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The oil sands triggered a heated global debate on our energy needs. Now, they could be a sign of what’s to come

August 20, 2020, 12:52 PM UTC

Hi there, this is Katherine in London filling in for Eamon, who is off on a well-deserved holiday.

I’m just back from holiday myself, part of a long trip (involving a full month in quarantine) to my home province of Alberta, Canada.

I grew up in an oil and gas region, in an oil and gas town, in an oil and gas family. I was born in a bust (or at least not a robust boom), and first left Calgary for university in the midst of a spectacular boom. When I was 17, “petroleum engineering” was the degree du jour. But the pay was pretty good in the services industries, too—it was hard to keep coffee shops staffed. By the time I was 18, working a summer internship at an energy company, oil was hitting its record high—in July 2008, even as the financial crisis had begun, Brent went for nearly $150 a barrel.

Things are different now. For today’s oil price, lob about $100 a barrel off (and then some.) COVID-19, and this spring’s oil crash, when oil briefly went into negative territory—a feat of technical trading, but also a symbolic moment—has hit the sector hard. The last oil crash, in 2014, left a lasting impact, too.

I watched these historical moments from London, as a reporter, and while working in the energy sector itself. Now, most of my time is devoted to looking at the intersection between the oil and gas sector, and climate change. I wanted to at least understand my own home town.

So on the advice of a source, I traced the sweaty, mostly empty streets of downtown Calgary, in face mask and ball cap, looking for a copy of local author and journalist Chris Turner’s 2017 book The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands.

The book is about the history and politics of my home province’s oil sector, from the technical feats of oil sands extraction (it does, however you feel about it, involve extreme feats of engineering), to the celebrity-studded international environmental campaigns, to the story of The Beast—the mammoth wildfire that destroyed swathes of Fort McMurray, the oil sands’ company town, in 2016.

And it’s a deeply humane book, too: a gentle rejection of easy answers, easy categorizations, easy dismissals. A call to understand how and why the industry developed, and the impact it’s had, and the trade offs it’s required, both for better and for worse.

“When the Patch’s boosters say they are simply supplying a product every one uses every single day, they are not wrong,” Turner writes. “When the prime minister says, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he’s not wrong. When antipipeline protestors say some of that oil has to stay in the ground, they’re not wrong. When Indigenous people say they’ve never been properly consulted about what those pipelines and bitumen mines are doing to their land, they’re not wrong.”

“There’s more to the debate, though, more to the way forward, than being right,” he says.

The book is a few years old now, but many of its messages—of blame, complicity, compassion, and endless nuance—are timelier than ever, as the needle for action on climate change has shifted rapidly this year.

Just this week, BHP said it would sell off its thermal coal assets; and Citi said its clients must reduce their emissions. Major oil and gas companies, particularly in Europe, have pledged to cut their emissions dramatically—leaving the future of their assets, some of them still un-drilled, in question. And yet, the world still depends overwhelmingly on oil and gas.

While the entire world is feeling the effects, oil and gas cities and regions are on the frontline of those changes—the results produce huge shifts in employment, public funding, even migration. In the past, a bust brought calls for economic diversification. Now, some in those regions are calling urgently for reinvention, on a massive scale. Others are insisting the oil sands will remain the economic heart of the region for decades to come.

Calgary and Alberta are just one oil and gas city, just one oil and gas region, among many. But the deep internal division over their future holds lessons for all of us, as we try to shape what comes next.

More below.

Katherine Dunn


Arctic Season 

Earlier this week, the Trump administration finalized its plan to open up Alaska's vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last remaining wilderness in the country, to oil and gas development. The refuge has been the source of years of legal battles between environmentalists who say development will threaten the refuge's population of caribou, polar bears and wildlife, and those who say the region is a lucrative source of energy. New York Times

Decision Time 

Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and activist who now has a regular feature with the New Yorker, writes that this is the year that "karma stops playing nice." Searing summer temperatures across the world have helped dislodge ice shelves; a huge monsoon engulfed Mumbai, and the world's largest oil and gas companies are rapidly changing their tune. New Yorker

Coal sale

The global mining giant BHP said it would sell off its thermal coal mines within two years, under pressure from investors. The departure from coal isn't total—the company would retain a stake in a coking coal venture used for steelmaking—but it's certainly a sign the winds are changing not just in Europe's largest oil and gas companies, but mining companies, too. The Guardian

Europe's drought 

Europe is facing the consequences of its third consecutive summer of drought, threatening the bloc's mammoth agricultural sector and water levels on the Rhine, a vital transport route for barges delivering everything from food to oil throughout western Europe. “Everything depends on the rainfall,” said one official. “If we get rain then it will be all right, but if the drought continues then we will run into trouble.” Financial Times

The end of exploration?

The oil industry is already grappling with a major transition and pressure from shareholders, but they're also facing the prospect that even major drilling assets that have already been discovered will have to remain unexploited—aka, "stranded assets." That begs the question of whether it's worth looking for oil at all. Bloomberg


Is oil giant BP finally ready to 'think outside the barrel'? by Vivienne Walt 

An electric revolution is coming for American trucking by David Z. Morris 

Generation Z is 'traumatized' by climate change—and they're key to fighting it by Sarah Jaquette Ray

The hottest temperature in history may have been recorded Sunday in Death Valley. Why the data is confusing by David Z. Morris 

Another casualty of the pandemic: we're 'drowning' in single-use plastics again by Katherine Dunn

The key to making your company greener? A strong finance team by Gerald Walker 



That's how many wildfires California has already had this year—compared with 4,007 last year, already a famously bad year for fires in the region. Those fires present logistical challenges this year when lock-downs are in order and the risk of people congregating means new outbreaks. And, yes, record-breaking fires year after year are a reflection of a changing climate.