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Alberta’s toxic shock syndrome

Vice doc takes unlikely look at Alberta oilsands

Anyone living in Alberta who hasn’t heard of the oilsands should immediately cry out for someone to help them remove the large boulder they’ve been trapped under for oh the last 25 years. It’s probably getting rather hard to breathe under there. That said hearing of the oilsands and hearing them discussed couldn’t be more different. The Canadian media suffers from a crippling blind spot with regards to the oilsands reluctant as they are to report any sort of bad news if it falls short of “they’ve dried up oh god help us all.” It’s this journalistic tunnel vision that prompted VBS.tv producer and head of Vice films Eddy Moretti to create a 17-part documentary called Toxic Alberta that explores this ubiquitous but often ignored Albertan issue. “(The blackout) is complicated” says Moretti. “If it was simply just a corporate blackout you could just point at it. You could say: there are a few corporations who don’t want to talk about it and that’s it. But I don’t think that’s what it is. I don’t think the Canadian public is oblivious to the matter. I think they’re complicit and I think the discourse complicates it.” Filmed mostly in Fort McMurray and the surrounding area Toxic Alberta is presented as a series of personal interviews with everyone from Ralph Klein to African pipe-fitters to a homeless man who was camped out by the river when the film crew happened to walk by. Presented on the Spike Jonze/Vice magazine alt-news love child VBS.tv the documentary promises to take a look at the industry from many different angles — even a few uncomfortable ones. “The community created in Fort McMurray is fascinating problematic somewhat unnatural and precarious” says Moretti. “I think they’re facing challenges that no other city in Canada has ever faced or is likely to face in the near future. No city in Canada is subject to an unsustainable 10 to 12 per cent growth rate every year. A city is lucky if it can survive a two per cent growth rate every year. You get into double digits and you get a lot of problems finding water housing and things like that.” Besides the obvious global warming and economic destabilization issues Moretti points specifically at water usage as one of the larger most under-thought problems surrounding the oilsands. Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAG-D) involves pumping steam down a well to boil the bitumen (unprocessed crude) before it’s removed and refined. The amount of water it takes measures in the tonnes. And as Moretti points out there is currently no land reclamation process in place nor is there a plan to implement one. “The population isn’t big enough for it to cause a (water) shortage but if you take a longer-term perspective there’s maybe 150 years of oil in Alberta but what price do you put on the fresh water?” says Moretti. “It’s becoming a commodity in America and other parts of the world and once you’ve drained it and contaminated it to take down another natural resource then now you’ve killed two potential sources of revenue. I just don’t know if people have thought enough about that side of the equation.” It’s these sort of specific problems that Toxic Alberta concerns itself the most with tackling the issue with interest rather than anger questions rather than accusations. While the documentary is reluctant to lay blame on one person or governing body Moretti is quick to point out that such a vast amount of oil in one place has an enormous effect on the environment and global politics regardless of who controls it. “They’re just people and I guess that’s what disappointed me” says Moretti. “I guess I wanted them to be exceptional. To have some kind of vision. I asked what Ed (Stelmach) thought about his role as premier in fostering regulating and managing this industry and he said ‘My role is to increase the tax base.’ I just thought that was kind of pedestrian. He could just fucking roll out casinos across the province if he wanted to increase the tax base. It’s not going to create a very interesting culture or a very stable economy but that’s what he saw as his role.” Moretti suggests that a moratorium on expansion would go a long way to improving the damaged portions of Alberta’s environment and allowing infrastructure to properly catch up with the industry explosion. By refusing to meet the gross demand the burden of change is effectively shifted to the consumer — the real decision-maker in a market economy. Sadly big oil is a business the people who run it are as imperfect as anyone is and Moretti accepts that any attempts to improve the industry’s structure are just as likely to be crushed by the market as they are by the corporations. “It’s been 10 to 12 years of boom and they haven’t done anything” says Moretti. “What they do spend their time doing is recruiting people from Africa from the Philippines and places like that to come in and fit pipes. What they do is create runways and fly fucking huge airbuses to bring people in to work. What they do is set up massive housing complexes for workers. What they do what they’re good at — and god bless them — is building their business.” You can watch Toxic Alberta online at www.vbs.tv.