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For Antoine Palmer, the CEO of Sustainival, holding the “world’s first green carnival” in the heart of the oil sands is proof that the times are changing.
A multi-day fun-fair complete with stomach-churning rides, blasting music and flashing lights, Palmer’s company offers entertainment powered by bio-diesel —all made with cooking grease from 80 Edmonton restaurants.
As Palmer walks the festival grounds, past the blur of spinning tea cups filled with squealing kids, he explains the concept behind the festival.
“It’s a public platform that everyone can come here and enjoy, it’s very accessible and fun,” he says. “And then, while they are having a great time, they can learn about sustainability and about new ways to power the future.”
If there’s anyone who embodies a spirit of optimism in a time of transition, it’s Palmer. Born in Fort McMurray, he left when he was 17 to travel across Canada, then Europe and Asia, later setting up a business in Austria. When he returned to Alberta seven years ago, he wanted to find a way to get involved in addressing what he terms “the broad systemic challenge:” the transition to a future where renewable energy plays a key role.
“I think people up here are very aware of the paradox,” he says. “Sure, everybody is looking forward to the transition to a sustainable economy that can provide a suitable standard of living. Here in Fort McMurray, these people live in proximity to that paradox, while you can live in Vancouver or Toronto and remain distant, like buying meat in the supermarket without visiting the slaughterhouse.”
Whereas many people see Fort McMurray’s fate as inextricably linked to oil, Palmer finds inspiration in the initiative that people showed when they first discovered the resource — “they were out there with a shovel and a truck” — and their ability to innovate as times changed.
He sees this current challenge as “a chance to chart a new course towards renewable energy, clean technology, and the third industrial revolution.”
“I’ve seen permanency take root”
It's late afternoon, and Mayor Melissa Blake already has her coat on and her handbag over her shoulder when I arrive at her office at the Wood Buffalo municipal hall.
Blake moved to Fort McMurray from Quebec in 1992 and entered municipal politics six years later, when she was elected to city council. In 2004 she set her sights on the mayor’s chair, a position she’s held ever since.
She's currently serving her fourth consecutive term as Mayor for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, meaning she oversees not only Fort McMurray, but also a swath of northern Alberta nearly 64,000 square kilometres — an area that includes some of the largest oil sands deposits in the province.
Running the district at the heart of oil field development for the past 12 years, Blake has seen oil prices take roller coaster rides before. But this downturn has been more severe and has lasted longer than most people anticipated.
“It’s probably the most dramatic I’ve ever been through,” she tells me. And while Blake is confident the region will eventually return to growth, she cautions that any rebound will take longer than before — and the rapid growth the region experienced over the past decade may be a thing of the past.
One of the indicators that this downturn is different, Blake says, is the way it has affected workers in Fort McMurray itself. Past economic downturns have hit commuters hardest, she explains, since those workers are often hired to do construction and development to get the ball rolling on oil sands projects — and thus are most vulnerable when companies reign in expansion or try to reduce their workforce.
But this time, Blake says, “It’s more than just construction workers. It’s the permanent operators in our community who are being impacted.”
Despite the difficulties, Blake doesn’t expect a mass exodus anytime soon.
“Having lived here for more than 30 years, I’ve seen the change, the ebb and flow of people — and I’ve seen permanency take root here. We are not just a place where people come for work, we are actually a town, a hometown for people.
"At the hospital, the birth rates have been accelerating. Five years ago the hospital registered 1200 births, then it was 1300, and last year there were 1400 new babies. These are not people who fly in, have a baby and go somewhere else — these are residents who made the commitment to live here and raise their families here.”
Like many in Fort McMurray, Blake is no stranger to hearing criticism of the region and its people. But as the mayor, she finds herself making extra effort to counter critics whom she says are unwilling to engage with the central issue of the oil sands: reconciling economic benefits with environmental impacts.
“We in Fort McMurray are on the ground, trying to address the problems and challenges, trying to act more efficiently and sustainably.”
Working to change things "from inside”
Steve Kelly pulls down his sunglasses and grins as we head out for a ride-along in his truck. It’s Friday afternoon, and Kelly says he doesn’t mind getting out of the office for a bit.
Kelly is the secretary-treasurer of UNIFOR branch 707A. UNIFOR is the union that represents, among others, many of Suncor’s workforce.
Today he wants show off what Fort McMurray has to offer for families, so the first stop is at MacDonald Island to see Canada’s largest recreation facility. There’s an Olympic-sized swimming pool, an NHL-sized ice rink, and a CFL-sized football stadium.
There's also a fitness centre, an indoor climbing wall, a public library, an art exhibition space and a drop-in childcare centre. The names emblazoned at the top of the venues read like a top-dog list of energy companies: Syncrude, Suncor, Total, Shell, Nexen.
Then Kelly points his truck north along Highway 63. “I used to work with the S.P.C.A, because I love animals,” he tells me. “But eventually the work got to me, seeing what happened to abused and mistreated animals. I was in a bad mental place, and I decided I needed a job that wasn’t so mentally draining.”
A muddy pickup truck races past in the left lane, a dog’s head poking out the cab window. “I hate that,” Kelly mutters.
When I'd met him the day before, he'd expressed his main worry for his fellow union members. “Our biggest concern right now, with all the pressure on companies to cut costs, is that [Suncor] might accelerate the move towards autonomous heavy-haul trucks," he said. "They can transport materials without needing a driver, like robotic cars. We’re going to push hard on that one, since many people’s livelihoods are wrapped up in operations.”
UNIFOR has a good relationship with Suncor, Kelly explained. Over the past year, as layoffs spread through non-unionized companies, he said his union and his employer have been working together to protect jobs as much as possible.
Over the past year there have been some layoffs, Kelly noted, but adds that some positions were unfilled or merged together so the numbers aren’t as bad as they sound.
Now, as we speed down the highway, he describes his current workday. “My work driving trucks means I can go in, do a 12-hour shift, and then check out, end of story. I work a 'six and six': three day shifts, followed by three night shifts, then six days off, which I can spend with my kids and my lady. It’s a pretty good deal.”
Kelly is separated from the mother of his children, which means the kids travel between Fort McMurray, where he lives, and Red Deer, where she lives. Lately he’s been seeing a woman from Texas that he met on a cruise ship. When she comes to visit, he says, they get out and enjoy the surrounding area — she likes the wide open spaces of northern Alberta.
Forty kilometres north of Fort McMurray, the highway begins separating, making way for a giant expanse of sand that looks like a dry lake bed. This was once a tailings pond, Kelly explains. On the right is a body of water with red buoys floating, their water-line marks slicked with black oil. This is where the oil-saturated water is held as the tailings are processed.
The highway veers left to reveal the massive Syncrude complex known as Mildred Lake. Puffs of steam pour out of the giant stacks.
Kelly pulls the truck off the highway at the Giants of Mining exhibit, featuring machines the size of small apartment buildings: a dragline and bucketwheel shovel; a heavy-hauler sitting on caterpillar-like rollers. This hulking mass of equipment now sits idle, made obsolete by an industry that’s constantly innovating for more efficient extraction methods.
The exhibit shows visitors the industry’s past, while half a kilometre away the present is on display: a Tetris-like conglomeration of geometric shapes — squares, rectangles, cylinders — all fed by rows of shiny silver pipes. Gas flares shoot orange flames into the sky while puffs of steam and smoke billow from the tall stacks.
It's a surreal experience, being confronted with this view: the unvarnished face of industry. It's a picture-postcard image of everything that's perceived by opponents to be wrong with the oil sands.
On the drive back to Fort McMurray, Kelly discusses the ever-present tension at the heart of his work: balancing the economy and the environment.
How does he reconcile the work he does — digging giant holes in the earth to retrieve the oily sand, then separating it for consumption, using energy every step of the way — with his desire for his children to inherit a planet without massive environmental damage?
“First off, it isn’t pretty, let’s just admit it. But we all know the world needs energy,” he says, “and for the foreseeable future, we are going to be getting that energy through a mix of sources, but primarily oil.
"And working with Suncor means being part of a company that's constantly trying to reduce its environmental impact. There's been a lot of work around reclaiming tailings ponds, for example. The best we as workers can do is work to change things from inside. Through our work with the union we can honestly say we push those companies to operate as responsibly as possible.”
“In 50 years, this work will have changed beyond recognition. But I hope that Suncor will still be a great company, so good that my kids could work for them, if that’s what they want. My youngest is a bit stubborn, she’d make a great heavy-haul driver,” he says.
Mark Jaccard: fossil fuels can drive the clean energy transition
Nearly a decade ago, a professor from the School of Resources and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University published a book with a provocative title: Sustainable Fossil Fuels.
In it, Dr. Mark Jaccard argued that the raging ‘economy vs environment’ debate didn’t have to be a zero-sum game, and that smarter use of fossil fuels could actually help drive society’s transition to clean energy.
Academics often worry that with the passage of time, their theories will slip into obscurity, or be proven wrong by new knowledge. But Jaccard has not experienced that problem. In the last ten years, he’s been named B.C.’s Academic of the Year, been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Currently he oversees the Energy and Materials Research Group at SFU, a collaborative that studies the transition to sustainable development and energy uses.
Jaccard isn’t surprised that Canada is taking a financial hit as the global price of oil fluctuates. “When your economy is dependent, at least to some extent, on extracting hydrocarbons, and then you try to double down on that — going from 2 million barrels to 4 million barrels, let’s say — then when the price of oil drops, you will be more vulnerable,” he says.
Unlike many theorists, however, Jaccard doesn’t see giving up fossil fuels as the answer — at least not cold-turkey. He’s advocating for a change in how we use them: less burning, more carbon capture. He’s a fan of B.C.’s carbon tax and California's cap-and-trade system, proposals that have been deemed ‘bad for business’ by many in the industry. But Jaccard sees them as necessary to force the transition towards more efficient methods of producing energy.
The current rationalization coming from oil companies and their proponents about environmental stewardship, including their focus on tailings pond reclamation, is missing the point, he says.
“Fossil fuels are an incredible chemical energy source,” he says. "And you can do all the delusional rationalization you want — that we all need energy, that our pipelines won’t leak, that we are doing the best job possible — but that just doesn’t matter. If either you, or the people you are shipping it to, are going to burn it, then you’re part of a future that all the leading scientists are convinced is a disastrous path.”
To critics who argue that Canada’ would cripple itself if it took decisive action while other countries refused to get on the bandwagon, Jaccard has a message.
“There are all sorts of governments showing leadership now, so it’s no longer possible to say, 'I don't know what we should do, or the rest of the world isn’t acting so it will wreck us economically.' At some point we have to change, and governments need to respond.”
Solar power in the oil sands - turning a dream into reality
If Jaccard is right that fossil fuels can drive our transition towards cleaner energy, then the first step would be for everyone in this country — governments and citizens alike — to admit that we’ve become addicted: addicted to the cheap energy and easy money the oil patch brought.
For the better part of a decade, Canada has been happy to share in the profits produced by energy companies. Now that the rug has being pulled out from under the entire enterprise, perhaps it’s time to ask if there is another way.
The conversations that Palmer aims to spark with the Sustainival carnival offer guidance, or at least a direction in which to head.
But in the time it takes for that conversation about sustainability to reach the top levels of government, where policies that shape the future are developed and debated, what will be lost?
As many oil patch workers have found out, jobs can go as fast as they come, and the economic benefits the oil industry provides can evaporate as a result of events occurring on the other side of the planet. Unemployed people don’t have time to wait — they need a plan, and some action.
The resounding election victory of Trudeau's Liberals may have the effect of further polarizing the country: urban progressives expecting a more aggressive climate change agenda, while those in the oil-and-gas sector worrying it could be death knell for their industry.
It's clear that change is coming - but what form will it take?
Rather than looking to Ottawa for answers, maybe we should start by looking up. The cleanest — and potentially the most powerful — energy source is right above us: the sun.
In September, the Lubicon Cree, who call the region of Wood Buffalo home, completed the finishing touches on a solar-powered renewable-energy project to harness the sun’s power for a community health centre.
The 80 pole-mounted panels will provide 20.8 kilowatts of electricity, providing the start of energy independence—and sending a message. As spokesperson Melina Laboucan-Massimo writes: “After decades of detrimental impacts from immense resource extraction and a recent oil spill in Lubicon territory, this community is showing the world and other First Nation communities that the shift to renewables is possible.”