertans consider policy priorities for the fall federal election.

—Angela V. Carter is an associate professor and Corporate Mapping Project researcher at the University of Waterloo.

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