My Oral Statement to the Enbridge Joint Review Panel

I’m in the waiting room at the Vancouver edition of the Joint Review Panel for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline. I will shortly be making my ‘Oral Statement’ to the panel. Here is what I’m planning to say.

Hi, my name is Hugh Stimson, I work as a geographer and informatics consultant here in Vancouver. I would like to start by thanking you for taking the time to listen to all of us. I think it is right and necessary that it be done, but I don’t suppose it has been easy. Thank you.

So we’re making this decision together, a decision about national benefit, and so also naturally a decision about national risk. I would like to ask you a question about risk, and then tell you about some of my own experiences with the benefits.

With risk, there are a couple of different things we have to think about: how likely it is for something to go wrong, and what we stand to lose if it does.

The pipeline of course is set go through the interior rivers and watersheds and then pass off to tankers on the coast but I’m actually not going to talk about how important those things are to me, about what we stand to lose. I don’t think I would succeed and I suspect many people standing at this portable podium have done a much better job than I could.

But I do want to ask about the chances. I’m not a risk assessment expert, but I have to wonder if we’re doing this part right. The proponent will have put a lot of genuine effort into characterizing the chances for this panel. But we keep having regulatory assessments and we keep having disasters that we would never choose. So what have we been doing wrong, and what are we doing differently here in BC?

Catastrophes happen when more than one thing goes wrong at the same time. As I understand it, the usual way of estimating the chance of a bunch of unlikely things happening simultaneously is to estimate the chance of each individual part happening, and then multiply all those fractions together to get a smaller chance than any of them.

I’m a geographer. The first law of geography says that “everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”. That’s true in space, and also in time. Bad things happen in specific places, at specific times. In the real world chances are rarely independent. Chances move together, and when they do, that’s when you get disasters.

It wouldn’t be wild and spontaneous chance that the communications equipment on a heavily laden tanker rolling through the Hecate Strait happened to behave unexpectedly at the same time the steering equipment did, and the first tow line failed, and the second. It would be because the same storm was acting on them all at the same time at the same place. Or perhaps a hangover from the same bottle.

I’m guessing that interdependence is hard to include in a risk assessment. Human failure is especially hard. I’m sure that the proponents have offered you some characterization of risk. Do you have to believe it? Do you have to make your decisions based on the best assessment they are willing or able to offer?

My question to the panel is: however Enbridge is assessing risk, if they used that approach to guess the risks of the Deepwater Horizon blowout ahead of time, or the Exxon Valdez, or the Kulluk running aground, or Battle Creek, do you believe that they would stand here and tell you that the chances aren’t good enough and the project shouldn’t go ahead?

I would also like to speak about national benefits. Like a lot of Canadians now I have some experience with the prosperity of oil extraction. My brother who couldn’t find decent work in Ontario recently moved to the Saskatchewan oil patch so he can take up an electrician’s apprenticeship. I got myself established in pricey Vancouver in part using money I made in a Fort McMurray work camp. There are paycheques and some real pride to be had there. A pipeline will to some extent make for more paychecks, and perhaps more pride.

But let’s not kid ourselves: that’s not a real economy they have up there. Real economies are built from many kinds of work, not on one resource. Real economies are compatible with the future, not built on this assumption that we will just never start taking the climate very seriously. Real economies are where the parts work together, not one where one part screws up the climate for agriculture or ruins the view for tourism or makes the ski season a crap shoot or opens up timber stands to beetle invasion when the weather warms.

The economy we’ve been building all this time here in Canada is not one where young men go away to grow up on coke and loneliness and grown men stand at pay phones in modular hallways draining down their phone cards saying “It’s okay honey, daddy will be home in just two more weeks”.

So: you have choices now. If we don’t seem to be good at judging the real risks of petroleum extraction and transport projects, and if the national benefits are not perhaps the ones we want or need, and if the things we’re risking for them are as important as so many people have stood here and told to you in so many ways, I hope you will consider all your options. I hope you will just say: no.

Thank you.

Industrial Lodge Life

Two summers ago I spent one month working in the oil sands (nee tar sands) north of Fort McMurrary. While there I wrote most of the following post. I didn’t post it at the time, in part because I didn’t want to draw the attention of the oil company to the contractor I was working for. (We were warned they employ teams to scour the internet, looking for unauthorized photos. I don’t know about blog posts.) After I got back I was happy to move on to Vancouver life. But I’ve decided to finish it up and post it now.

I live in an Industrial Lodge. From above, it used to look like this:

but it’s expanded since that photo was taken.

Most of the people living here seem to be pretty happy to be doing so, although I don’t talk to many folks outside my own crew. The lady at the Syncrude ID badge issuing office asked us where we were staying, and was enthusiastic when we told her the Oilsands Industrial Lodge. She said we were staying at the ritz, and she said so several times. The Syncrude ID office is a modular, low-ceilinged building, like most of the of operating office spaces in the mine areas. It’s not entirely easy to find in the chain-link maze of the Syncrude main site, but presumably most of the people who work here do eventually find their way to it, and I suppose the badge-issuing lady hears a lot of stories about accomodations. So it’s a fair bet that the Oil Sands Industrial Lodge is, indeed, a relatively decent place to stay.

I asked what the worst option was, and she was adamant that it was the Millenium camp that Suncor runs, but the worker at the next desk turned to tell us that they were revamping and renaming that camp. I’ve also heard plenty of stories about gang showers and rotten bunks in the original Syncrude dorms. Those descriptions sound something like mid-rise versions of logging camps.

I’ve also heard varying opinions on the range of quality of contemptary oil camps in the region. This may well be the ritz, I don’t know. I do know it’s strange. Not bad I guess, but strange.

For one thing, it is where it is. We’re a long way north here, and a long way out of town. I worked in this region some years ago, but back then our camp was more like a camp: a bunch of tents in the muskeg-forest wilderness, serviced by helicopter and ATV. This is something else, and although I knew what my destination was it was still strange to turn down the dirt road turning an hour north of Fort McMurry and find a complex.

It’s something like Moon Base Alpha meets Motel 6. The modular assembly means we’re sprawled out in a pattern of buildings not unlike the International Space Station, or some other notional space outpost. The main entrance is the only permissible one, all other exterior doors are emergency only. Through those main doors are a series of boot removal rooms, wherein outside footwear is to be removed on punishment of eviction. All the halls beyond are mopped to a spotless shine. So there’s also a sort of airlock, but for open-pit muck instead of oxygen.

The dining hall could easily be from a college residence, except for the demographic of the occupants. The TV room and games room might fit in there too. But the bulk of the lodge is in the halls of rooms and the connector hallway between them. A sort of ribs-and-spine arrangement with only two possible directions of movement: bedrooms to entrance, or entrance to bedrooms.

The access door to each hallway has an identical “ssshhh… night shift” sign, and looking down the hallways each is indistinguishable except for the laser-printed sign on the principal door, which is a number. You find your hall by the number.

The doors to individual rooms have plates on the outside which I first took for nameplates. I was ready to scribble my name but I noticed that no other door had a name, rather they are used to indicate if the occupant is on night shift, I suppose for the cleaning staff.

My particular crew is scattered over several halls behind those identical nameplateless doors, and I don’t know their numbers. Even if we lived close by there seems to be no such thing as impulse visiting; the doors are heavy and swing conclusively shut and lock automatically, no door stops are provided and nobody has bothered with improvised means for leaving their doors cracked. The distance between the far hallways and the dining room makes it a chore to stop in and see if anybody is hanging out. People do hang out in there sometimes. The dining hall is officially closed for cleaning after 8:30 but the staff are mercifully relaxed about that rule. On the other hand no one ever seems to hang out in the TV or games room, and I’m not sure why. There is a giant projection TV and a felt-top card table with a professional set of poker chips, but they all just sit there. In any case, the relevant line in the photocopied sheet of camp rules issued to each incoming tenant is:

TK no alchol or drugs (NO PARTIES!). TK

It’s an odd bit of punctuation, implying I suppose that we shouldn’t have to be told not to enjoy ourselves in a socially collective way, but they’re making the point strongly just in case. The prohibition on alcohol is an interesting one, and I’ll return to that.

The circular tables in the dining room are a good place to sit and chat, or would be except that for some reason the acoustics are terrible, some trick of echoes and HVAC noise is such that it’s difficult to hear what the person next to you is telling you, and a real effort to be heard in return. That’s a damn shame.

The one friendly space is the patio built out from the dining hall, when it’s not raining it’s a pleasant place to sit and smoke or drink bad coffee or eat a bowl of ice cream. All despite being situated between modular buildings and having a view only of wet gravel, a small microwave radio tower, a distant strip of black spruce matchstick forest, and the sky. The sky in Alberta is in fact quite entertaining, and they’ve provided comfortable lounge furniture, and conversation is easy. It is also outside, making it the only place at the lodge other than the parking lot where you can access the outdoors for a spell. My fellow erosion-control-crew members are wry, thoughtful, charming people and although I don’t know them well I enjoy chatting with them or sitting in silence. I’m struck over and over again that these intelligent capable men (and two women) are doing what is ultimately repetitive tedious work in a truly unpleasant location. But I suppose most work in the world is repetitive and tedious. And we signed up for this duty, and every last one of us is glad for the money. Many of my workmates have in fact worked on this contract before, although it is their first time being based from a work camp, rather than in the distant town.

“The Canadian Model for Providing a Safe Workplace (the Canadian Model) is a best-practice alcohol and drug policy that all stakeholders within the construction industry
across Canada can adopt and follow. The purpose of the Canadian Model is to ensure a safe workplace for all workers by reducing the risks associated with the use of alcohol and drugs. ”

The Canadian Model is more fully the “The Canadian Model for Providing a Safe Workplace”, A more accurate title would seem to be the Construction Owners Association of Alberta Model.

The other interesting institutional mandate is workplace injury norms. The reduction and elimination of job site accidents is an overwhelming goal. This is of course a good thing, and compare favourably with the yearly toll of forestry-related cripplings and deaths.

Although officially this is a dry camp, unofficially there are stories about people going into their rooms with suspicious packages, and someone saw an empty beer case on one of the cleaning staff’s trolleys. Maybe it’s difficult to keep this many men far from their homes and consistent relationships, doing physical labour, without much to do but the TVs in their rooms, and allow alcohol into the mix. That wouldn’t answer the question of whether a housing provider has the right to deny people access to alcohol. I’m confident they have the legal right to do so, and maybe they have the moral right as well.

We’ve all chosen to be here, to some meaningful degree. But coming up to work in the tarsands seems to mean accepting a bundled set of choices: you will do what you are told, you will not be officially injured, you will have your decisions about drugs and alcohol and partying made for you both on the worksite and off, you will consent to searches and tests whenever there is “reasonable grounds” for such (which apparently includes stumbling at work). I’m not sure how many people take a deep breath and work down the list of requirements, choosing to abide by each one before they come up here. I suspect most people decide they want to work in the oil patch and then at various points along the way learn what all they have consented to. This is hardly tyranny, but it doesn’t exactly feel like normal adult relations either. And since these relationships between us and the companies we are labouring for apply equally at the worksite and in the camp site, we are always looking over our shoulder. This seems like some alternative form of adulthood that I do not much care for.

That sounds melodramatic. Casual socializing, alcohol, your personal first aid kit. Again, none of these things is a crippling loss, and in the case of casual socializing I’m sure no one had any positive desire to prevent people working here from having a good team. Quite the opposite: the projection TV in the TV lounge is colossal, and their is a gambling table with a case of chips and what looks like real felt. But one way or another, this place is not conducive to companionship.

The song says:

Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go I wanna be sedated
Nothin’ to do and no where to go-o-oh I wanna be sedated
Just get me to the airport put me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane

There is an airplane, but it’s a lot further off than 24 hours. There is indeed nothing to do and nowhere to go. But since your living space is still effectively the workplace, sedation is not an option.

A 45 Minute Tar Sands Radio Rant

The good folks at It’s Hot in Here radio invited me on today for a discussion of the tar sands, tankers, and Enbridge pipelines. Michigonian interest in that last topic has been substantially sharpened by the Battle Creek spill two weeks ago, but awareness of the Albertan tar sands is still thin in the U.S., even among enviros. So maybe I can be forgiven for launching into a petroleum diatribe fully 45 minutes long.

Here’s the audio. I start around 7:00 and finally calm down at about 52:00.


Two things I entirely forgot to mention:

  • The current footprint of tar sands operations is about 1.5 times the size of metro Detroit (it’s good to work in local units).
  • The BP spill. I totally failed to work that in in any way.

Coastal First Nations Versus Tar Sands Tankers

Via Dogwood, an announcement from a coalition of coastal First Nations that they won’t allow tankers “carrying crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands” through their territory.

“Therefore in upholding our ancestral laws, rights and responsibilities, we declare that oil tankers carrying crude oil from the Alberta tar sands will not be allowed to transit our lands and waters”

I have no idea how the law plays out on this one — to what degree First Nations have authority over navigable waters, and how that might vary depending which bands have or have not entered into treaty negotiations — but I’m surely sure that this isn’t good news for Enbridge‘s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Enbridge doesn’t want to go to court to prove that they can push oil-filled tankers past unanimously hostile communities. Even if they won they would lose, and who knows if they would win? Imagine newspaper photography of those tankers floating through protest flotillas.

I’ve heard Enbridge described as a relative do-gooder amongst Canadian petroleum companies, and that they might turn gun-shy if the Northern Gateway project faces too much local resistance. This could be just that resistance.

My understanding is that the tar sands projects won’t need the extra transport capacity for years to come, as long as the US keeps accepting that kind of ugly oil. But there’s every reason to think that American states may increasingly tariff tar-derived petroleum because it’s comes with an environmental subsidy that lower carbon fuels — which the US wants to specialize in — don’t. If Syncrude and Suncor and the lot can’t get their oil out the side door to Asia because the First Nations won’t let them, they could have trouble finding markets, maybe within the decade.

Assuming we don’t taper them off on climate and environment and health grounds first.

Declaration .pdf here, video of the press release below. It starts with Eric Swanson of the Dogwood Initiative, some footage of the First Nations reps afterwards. You won’t have trouble telling the difference.

A Photo A Day From My Tarsands Housemate

Three weeks a month my housemate is away at the tar sands, working on terraforming the planet, and occasionally taking photos in the process. Now some of those are going into a new Blipfoto daily journal: keepin it boreal.

“Thursday 7 January 2010: Dozer Steam

It is getting harder and harder as the nights get colder to take those prolonged exposure shots in -40 degrees but I’m getting the hang of it. I jumped out of the truck and blasted of like 10 shots without really looking or focusing properly before my hands and my poor camera lost their agility. This one turned out not so bad.”

Tar Sands Day

There’s protesters occupying two dump trucks at the Albian plant, hanging a banner off Niagara Falls, and picketing the Canadian embassy in Washington. All this to celebrate Prime Minister Harper’s visit to President Obama. Let’s hope this activity marks some kind of tipping point in continental awareness of the tar sands and their special place in the canon of global-scale environmental mistakes.

Here’s a couple of reasons why:

  1. Tar sands don’t threaten habitat, they replace it. They’re huge. Never mind for the moment the release of toxic byproduct into the Athabasca or the apparent increase in disease incidences in downstream first nations towns, the tar sands are actually a hole in the surface of the earth. I would suggest looking at them in Google Earth, but the tar sands are also one of the few places on earth where the very topography of the planet is reshaped on a fast enough schedule that Google Earth’s elevation data is necessarily out of date.
  2. (and this is the big one) Tar sands is perhaps the most climate-destabilizing method of taking petroleum out of the ground that humans have invented. It takes a lot of effort to get those hydrocarbon chains out of that greasy black gunk. Effort means energy. We put energy in to get the energy out. The exact figure of how many barrels of oil you get out for each barrel worth of energy you put in is hard to come by, presumably because it’s so politically fraught. Pembina institute says the production of tar sands crude dumps about 3 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as other Canadian sources of oil, which is hardly a high standard. Oil prices will continue to climb as availability shrinks, so burning up some non-renewable resources to get some more of them faster will continue to be an economically feasible trade-off (as long as we don’t require the petro companies to cover the wider costs generated from climate destabilization). We have to decide for ourselves that environmentally, socially, this is not an acceptable trade-off. Today seems like a good day to make that call.

Write your government! If you’re in Canada, Dogwood Initiative has some tools for you. In the States swing by Rainforest Action Network. Canada sells the tar sands as a politically stable, domestic source of precious petroleum. Let’s demonstrate that having domestic oil means that it isn’t politically stable, because people here still have some say in how and when their dirt gets dug up.

A little Q&A:

Tar sands or oil sands? Kinda like notebooks or laptops. If you’re in the industry or directly engaging with them you say oil sands, otherwise you say tar sands. Both sound ugly and are.

What about the ducks? Yes, a whole bunch of ducks died when they landed on the giant tailings pond in the Aurora site, were coated in petroleum by-product and sank. 500, oh no wait, 1606 of them. In fact, Syncrude picked today to plead not guilty in the court case, even as they apologize and re-iterate the un-acceptableness of the duck’s deaths and their firm commitment to preventing further loss of duck life. 1600 ducks is sad, but not the issue. The simple presence of the pit mines will have driven down the local population levels of of animal and plant communities by plenty more than 1600. Who knows what the tar sand’s contribution to planetary climate de-stabilization will do to populations of species world-wide. I think the thing about the ducks is that they’re a clear symbol of identifiable harm, so we’re all hung up on them.

Can you occupy a dump truck? Occupation is normally reserved for buildings, it’s true. But these dump trucks are bigger than my house.

De-Mobbed to the Coast

“De-mobbing” is a term I had heard before, but never with sufficient context to understand. Now that I have personally been de-mobbed I’ve learned that it’s the opposite of mobbing, which is mobilizing. As in, mobilizing your troops and their complement of vehicles and materiel to the area of operations. Which for us was (as discussed in the preceding post), the oil sands of Fort McMurray.

“Oh man, the last day is going to be a knee-deep gong show.” — Somebody
“No, Pierre’s pretty experienced with de-mob, it should run smoothly enough” — Somebody else.

installing wattle with handtools

The last day turned out to be long by several hours but only partially a gong show, and fun in the sense that I prefer too much to do over looking busy while drawing out remaining tasks. Pick axes make poor props but decent tools. When the day ended we drove out of the main mine site with all our trucks in convoy, our boss’s little Kootenay Toyota in point position, looking madly undersized but triumphant. Anywhere north of 55 degrees latitude compact pickups start to look odd next to the 1-ton 350 super duties that are de riguer in the oil patch, and alongside the world’s largest trucks in the worlds largest hole it’s just comical. I rode shotgun in our 5-ton moving truck and I’ve rarely felt better to be outbound from a contract. We bumped and heaved our rolling box of unneeded supplies onto that big beautiful divided highway to nowhere, and pointed ourselves north to camp one last time. I was grinning like crazy. Done was what I wanted to be.

Liz in truck

The company I was working for were good people. Smart, competent, worldly, pleasant, funny people who did a good job and took care with it. And being in the midst of the oil sands operation was, as an abstract exercise, just as fascinating as could be. But as a daily thing living and working there is no place to live and, long-term, no way to work. I say that knowing that I may someday be grateful to compromise my ideals and my preferences to make money there again. But I was surely glad at the end to be leaving. We were there on a one month contract, significantly short by tar sands standards. We didn’t chat much with the other folks at our work camp, but it seemed like months and years are not uncommon stints. Most employees are on shifts of 10-and-4 and it’s routine practice for companies to pay to fly people back to their homes for the 4. Despite the short contracts my company does there, they too are considering breaking it up into two halves with a paid flight home in between. All this flying of folks around seemed rash to me at the start, but I’m now thinking there are good reasons for it. Staying in Fort McMurray, especially in camp, can wear down your character. I suspect that might be true even if a person was sanguine about the environmental implications of the work they did. A significant break in real life might help to make people real people again. Even in a recession there is work to be had there, and it can pay extremely well, but the process of shuttling between pit mine and dinner line and dorm room strips your sense of what’s worth doing and what’s worth spending money on. That puts some kind of limits on the value of the cash you might make. You need to know why you’re there, or else you’ll just keep buying trucks, parking them in front of the work lodge, totaling them while you still owe payments, and going back to work.

Courtney reading The Express

At least that was my impression from my little 1-month mini-contract. That doesn’t put me in a good position to generalize or judge the people who work there year-round, so maybe I should shut up about it. In any case, I’m gone.

photographing dinosaurs

There are 14 ferry sailings a day from Vancouver to Victoria, and I’m on one of them. I’ve been back on the coast for three weeks now, mostly working on an interesting contract involving caribou and Google Earth, and hanging out with Jane, and getting moved in to our new place. I’ve many times in the past made the transition from work camp life to town life, and given that “camp” this go round meant a roof and a bed and wireless broadband, this could have been one of the less abrupt transitions. But hitting the streets my first morning in Kitsalano, I felt stranger than I can ever remember feeling post-planting. The people looked weird, and the personal scenarios suggested by their bearing and friends and clothing and packages struck me as theatrically improbable. Life here is more complex than working in a pit mine. I’m feeling very pleased about that complexity right now, very pleased.

Oil Sands In-Bound

Two direct flights leave Vancouver for Fort McMurray every day, and I’m on one of them. Back in Creston, my stalwart former comrades are finishing up the last few days of the summer planting season. I’ve been offered a spot on a reclamation crew working in the tar sands for a few weeks, and hungry for more of the money that can be made during the summer labour season, I’ve left planting a little early and signed on to the oil patch. This won’t be the first time I’ve worked in the Fort Mac area, starting in 1999 I worked for three summers planting trees from remote camps run by Coast Range. This will be the first time I’ve worked directly in the oil industry, either in the Fort McMurray oil patch or anywhere else (unless you count pumping gas at the Squamish Chevron for 2 months).

YVR radar and outbuilding.

Working for questionable industries is a re-occuring theme in my life. Despite self-identifying as an ecologist and enviromentalist, I’ve been involved with 2 different oil multinationals, the U.S. military and countless logging companies, either working for contractors hired by those dubious entities, or working on grant money from them, or working on their property, or all of the above. This will be the closest I’ve come to directly supporting the damaging operations of an industry I dislike — usually I’ve been taking grant money to do environmental projects on their behalf, and at least with treeplanting I could take some solace that I was planting trees rather than cutting them. This time I will be preventing erosion on the dam walls of the mining tailing ponds of what I assume is the single largest source of carbon-altering emissions in the world. I guess I can still claim that I’m preventing run-off instead of directly extracting oil, but I think the excuses are getting a little thin here. I will be directly labouring on the infrastructure of the Alberta tar sands.

I’m doing it for the money. Since I graduated I’ve been freelancing, doing what I have decided to call “community and ecosystem informatics”, which has mostly meant web development and a little cartography for socially and environmentally oriented clients. I like the freelance life, I like tracking down jobs and taking on unexpected tasks for interesting people and I’m optimistic about the direction that work is going. But summer manual labour has the benefit of being consistent and, in some cases, well paid. A friend of mine who I know from the treeplanting community emailed me to ask if was interested in joining this erosion control crew, and somehow I overcame my ethical objections in the amount of time it took me to operate my calculator and my calendar. So here I am with the rockies floating by below me, bound for Fort McMurray.

Western Albertan oil leases under the wing.

I have to admit, I’m also curious to see Fort Mac again. Not that we’ll be seeing much of town, I’ll be living an hour north in one of the satellite industrial lodges which I’m told collectively house as many as 10 000 men and a dozen women. Fort McMurray has always had something of a trainwreck fascination for me. I’m curious for a glimpse of the changes in 8 years of oil industry acceleration, and curious what it’s like to live in an industrial lodge. It will be a switch from my be-porched and be-gardened small-town lifestyle in Creston, that’s for sure. I won’t even get to cook for myself. What am I going to do in the evening?

Highway 63 north towards the tar sands.

I’m told it’s a good company to work for, and they’re making it too easy for me, paying my flight and rental car and all accomodation and expeneses. This is considered normal in the oil industry, and it’s much different than the co-op culture of treeplanting, where most people pay daily camp-costs for the privilege of pitching a tent. Whatever it’s like, it will come and go quickly enough, I’m told there will be between 15 and 25 days of work. And then I’ll be back on the coast, and can enjoy some summer and get back into the freelancing lifestyle.