As part of my ongoing efforts to post my ever-growing queue of interviews, here is William Marsden in coversation about his book Stupid to the Last Drop (Amazon). This first aired in the early part of October, Maclean’s ran an excerpt at about that time.
That excerpt speaks to a compelling opening anecdote about the troubles of – and desperation to- get the oil out of the tar sands. In the early post war days, the best way that anyone could figure was to plant a nuclear bomb deep into the earth, detonate it, and then pump out the freshly-freed oil. Apparently it was tried a couple of times in the Soviet Union, and oil was successfully extracted from rocks. It also was unusable because of radioactivity, but that was a minor point. Importantly, some in Alberta thought that this was a good idea.
Now obviously nobody is suggesting that we bomb parts of Northern Alberta, and during the early post war period there were more than a few people that thought nuclear bombs might be used commercially. Part of it was people being naive, part of it was people seeing a new technology that they thought would let them do through magic what was difficult and impossible before. But Marsden makes the case that the environmental impact of current oil sands development is not unlike that of a nuclear bomb: we destroy existing forests, drain rivers to make poisoned lakes, with the necessary outcome that eventually there will be an unusable, probably toxic, desert. These are the sorts of things that we usually think of as happening in developing countries, desperate for cash and unable to demand higher environmental standards; here we are willing participants.
But this is not just another tome about the destructive nature of the oil industry, focusing equally on what benefit Alberta is actually drawing from the industry. Hint: it’s not as much as it should be, certainly not for the costs. He looks to the Heritage fund, a fraction the size a similar program in Norway; he looks to how royalties are being used, again contrasting with the efforts of Norway to use this temporary wealth to diversify and grow the economy. Spoiler alert: Alberta isn’t doing much of that. Education and infrastructure are also touched, each again making it look like Alberta is forgetting the rocks on the shore while riding the wave now. I spoke with Marsden a day or two after the first reports on the oil royalties came out, so they aren’t directly reflected in the book, but that Alberta is short changing itself- and that some defended the status quo- is very much in keeping with the image painted.
Now, Marsden is an investigative journalist, and this is very much a piece of investigative journalism. This should not be read as a slag: it is an engaging, well written book that makes a very clear and important case. At times, I wanted footnotes so I could go and find the sources, but I am a geek. I also expect that many will detract and say that he is too apocalyptic, and certainly the book certainly can feel like that. In the end, however, he asks the sorts of questions that we should be asking before pursuing these sorts of projects, and makes it eminently clear that Alberta is not.
Which more or less draws us to the title of the post: in the best episode of the simpsons, Monorail salesman Lyle Lanley remarks that “a town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!” He then, ofcourse, promptly sells them a second-rate, go no where monorail. I think that Alberta, as described in the book, falls into this trap: they have the oil, but damned if they know how to make it work for them.
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William Marsden on his book, "Stupid to the Last Drop" [ 14:03 ] Download