Oilsands rhetoric: hysterical and misleading in its criticism, glossy and antiseptic in its defence

What Alberta needs is someone to do for the oilsands what Anthony Bourdain did for the seal hunt — paint a moving, sometimes-ugly, but altogether honest portrait of it.

What Alberta needs is someone to do for the oilsands what Anthony Bourdain did for the seal hunt

This file photo shows an aerial view of an oilsands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2011. Many critics will never dismiss these types of images, says Jen Gerson, but so much of the rhetoric is disingenuous — on both sides. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Last week, I had the honour of being invited to play the part of antagonist at an energy industry event in Calgary — one that featured a host of political leaders and panellists.

I imagine I made no friends there, but then, that's never why I get invited to these sorts of things.

Throughout the day, I was struck by how often panellists referenced the comparative social evils of Saudi Arabia vs. virtuous Alberta. It's a timely update of the arguments laid out in the 2010 book, Ethical Oil.

The thesis of that book — and campaign that flowered around it — is that Canada's stringent environmental standards, peaceful and free nature, and commitment to social justice make it an infinitely superior source of oil than countries like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Venezuela.

The book, written by Ezra Levant before he started The Rebel, won a business book award in 2011. On the whole, I think the thesis stands today, especially as we watch Venezuela and Saudi Arabia devolve into chaos and despotism, respectively.

My problem with the argument laid out in Ethical Oil isn't that it's wrong, but rather that it is unpersuasive.

A fantasy

Ethical Oil was a line pushed by the Harper government and the subject of a "grassroots" campaign organized by conservative operatives.

The argument that if only Alberta had pushed the ethical oil line harder, more people would have come around to the benefits of the oilsands, is a fantasy. Anyone who was going to be persuaded by the arguments is on board.

Railing against the evils of Saudi Arabia does little more now than to provide a morale boost to those who work in Canada's oil and gas industry.

And the problem with continuing to lean on this particular rhetorical crutch is threefold.

Firstly, the argument is disingenuous.

Alberta isn't trying to replace oil coming from Saudi Arabia. This province requires more pipeline capacity so that it can sell its oil at something closer to the world market price. That means selling it to the Americans and seeking expanded access to a sea port from which bitumen can be exported to China and India.

Villainizing Middle Eastern oil may make Albertans feel good but is less helpful when it comes to selling the oilsands, says Jen Gerson. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Our lack of pipeline capacity has hooped us into selling our oil at an enormous discount to America. Rectifying this — benefiting our own economy and social programs — is a just effort, in and of itself.

Surely we can see the folly of using protectionist and nativist rhetoric to bolster an export-based oil and gas industry. Alberta has every reason to fight a system that ensures its oil is captive to Canadian buyers — or have we all forgotten the actual mechanics of the National Energy Program?

Secondly, the ethical oil argument sets the bar too low.

Oh, so Alberta wants to brag about being better than, literally, the worst country on the planet? Good for us. Here's a cookie.

Lastly, by spending so much time railing about what the oilsands aren't, we miss a lot of opportunities to talk about what they are. Rather than play the pointless compare-and-contrast game, we need to get off our asses and sell ourselves. Our reclamation efforts. Our environmental standards. Our safety procedures. Hell, even our buffalo paddocks.

Why are we talking so much about Saudi Arabia, then?

Feeding a line

Politicians of all ideological stripes have a vested interest in feeding this province a line about its heroism — that this province's oil workers are the benighted underdogs of a political drama.

If only the media were nicer, Ottawa fairer, and the foreign-funded environmentalists more honest, well, then everyone would come around to embrace our black gold.

Certainly there are fair critiques to be made of unjust criticism, but all of these problems are marginal to the core issue.

That is, we sell oil. It's nasty, effective stuff that is contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions that are expected to have a negative impact on the planet's climate. And, hey, we all use it to survive.

Sure, on the whole, I'd rather the world use Canadian oil than oil from other places. There is no shame in taking pride in one's work, nor in marvelling in and applauding the technological achievements and ambitions that were required to separate tar from sand and make the stuff commercially viable.

But it's also healthy — even necessary — to maintain a bit of discomfort about the fact that we sell oil.

A lesson from selling the seal hunt

At the aforementioned event, I compared the oil and gas industry to the Canadian seal hunt. Bear with me here.

For decades, animal rights activists have inspired a global outrage built largely around the horrifying aesthetics of the hunt — innocent seal pup faces, brutal hooked clubs, pristine white ice sheets trailing blood.

It was a moral judgment built on a base, visceral reaction.

A seal is dragged across the ice by a hunter in this file photo. (The Canadian Press)

However, just because something looks ugly doesn't make it unethical. Seal meat is both nutritious and delicious. Death-by-club is humane by slaughterhouse standards. Further, the hunt is a tradition that sustains First Nations people both economically and physically. There is a humanity, even beauty, to the hunt that invites a more nuanced position.

The world saw this when the late Anthony Bourdain visited an Inuit community for his show No Reservations. He joined a community seal hunt and feast and described the experience as "a mix of blood-spattered butchery and loving nourishment. A meal like I've never experienced."

Bourdain took flak for this episode. Not everyone came around. Not everyone can overcome visceral revulsion by force of rationality alone.

But many will.

The analogy to the oilsands should be obvious.

Antiseptic rhetoric

Many critics will never dismiss the countless grim, Mordor-like images of oilsands production, nor the desperate, oil-covered birds.

But so much of the imagery and rhetoric emerging from north of Fort McMurray is disingenuous — on both sides. Either hysterical and misleading in its criticism, or glossy and antiseptic in its defence.

What the oil industry needs is something akin to a Bourdain. Someone able to provide a moving, sometimes-ugly, but altogether honest portrait of the place, and the ethical, economic and environmental nuances of oilsands production.

The late Anthony Bourdain poses for a photo during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Monday, October 31, 2016, in this file photo. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Such a figure would have to be credible to Albertans, but also international in his or her appeal. Someone who could approach the oilsands without an agenda, but rather with a desire to tease out all the good, the bad, the ambition and discomfort, of our primary industry.

This requires vulnerability, and a radical honesty.

Until such a person emerges, the most honest — or at least relatable —  example of the oilsands I've ever seen is not in an earnest documentary, but rather from the two madcap drunken hosers in FUBAR 2.

They travel to Fort Mac in a ratty car and make a comedic hash of their job laying oil pipelines. The movie is bizarre, funny and crass — rife with drug abuse and promiscuity. It's hilarious and probably the most relatable bit of art the oilsands has ever produced, the only thing that's ever made the oilsands feel like a weird but welcome warp in the Canadian tapestry.​

FUBAR 3 may sound a bit ridiculous, but what will not serve this province well is blind boosterism for a product that many Canadians wish we were not consuming at all.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Jen Gerson is a journalist, political commentator, and co-founder of the online newsletter The Line.