Calgary author goes deep into the oilsands, wins national business book award

A Calgary author has won a $30,000 National Business Book Award for his deep dive into the oilsands, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.

'It’s a quiet, workaholic town for the most part,' Chris Turner says of Fort McMurray

Chris Turner is the author of The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. It's just won a national award. (Simon & Schuster, Ashley Bristowe)

A Calgary author has won a $30,000 National Business Book Award for his deep dive into the oilsands: The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.

Chris Turner spoke with The Homestretch about major misconceptions regarding Fort McMurray and who lives and works there.

This interview has been edited and paraphrased for clarity and length. You can listen to the complete interview right here.

Q: Why was this a story that needed to be told?

A: Talking to my publisher, the sense was here is this thing, the Alberta oilsands, that is constantly in the news.

A constant source of controversy and political drama and yet the place itself, the industry itself, the way it came together, how we got so deeply invested in it, what it does, how it operates, is not actually that well known.

Most of what had been written about it to date had a very strong slant in one direction or another.

There wasn't a book that could just say, here is what it is, make your own decisions about it.

Q: You spent a lot of time in Fort McMurray doing research, talking to people. Tell us how you approached this.

A: The trickiest thing was, for the most part, most of the big oilsands companies, while they weren't hostile to the book, they weren't terribly forthcoming in terms of information and site access. So I did have to tell the story through retired people, friends of friends who work for contractors, that sort of thing.

But I do think that gave it a ground-level feel of the industry instead of talking to senior executives. I was talking to guys who operate cranes and drive trucks.

Q: What did you learn by coming at it from that perspective?

A: The thing that surprised me the most was how widespread and diverse the people attracted to Fort McMurray by the boom were.

To discover, for example, the Muslim community in Fort McMurray was so large and active and close-knit. More than 2,000 people come to Friday prayers during Ramadan.

The fact that you have this remote town and there is this United Nations of people making a living and making their lives there was pretty amazing.

Q: Did you discover any other misconceptions about the town or the area?

A: There is a kernel of truth to the boomtown mythology.

If you were on Franklin Avenue, the main drag downtown, in 2006/2007, it had that Wild West, 24-hour-a-day party atmosphere to it. But the vast majority of Fort McMurray is these new suburbs.

It's a quiet, workaholic town, for the most part. I think that's at odds with what most of us tend to think about it.

Q: Why have the oilsands become so controversial?

A: When the industry began to receive national and international scrutiny about its carbon footprint, other environmental concerns, they did not do a great job managing that conversation.

There was a lot of glib dismissal, that these were minor problems. But there was this global conversation going on about climate change and it needed to get traction. The problem is so large it's very hard to get people focused on it. And for a variety of reasons, it just wound up that the Keystone oilsands pipeline — and by extension, the oilsands — just became this lightning rod for many larger issues.

Q: Do you think your book will change any minds?

A: I would be disappointed if you got all the way through the book and didn't have some preconceptions challenged a little bit by the nuance of the place.

It's disappointing that we are even more deeply polarized around the oilsands and energy issues generally, but hopefully people who read my book will have a more thoughtful take on the issue.

Q: What do you see as the future of the oilsands?

A: It's not going anywhere. It's going to be a vital part of the Canadian economy for a good deal of time to come.

I don't think we will ever see another boom like the one that went on for 10 years or so, with a little bit of a blip during the economic downturn in 2008/2009. But that long boom is a once-a-lifetime phenomenon for the city and the country, and that might not be a bad thing.

Booms are exciting and a lot of money gets made and a lot of fun gets had but there are lots of reasons why that's not the best way, long term, to manage an economy.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I continue to write on climate energy issues and I am still looking for another big topic. And there is more than enough to talk about with the things that have happened in the patch since I was last there.

With files from The Homestretch.


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