By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on December 31, 2019.
William James, an American philosopher, once described a man who got experience from laughing gas. Whenever he was under the influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but, when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered he read, “A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”
Many in Alberta cling to Feb. 13, 1947 when Leduc No. 1 roared into existence. Thus began an era, decades long, of resource wealth. It’s acknowledged the era is past its peak. It’s also passing quickly as we connect the dots between petroleum use, greenhouse gas emissions and the severe implications of climate change. Use of renewable energy sources, in the form of wind and solar, may be the essential coffin nails for what remains of the Cretaceous Age.
Yet, many will mourn the passing of this fossil-fuel era and sense it is the province’s great tragedy. Of course it is a tragedy, but perhaps not the one its adherents have in mind. As the bumper stickers used to declaim, “Please God, if you give us another boom, we promise not to p— it away.” Many hope, against hope, that another reawakening of the industry will bring back the outrageously high wages for high school dropouts, another sales spike for recreational vehicles and other adult toys, and further delay in provincial politicians enacting the type of appropriate tax regime to effectively underwrite and sustain essential public services.
Petroleum brought wealth to Alberta’s backwaters and to its skyscraper-shaded streets. Petroleum transformed Alberta, from a rural, agrarian economy to one of technology, finance, manufacturing and services. Like the mushroom cloud of a nuclear blast, the transition was breakneck in speed. The impact, like a wildfire, was unpredictable, spotty and momentarily devastating.
Unnoticed was the wealth that poured out of the province, in the form of unprocessed and under-processed petroleum products. It was said, by some, that if you held your ear to the ground you could hear the wealth being sucked out of Alberta. But few listened. We never transited from the traditional “hewers of wood and drawers of water” based on the dubious tenet that the petroleum industry was the great generator, after all, of all the good which we had come to expect. Diversification of our economy, to give us a more realistic future, is still a largely unrecognized dream.
Some will point to the legacy of its wealth-generating side. For too long we floated, like complacent tourists on a sea of oil money. Many might remember the $400 cheques to each Albertan, some deceased, from the Klein era, when apparently they could think of nothing else to do with the avalanche of cash pouring into provincial coffers. It elevated the sense of self-sufficiency, of arrogance and created a colossal myth.
The myth was of independence, of unlimited resources, of future sustainability, a world that stood, panting, on our doorstep, and of hubris. It denied the fact that exploration, development, production and transportation of petroleum was the progeny of government support, subsidy, bad policy, ineffective legislation and weak social, economic and environmental rules. Even with a backdrop of miniscule and reduced royalties and rents (after the visionary Lougheed era) the public purse continued to build roads, infrastructure and other services to feed the black hole of petroleum interests.
Everyone was happy and content while the bubble continued to grow. No one wanted to acknowledge the volatility of the world market, that oil creates a boom-and-bust economy. And so, it burst, several times, all within memory. In the wake of every bust, instead of a cold, calculating look at the industry, in the public interest, we were all told to hold hands and support the petroleum industry in getting back on its feet. This, in spite of record profits and corporate resources that would have, should have enabled them to weather these volatile ups and downs in the market. It was a great Canadian and now an Alberta tradition, of encouraging private wealth at public expense.
The delicious irony was, the mantra and mantle of free enterprise, of unbridled capitalism, was just a smokescreen for socialized corporate welfare.
The petroleum era good times still nourish a nostalgia so sweet and sincere there is a reluctance to speak at all ill of it. Are we all complicit in this? To a degree, yes, we allowed the industry to write our future. It seems like it has been a long and lucrative ride, but in reality is in the realm of one human lifespan. It’s important, if we are to salvage any credibility with subsequent generations, to clearly, objectively and honestly address the unfortunate aspects of the legacy of the short petroleum era.
This would include the huge, unreclaimed industrial footprint of petroleum development. A footprint that affects everything from threatened native trout species to caribou. Abandoned well sites continue to vent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contaminate soil and poison ground water. Tarsand operations spew contaminants into the surrounding water and air as well as create a minefield of workings and waste water reservoirs with uncertain reclamation. All of the industrial footprint is underfunded, or worse, unfunded, for reclamation, ultimately leaving the mess in the hands of Albertans.
The footprint of industry on the landscape is just what we can see. Largely unseen and under-acknowledged is the invisible hand of the industry on our political systems, our bureaucratic allegiances, media objectivity, our academic institutions and on our collective psyches. If we take a deep breath of “clean” Alberta air, to discern the influences, the pressures and the manipulations we are subject to, it reeks of greed and gasoline. When we smell that, we should take note and write the answer down.
Lorne Fitch is a professional biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife biologist and a third-generation Albertan.