Chris Turner's The Patch recounts a rollicking history of the Alberta oil sands that's not over yet

A new book about one of the largest developments in human history aims to provide context to better inform heated debates

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      Chris Turner has a request for Canadians: he wants everyone to step back from debates on Alberta’s oil sands, take a deep breath, and make the time to better understand what it is we’re shouting about.

      “I think, for something that is as prominent in Canadian politics as it has become, the actual facts of the case…are not really well understood,” Turner says on the phone from his hometown of Calgary. “There is little understanding of what the thing actually is.”

      To help us out, Turner has put the story of the oil sands (also known as the tar sands) into a book. Not an attack or a defence, he emphasizes. Just the story. The result is The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, which Simon & Schuster publishes on September 19.

      “The book was conceived with the idea that there is extraordinarily heated rhetoric, pro and con,” Turner tells the Straight. “But even if there were not another dollar invested in it today, it would continue to operate for another quarter-century. We have to come to terms with it on some level.”

      It’s a story that begins in the early Cretaceous period, more than 120 million years ago. Skipping ahead a bit, Turner recounts the Geological Survey of Canada’s first formal visit to the Athabasca region, made by Robert Bell in the early 1880s. Bell’s report from that trip states “the bitumen deposits might be so vast as to one day warrant a pipeline to the Hudson Bay,” Turner writes. A bit later, in the 1920s, a Prince Edward Island real-estate speculator named Robert Fitzsimmons arrived in Fort McMurray. In 1936, he built an “elaborate industrial age marvel carved out of the thickly wooded wilderness”. Over the next 50 years, progress continued at varying speeds and with stops and start, but Alberta’s oil sands was on its way.

      An oil-sands operation outside of Fort McMurray photographed from the air in 2014.
      Kris Krug

      It’s fascinating history and continues for a bit, but most of The Patch covers contemporary affairs. Turner spent a year researching the book. He was based in Calgary, but also spent more than two months in the oil sands’ boomtown of Fort McMurray and visited the more remote Fort Chipewyan.

      That time on the ground allowed Turner to paint a nuanced picture of Fort McMurray especially. The city he describes isn’t the rowdy row of dive bars and strip clubs that so many newspaper articles have made it out to be. Sure, the downtown core has a roughneck chip to it, Turner concedes. But the Fort Mac that he got to know is a good place to raise a family and a shining example of Canadian multiculturalism. Turner describes how he arrived at that more accurate picture as involving a bit of luck.

      “Hotel prices are extraordinarily high during the week,” he explains. “And so I thought I would see if Airbnb is a thing in Fort McMurray.…It is. And so I wound up staying out in one of the newest suburbs.

      “It helped me get a truer sense of the place and why some of the people who I profile in the book really love it there,” he adds.

      A personal touch and colourful anecdotes are the book’s core strengths. Turner introduces us to Raheel Joseph, for example, a 33-year-old immigrant from Pakistan who drives a bus from Fort McMurray to various oil-sands projects, back and forth each day. Through his eyes, Turner provides a perspective on the oil sands from a group few Canadians think about: its army of support staff.

      “The Suncor base site, like all the oil sands mining sites, is a sprawling industrial city,” he writes in the book. “The mining complex has its own exit on Highway 63, so when Raheel Joseph arrives around half past six, he pilots his Diversified bus down a dedicated off-ramp that gives way to an access road, winding past three massive workforce accommodation complexes.…As Joseph steers his bus northward again, the industrial city’s central business district comes into view.”

      The Bow Building in downtown Calgary stands 58-storeys tall and serves as a home for oil-sands giants like Cenovus and Encana.
      Bernard Spragg

      Another character with a very different vantage point is Harbir Chhina, an engineer and executive working for Cenovus who occupies a window office on the 26th floor of the Bow Building in downtown Calgary.

      “He talks about next-generation technologies—not just elaborate, expensive bolt-on gear that might sequester carbon dioxide from a SAGD [steam-assisted gravity drainage] plant deep beneath the ground but also the sci-fi stuff,” Turner writes. “Technologies that will take a CO2 stream…and convert it back into synthetic fuel, closing the emissions loop for good.”

      Turner ruffled conservative feathers with his 2013 book, The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada, and not everyone he sought for an interview welcomed him into their office.

      He reports that not a single corporation mining the oil sands allowed him even to set foot on any of their project sites. (Suncor was the exception, but only by way of Turner purchasing a ticket for the company’s public tour.)

      “It was disappointing,” Turner says. “The industry is not particularly threatened by coverage; they have just decided not to cooperate with it.…I personally think, even from their own strategic point of view, it’s an error. I don’t think they win anything by hiding.”

      While that was somewhat expected, Turner says he was surprised by the extent to which some oil-sands opponents were similarly opaque. Tom Steyer, for example, an American hedge-fund manager who bankrolled opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline—which would run from the oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico—did not respond to requests. Every attempt Turner made to meet with members of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s band council were also met with silence.

      The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands will be published by Simon & Schuster on September 19

      Despite challenges of access, Turner has provided a holistic account of one of the largest industrial developments in human history.

      Short tangents throughout the book provide richly detailed descriptions of various facets of oil-sands operations. Things like the colossal Cat 797 dump trucks that move nearly 400 tons of oil sands’ ore per load, and the private airline operators that ferry hundreds of thousands of short-term workers to and from dozens of work camps each year. There’s also a short aside on Fort McMurray’s cricket club. And explanations of industry technologies likes steam-assisted gravity drainage, scientific techniques deployed to analyze the oil-sands’ environmental impacts, and safety equipment such as propane-fired sound cannons that warn migratory birds to stay far away from toxic tailings ponds.

      The book also covers politics with an aim to provide a peak behind the curtain of key moments in oil-sands developments—for example, an account of a 2008 visit former Alberta premier Ed Stelmach made to the White House for a meeting with Dick Cheney.

      “They had fifteen minutes to state their case to the vice-president,” it reads. “Then the phone would ring, Cheney would answer it and that would be their signal to leave.

      “Cheney had been to Alberta on a hunting trip, so he and [resource development minister] Ted Morton chatted about that,” the book continues. “When the phone rang, the vice-president picked it up briefly and said something short and quiet into the receiver and put it back down. They kept talking. The meeting stretched longer than half an hour.”

      The story of the oil sands that Turner recounts is one that stretches from Alberta to Washington, D.C., to far-flung locations like remote oil fields in Soviet Russia.

      “This is a much more complex story than the one that is generally being told,” Turner says. “And quite a fascinating one.”

      Chris Turner is scheduled to appear at two events at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 17.