When Norway began extracting North Sea oil, its government worried that the sudden influx of revenue would distort the economy, so it placed its new wealth in a rainy-day fund. Now that the North Sea reserves are diminished, Norway’s state-owned oil exploration company is looking elsewhere, to Alberta’s tar sands.
The oil may be dirty and expensive, but the happy land of Canada welcomes foreigners with capital and can offer a stable regime unencumbered by any state-owned petroleum company of its own. American companies are already busy strip-mining the tar sands and piping the oil to U.S. markets, but Norway, a leader in reducing the carbon footprint of extraction, promises it will get at the oil without destroying the landscape.
Tar Sands: The Selling of Alberta (Doc Zone, CBC, 9 p.m.) is a documentary that may make you join a protest march in Edmonton or Ottawa – or simply buy a one-way ticket to Oslo.
The film, by documentarian Tom Radford and producer Peter Raymont, begins with clichés: After Sept. 11, everything changed. “The only thing certain was uncertainty.” But it rapidly finds its feet, as it explains how the heavy oil once considered too expensive to be attractive at five times the extraction price of regular crude, has suddenly found a market.
From there, Tar Sands takes something of a scattershot approach in touching on the few obvious positive aspects to the oil-sands development (jobs, jobs, jobs) and the many, many negative ones – social, environmental, economic and political.
It introduces us to an ambivalent Albertan welder who works 20 days building the pipelines for every eight he spends with his family 500 kilometres to the south. It visits with the homesick Newfoundlanders counting the years until they can leave Fort McMurray and get back to the Rock, that place where oil exploration is moving much more slowly because Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams has successfully played hardball with the oil companies.
As well as a trip to Norway, it travels to China where energy-hungry state oil companies would gladly begin work in Alberta should the U.S. government decide this oil is too dirty to touch. Heavy oil, the documentary tells us, takes the energy equivalent of one barrel to produce two, but the Alberta tar sands could satisfy U.S. demand for 100 years. The film then accompanies an Albertan trade delegation to Washington, D.C., and records the Albertans’ joy when U.S. legislators, who have passed green requirements for government energy sources, decide that heavy oil from a safe place is clean enough for them.
One of the most telling interviews here is with the original blue-eyed sheik himself: Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, who has had to watch as the cowboys who succeeded him gave away the store, very tactfully worries about the pace of the boom, while former premier Ralph Klein, who cut royalty rates and handed out permits by the fistful, is caught on camera announcing, “We have energy to burn …”
The film leaves a powerful impression that Canadians, who import the oil they use from foreign sources, are crazy not to be engaged in a vociferous debate about the political implications of the Albertan boom. As one commentator remarks: “There is a big difference between being an energy colony and being an energy superpower.”
In a mere hour, Tar Sands can’t do justice to all the questions it raises – it’s short on details on both the environmental impact and rampant inflation in Alberta – but it certainly builds the evidence against the tar sands with convincing deliberation rather than rhetorical bombast.
Its final moment, an image of massive trucks shifting the Albertan topsoil as the words from O Canada – “We stand on guard for thee” – play on the soundtrack, feels richly deserved.