Profiles

Have we reached “The Tipping Point?”

The fate of Alberta’s tar sands may be a turning point for civilization

Alberta’s tar sands, Suncor effluent pipe and tailings pond, March 2010. Photo by Garth Lenz.

It should be an easy story to tell: the world’s biggest industrial project, the richest oil companies in the world, the largest toxic quagmires ever formed, and the denial of any link to cancer deaths nearby. Destruction and death, power and wealth, wrapped up in a government conspiracy—plus aerial shots of an unprecedented man-made moonscape so sublime they border on beautiful.

But director Niobe Thompson’s documentary Tipping Point: The End of Oil has taken on more than the standard hand-wringing anti-big-business stance of other non-fiction features about the Alberta tar sands. In environmental contexts, the phrase “tipping point” usually refers to ecological thresholds beyond which there is no return—such as the potential for “runaway climate change.” But the film’s title goes further: it refers instead to a turning point for civilization.

“We want the audience to understand: we are at the end of the age of oil, and this is what it looks like,” says Thompson. “The subtitle ‘The End of Oil’ may make one think our film is about solar panels and electric cars, but really this is about what our oil-driven society is doing.”

“Oil invades every part of our lives. We go to enormous lengths to extract it, and we will go to war to get it,” writes David Suzuki, the film’s narrator, in an e-mail interview. “Then when people say we have to shift our energy sources, the immediate response is to say that is crazy. Of course, it’s easy to say it’s crazy when you look at the world through the perceptual lenses of our vested interests.”

But through the lens of a camera, the sheer scale of the tar sands project never fails to impress. It’s a “provincial sacrifice zone,” as Thompson puts it, created through “a Faustian pact” Canada has made in the pursuit of economic growth. Deep toxic tailing ponds, larger than any man-made structure on earth. Vast scourges in the earth, forged by what Stephen Harper once aptly described as “Brobdingnagian technology.” And rare, fatal liver, blood and brain tumours afflicting the people who live downstream in the community of Fort Chipewyan.

The saga is not necessarily easy to tell, for the very same reasons that make it so gripping: so unprecedented in scope, it is difficult to truly capture. And so dramatic, the story has already been told many times before.

The sands and Fort Chipewyan have already featured in half a dozen documentaries: Crude Sacrifice, an independent 2009 film by Vancouver filmmaker Lawrence Carota; H2Oil, a feature-length 2009 doc by Montreal director Shannon Walsh; Greenpeace’s Petropolis, more a work of art by Toronto’s Peter Mettler, 45 minutes of spanning aerial shots of the operations; and Downstream, a 30-minute film by U.S. filmmaker Leslie Iwerks shortlisted for a 2008 Oscar, expanded into the feature film Dirty Oil in 2010.

“With the exception of Petropolis, these are all essentially David and Goliath stories—people facing down a massive project run by the world’s richest oil companies,” says Thompson. “We wanted to do something different to give the audience an idea of what is really at stake by combining a conventional survey of the issues with a narrative built on strong story lines.” What is at stake? Not only the lives of the people downstream, the forests and rivers in Canada, or even the global climate. The fate of all human civilization hangs in the balance.

“The tar sands are telling us that everything about fossil fuel–based economies has changed. This is the tipping point,” says Andrew Nikiforuk, the journalist and author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent who was interviewed for the film,. “If we can get off of fossil fuels in 30 years in response to this wake-up call that would be great, but if we don’t, then as a society we will collapse because you cannot sustain a civilization on a resource as dirty as bitumen.”

THE END OF OIL

Most of the other tar sands documentaries hardly travel outside of Fort Chipewyan. The Oscar-nominated Downstream, for example, focuses on Dr. John O’Connor, the family physician put under investigation by Alberta Health, Health Canada and the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons for causing “undue alarm” when he raised concerns about cancers in Fort Chipewyan. His tale also features largely in Crude Sacrifice and H2Oil.

By now most Canadians are very familiar with this story, says Thompson, so he does not dwell on it. Instead, Tipping Point tells the story of how the people with the most at stake—the community of Fort Chip—brought their story to the world stage. “This is about people with no voice who reached out beyond Canada to find their voice,” says Thompson.

Of central importance are Francois Paulette, a former chief of the Fort Smith Chipewyan who fought for native land claims in the 1960s with the Canadian government and is now fighting again on the world stage in Copenhagen, New York and Norway; David Schindler, an ecologist at the University of Alberta whose research brought the truth about the toxic impacts of the industry to the global press; and James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of the film Avatar (widely seen as an allegory for Northern Alberta).

Added to this, a who’s-who of climate and oil-sands experts: Andrew Nikiforuk; Andrew Weaver, Canada’s pre-eminent climate change scientist; Tim Flannery, Australian scientist and author of The Weather Makers; Bill McKibben, journalist and founder of 350.org George Monbiot, Guardian columnist and author of Heat; Ronald Wright, author, academic and civilization theorist; and Rob Renner, Alberta’s minister of environment.

Even the interviews lying on the cutting-room floor could have produced a documentary; they include the head of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Rajendra Pachuri, and Jim Hansen, a NASA physicist and unquestionably the world’s most famous climate change expert (best known as the scientist who revealed that the American government tried to squash evidence of climate change in the 1980s, as immortalised in An Inconvenient Truth).

“There is always the frustration when you work on a film for this long that you will never have enough space,” says Thompson. The film touches on the contribution of the oil sands to climate change—epitomized in Canada’s notorious obstruction at negotiations in Copenhagen last year—but lacked the scope to explore the issue to its fullest. For his part, Suzuki would have liked to have said more.

“My message, I’m afraid, is drearily repetitive, and has been for decades: human beings have very suddenly become a geological force, but people just don’t realize it,” he says. “We have reached the moment when humanity is altering the chemical, physical and biological makeup of the planet on a geological scale.

“If I were to put a concluding message to the film, it would be to remind people that we are animals, and our most fundamental needs are not dictated by economics, but biology. It is completely mystifying to me how we continue to place the economy, a human construct, above the very fundamental things we need to survive: clean air, water, energy and soil.”

A GLOBAL WARNING

Alberta’s tar sands, aerial shot of Syncrude site, March 2010. Photo by Garth Lenz.

Filming took Thompson and the crew out to Copenhagen for the 2009 UN climate conference, to New York and Norway following Paulette on his diplomatic missions, and many other locations that did not make it to the final cut. I myself signed a release form in London, England, in November 2009, when Thompson followed First Nations activists to Parliament to argue their treaty rights.

And of course, filming took the team out to the sands and Fort McMurray a total of 29 times. “It’s impossible to get a sense of the sheer scale of the operations without aerial shots,” says Thompson. “In a sense, they really are a character themselves in the film.”

They brought the Cineflex helicopter-bound high-definition camera from Los Angeles, the same machine used in the BBC Planet Earth series. “You can zoom up the nose of somebody driving a truck with this thing—it costs a lot of money, so it requires a project of this magnitude,” says Thompson.

Greenpeace used the same camera for Petropolis. They, however, were only able to use the Cineflex for two hours in total—Thompson and his team had it for a full week. They now have a library of footage, which they hope to make available to other projects.

The sands have an added meaning for Thompson—he grew up in Wabasca, Alberta. “I had no conception as a child that this land was part of the oil sands,” he says. Nor did he know during the eight summers he spent as a forest fire fighter. “I put out a lot of fires on land that is now a pit—it is absolutely bizarre to think about it.”

After all these years, and having flown over them more than 20 times, has the sight of the tar sands ceased to impress?

“Yes, they do stop being shocking after your 20th flight—and that really was a challenge. Any filmmaker is always battling the loss of distance,” he says. “You always need to be conscious of the process of estrangement. You constantly need to distance yourself from the subject matter so you can look at it with fresh eyes—the eyes of the audience. But this becomes hard when you live the subject for years.”

SOUND & FURY

Another challenge for any filmmaker covering the sands—and for anyone trying to come to an informed opinion—is the public clash of rhetoric.

On the one hand we see the oil companies and the government, who have always maintained that the environmental impact is minimized.

“We have large industrial projects that to the uninformed eye appear to be out of control, but the fact is that this is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world—this is anything but the Wild West,” Premiere Ed Stelmach says soothingly at a press conference.

On the other side: activists and environmental NGOs, most infamously the Rethink Alberta campaign, widely broadcast in early 2010 throughout the U.S. to discourage tourism to the province. “Alberta’s greed threatens to keep America, Europe and Asia addicted to oil for many more decades,” the ad’s narrator warned, against a backdrop of oil-covered ducks, to the beat of harsh piano chords. “Thinking of visiting Alberta? Think again.”

“Let’s face it: there is a great deal of distrust aimed at professional environmental campaigners,” says Thompson. “I think ordinary Canadians who are mildly interested in this issue are just as distrustful of the ENG Os as they are of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. The message of the Rethink Alberta campaign came across as spin—people got the sense that they were being manipulated.” The only solution, he says, is to base one’s opinion on science.

A SCIENTIFIC VACUUM

But until very recently, there was no science for the public to see. The only monitoring of the river was conducted not by the province of Alberta but by an industry-funded organization, the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program [RAMP], which did not release its data to the public.

“We monitor water quality carefully, and to date all the data shows no long-term effects on water quality from oil sands development,” Stelmach maintained consistently for years.

But few were convinced. “In the absence of transparency, it looked like a conspiracy,” says Thompson.

The government always conceded that there were chemicals in the Athabasca River, but have long contended that they were “natural,” leaking from the river banks. Inputs from the tailings ponds were said to be negligible, and nobody could disprove them.

“I think industry likes it this way—as long as there is confusion, there won’t be any regulation,” responds Schindler. “We’ve seen this with acid rain, tobacco, and right now with climate change—[manufacturing doubt] is a standard industry tactic. After 40 years, I am tired of seeing this fool people time after time.”

The crux of the confusion lies in the sources: though simple water testing shows high levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, other heavy metals and carcinogenic byproducts of petroleum refining, it was difficult to prove that these derived from the tailings ponds and the smokestacks. A small study released in December 2007 and profiled in detail in H2Oil found extremely high levels of heavy metals in the water and in the wildlife. Nonetheless, despite high cancer rates and deformed fish, it remained difficult to prove industry as the source until recently.

MANUFACTURING DOUBT

One of the keys to industry’s defence has been a deficiency in their monitoring program: they did not measure airborne inputs, a glaring omission in a region dotted with giant smokestacks so impressive they were once dubbed “dark satanic mills” by National Geographic.

To provide the necessary evidence, Schinder sampled the contaminants in winter snow, which would have to have come from man-made pollution falling from the sky. Samples collected near the stacks are grim and black. Calculations reveal that within a 50-kilometre radius, 11,000 metric tonnes of particulate would have been deposited during four months of snowfall—the equivalent of a major oil spill. The findings were reported around the world.

Its hand forced by the global spotlight, Ottawa appointed a panel to review Alberta’s monitoring program. The result, announced this December: a unanimous decree that RAMP is inadequate, and a new one will be created.

Of course, reliable monitoring is still a long way from actually changing the way the oil sands operate. But one thing, at least, has been accomplished: the story of Fort Chipewyan has reached the world. “When the early films like H2Oil were made, this community had no voice,” says Thompson. Years later, the arrival of James Cameron in Fort Chipewyan was covered by The New York Times, Oprah Winfrey Show and Time magazine. “Now they feel they have been heard.”

THE TIPPING POINT

The Tipping Point will go on from its high-profile launch on CBC’s Nature of Things to international distribution in markets ranging from Al Jazeera to broadcasters in Norway, Japan, Greece and Sweden. When the film reaches a global audience, ideally, more people around the world will understand the consequences of our oil-driven society.

“To me the issue is that we have gotten very used to the convenience of oil—when we pull up at the pump, we can’t see (and don’t care to see) the enormous ecological, social and economic factors at play,” observes Suzuki. “I hope this film helps show some of those costs to people around the world.”

But, at the end of the day, will anything in the sands change? Global oil demand goes up by two per cent a year, reserves go down by seven per cent a year, and Alberta’s 176 billion proven barrels remain slated for development for 150 years. Production is set to triple by 2020. Some may adhere to the belief that we can “shut down the tar sands,” but most people think that is impossible.

Even if America turns its back on Canada’s oil, there are plenty more that will take it: China, Thailand and India are all fuelling their conversion to western-style economies with our dirty oil. And there are resources like this all over the world—tar sands in the Congo, Madagascar and Venezuela, oil shale in the U.S., Australia and China, just to name a few. “As a civilization of oil consumers, we are standing at a crossroads,” says Thompson. “We are at a tipping point—the tar sands may just be the beginning.”

But as dreary as this could sound, there are still reasons not to despair, says Suzuki.

“The enormous success of our species is attributable to our foresight—our ability to look ahead and imagine a world as it would be, avoiding dangers and exploiting opportunities,” he contends. “No other animal has the ability to invent a future and then work to achieve it. Though now we are turning our backs on the very survival strategy of our species, I don’t think anyone can say it is too late. If we work hard to give nature some room and some time, she might be far more forgiving than we deserve.”

Zoe Cormier is a freelance writer with a background in zoology who specializes in environmental issues. She has been shortlisted for the Canadian National Magazine Awards twice, and credits include a regular column on ecology and environmental science for The Globe and Mail.

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