THE PATCH: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, Chris Turner

The rise of the Canadian oil sands is a remarkable story. In THE PATCH: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, Chris Turner recounts the many facets of that story, comprehensively and objectively. As the author himself describes it, the book is a record of the collision between competing world views: “…the first major battleground between the economic necessity of oil production and the ecological necessity of reducing greenhouse gas emissions…a defining story of the twenty-first-century energy business.’’1 Not surprisingly, THE PATCH was the winner of the 2018 National Business Book Awards announced in October.

It has taken less than 10 years for the oil sands – and associated pipelines – to emerge as one of the most divisive subjects in Canadian politics. Yet the history of attempts to develop the resource extends as far back as the late 19th century. The first rudimentary extraction plants were constructed in the late 1920s and 30s but it was the commencement of Great Canadian Oil Sands’2 mining operation in 1967 that was the catalyst for later developments, beginning with the startup of the Syncrude project in 1978.

By the mid-1990s, industry was forecasting capital expenditures on oil sands projects of $25 billion within 25 years. It took only five years to reach that figure. From 1999 to 2013, more than $200 billion was invested. In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that Alberta was in the midst of “the strongest period of economic growth ever recorded by any Canadian province”, with annual GDP and population growth both above 10 per cent. In 2006, Calgary issued building permits for projects worth $4.7 billion, $1 billion more than the figure for Toronto.

It is surprising to realize now that there was little controversy surrounding this extraordinary growth until the early 2010s. Turner recounts that, as recently as 2008, Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper project, a 36 inch line with a capacity of 450,000 barrels per day to move oil sands production from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, moved through National Energy Board (NEB) hearings without serious controversy. Turner quotes an Enbridge spokesman as telling the Regina Leader-Post in Saskatchewan that the pipeline was “the biggest project nobody knows about.” Earlier in 2008, Trans Mountain completed its Anchor Loop project to twin its existing pipeline through parts of Jasper National Park and Mount Robson Provincial Park. The project had been approved by the NEB in 2004 without fanfare or rancor.

Yet by 2015, TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL project3 had “turned oil sands pipelines into an international political issue and a proxy of the first resort for the much broader debate about climate and energy policy.”4 “Finally, there was a single villain, a focal point for action, a way to measure victory. And a pair of phrases – the biggest carbon bomb, game over for the planet – that reduced the staggering scope of the climate change problem to the scale of a campaign’s concise slogans.’’5 He later adds: “and so the proximate target became the enduring proxy for the wider debate, and the proxy became the vessel into which…the entire carbon economy’s sins were stuffed.’’6 Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi is quoted by Turner as expressing the frustration of an industry and much of the Alberta population: “For some reason that one-metre pipe has been asked to bear all the sins of the carbon economy.’’7 Turner does an excellent job of explaining the dynamics that led to such a dramatic change in just a few short years.

Somewhat surprisingly, and to his deep disappointment, Turner encountered widespread, not just reluctance, but complete unwillingness by many of the industry’s key players and some of its most vocal critics to speak to him. His conclusion:

On one hand I can understand the reticence to go on record about a story that neither boosters nor critics believe has ever been told fairly, but I would argue that no agenda is well served by refusing to allow more light in; it only amplifies the distortions. The Patch’s story is an important one, and it is still being written, and it should be shared.8

“Amen” to that!

THE PATCH is, however, much more than a clinical review of the politics and economics of the oil sands, pipelines and climate change. Turner sprinkles his narrative liberally with human interest stories of the diverse workforce and individual lives. There is the lobsterman who, by shuttling back and forth between Prince Edward Island and Fort McMurray, is able to maintain his lobster fleet. A member of the Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation is a heavy equipment operator at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake mine while maintaining his traditional trapline. The Pakistani community brings cricket to town!

THE PATCH is also the story of the rapid growth of Fort McMurray, a city that nevertheless instills intense loyalty and pride among its more than 80,000 permanent residents.9 Turner recounts the story of a Toronto city girl who was “shocked how quickly she fell in love with Fort McMurray.”10 More than 18 years after she and her husband moved there, in the summer of 2016 the biggest wildfire in Alberta’s history, known as “The Beast”, destroyed their home. Less than three months later, they had begun rebuilding.

From afar, Fort McMurray frequently suffers from the stereotypical picture of the frontier boom town, with the usual negative images of drugs, alcohol abuse, gambling and prostitution; it has been the subject of high-profile international press reports “that lingered on the lurid details…”11 Turner, however, reports a 2014 study commissioned by the Fort McMurray municipal government that painted a different, more complex story. That study found that the rate of cocaine-related arrests in Fort McMurray was four times the Canadian average. Vehicle thefts were nearly twice the national average. Otherwise, however, Fort McMurray was actually less prone to crime than the rest of Canada:

Rates for sexual assault and robbery were well below average. Overall the crime rate in Fort McMurray decreased by 44 per cent from 2003 to 2012 (it declined nationally by 17 per cent over the same period)…[T]he image of felonious chaos was mostly invented.12 Turner also reports that, in 2015, Fort McMurray led the nation in per capita donations to the United Way.

THE PATCH is an extremely valuable contribution to the existential debate that will almost certainly continue in Canada for the foreseeable future. It is also an engaging and enjoyable read.

  1. Chris Turner, THE PATCH: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, (Toronto: Simon & Shuster, 2017) at 13.
  2.  Great Canadian Oil Sands (GCOS) evolved into the present day Suncor.
  3.  The saga of the Keystone XL project is recounted in McConaghy, ‘’Dysfunction: Canada after Keystone XL’’ (June 2017) 5:2 Energy Regulation Quarterly.
  4.  Supra note 1 at 119.
  5.  Ibid at 233.
  6.  Ibid at 255.
  7.  Ibid at 253.
  8.  Ibid at 323.
  9.  Plus a “shadow” population of approximately 40,000.
  10.  Supra note 1 at 294.
  11.  Ibid at 163.
  12.  Ibid at 164.

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