Oil Sucks

A province of junkies.

By Kevin Van Tighem

I’m an addict. I use oil. We all do. That’s how we’ve wired our economy. But the fact that we’re hopelessly hooked doesn’t mean we shouldn’t confront the issue. The first step, after all, is admitting you have a problem.

Addicts don’t make rational choices. They specialize in denial and ignore the harm their addiction causes them and others. They’ll sacrifice just about anything or anyone for that next fix. Once addicted, the drug owns them. Quitting seems impossible.

Like oil. But if we want to get our health back and make our relationships whole again, we need to kick the habit that keeps us sick.

Recent hysteria over a proposed pipeline to BC illustrates the cost we’re willing to pay to sustain our addiction. Regardless of the legitimate worries of our good neighbours in BC—whom we expect to shoulder all the environmental risks should the pipeline fail or a tanker run aground—we seem prepared to tear Confederation apart and poison long-standing relationships as long as the oil keeps flowing. That’s addict behaviour, not the behaviour of people who care about others.

Addicts don’t just ignore the harm their compulsions cause to friends and family. They ignore their own well-being.

Alberta has over 320,000 km of unreclaimed seismic lines riddling our landscape with erosion scars that choke streams and reservoirs with silt. Over 330,000 oil and gas wells penetrate our drinking water aquifers and leak methane into the atmosphere. More than 384,000 km of pipelines are slowly deteriorating underground. The tar sands region has over 220 km2 of toxic tailings ponds; nobody has a viable plan for reclaiming them, even though they already contaminate the region’s waters.

Oil companies are capitalists where profits are concerned, but dedicated socialists with regard to risks, research expenses and environmental costs.

Oil industry flacks get paid to jump on statements like these with reassurances that wells and tailings ponds don’t leak and that industry’s environmental performance is improving. When it comes to glib assurances, Big Oil can out-tobacco Big Tobacco—another industry that profits from addiction. But guess what: cigarettes do indeed cause cancer and heart disease. And methane does in fact leak from oil wells. And those tumours in fish downstream from Fort McMurray are not actually natural.

Some will consider this column blasphemy coming from a fourth-generation Albertan. Looking back over those generations, however, I don’t see many oil jobs. My family has worked mostly in other sectors of the economy. That shouldn’t be surprising: there are actually other ways of making a living in Alberta. Farming and ranching come to mind. Installing wind and solar generation. Forestry, tourism, education, medicine, manufacturing, writing (well, maybe not writing)… the list goes on. But from the chatter in the opium den, you’d think oil was our only truth. Here’s a truth: The Alberta government actually collects more money from our other addictions—alcohol and gambling—than from oil and gas royalties. That’s because, after more than 20 cuts to royalty rates, oil and gas companies now pocket our share of petroleum profits. But as addicts, we’ll settle for crumbs as long as oil flows.

Oil interests usually cheerlead for free-enterprise capitalism and small government, and, eager to support dealers of their opiate, many Albertans do the same. But most of the industry is pure socialism; capitalism only shows up on one side of the ledger. Most oil companies are capitalists where profits are concerned, but dedicated socialists with regard to risks, research and environmental costs. We taxpayers funded the university research that made tar sands production possible. Taxpayers now not only finance PR programs for pipeline companies but assume risk by buying lines outright. Having socialized their own responsibilities, the industry shamelessly cajoled a series of so-called conservative governments into reducing royalties; we now keep barely more than one loonie for every $100 of profit from the sale of our own bitumen. The Alberta Energy Regulator estimates it will cost more than $260-billion to clean up the industry’s environmental messes. There’s nowhere near that amount of money in public coffers to cover that cost. But addicts don’t worry about tomorrow; they just want their next hit.

You read it here first: no oil company will ever reclaim the tar sands sludge ponds. That liability will be entirely socialized (dumped on government) by the so-called capitalists. Our money will be long gone, the oil will no longer flow, and we’ll be stuck with the muck. That’s how things end up for addicts.

And I haven’t even mentioned the impacts and costs of climate change.

An addict doesn’t want to face reality; they just want to know there will be a next fix. There will be. We’re already in that fix. Oil sucks. And we’re the suckers.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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