Overburden

All this talk of opening the Arctic to oil exploitation brings up the “p” word. Petroculture: a word I’d never heard before I lived in Alberta, although I knew its meaning instantly. I’d already written about the changes to wilderness, water, and community that oil booms brought to the Green River valley, a remote, gorgeous region (in my 2013 novel, Junction, Utah.) That place was changed forever as seismic crews and drill rigs moved in over dirt roads, farm tracks, and former indigenous trails. As a river guide and geologist, I had an intimate view of the growing petroculture as it overlay onto an existing fabric of farms, churches, Native American enclaves, and river subcultures. Oil crews moved in. Prices of land and homes skyrocketed. So did population, crime, and toxic chemicals in groundwater.

The oil exploration lifestyle; the way we respond to the world when it’s drilled. In Edmonton, I learned most of what I know about Alberta’s oil cultures from the amazing Dr. Sheena Wilson, Co-Director with Dr. Imre Szeman of the Petrocultures Research Group.

Edmonton, Alberta. Exciting city in the heart of petroleum culture. Photo by Rebecca Lawton

Edmonton, Alberta. City in the heart of petroleum culture. Photo 2014 by Rebecca Lawton.

In Imaginations, the journal Wilson co-edits with Szeman and Adam Carlson, Wilson wrote with her co-author William Anselmi:

“Re-envisioning the Alberta Tar Sands as epical—where apart from the direct, economic beneficiaries no one will have direct contact with the Tar Sands other than through visual mediations—invents for the Canadian imaginary the triumph of the will over its habitat: a trope of Canadian literature taken well beyond its initial survivalist mode. These transformations that legitimize exploitation are part of a semantic shift, where the destruction of the environment becomes ‘epic’ . . . What was monstrous/ugly is now rendered as beautiful/entrepreneurial.”

Transforming the devastation of boreal forest to a triumph of will.

In October 2014 I visited the tar sands–and I’ll forever process that visit in my heart and mind. How to write it? How to even think about it? The sights, smells, and sounds of a land under siege were horrifying. Beyond the warmth of the people in the community, typically and politely Canadian, there was the hell on earth of the excavations. The stripping off of overburden (forest) to dig below it. Explosions meant to keep waterfowl off toxic tailings ponds, not always successfully. Toxic chemicals leaking to streams. Foul air. Barren, stark earth.

Yet, as Sheena writes, Canada would have us see the tar sands as epical. Saving the economy. Saving the country. Saving lives.

A National Geographic photo gallery by Peter Essick that was posted at www.petrocultures.com contains images and words about the oil/tar sands: “Once considered too expensive, as well as too damaging to the land, exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands is now a gamble worth billions.” And “Oil companies say they are searching for ways to extract deep bitumen using more eco-friendly processes.” (Currently they use either an open-pit excavation method or forced-steam extraction that emits more greenhouse gases than surface mining but destroys less forest.)

Among Essick’s images is a photo of a northern forest, beautiful, windswept, emerald green, and uncut as of the date of the photograph (2009). The caption said it had been claimed by prospectors. As I write this, that overburden is gone–long gone–along with the wild lives dependent on it. Forest caribou. Eagles. Insects. Fungi. Life beating with the same warm heart we do.

I’m far from the first to say it (First Nations people have known it from the start): the place of overburden removal is not a life-saving place, as the multinationals would have us believe. It’s a dying, foul, poisonous place. Other governments are actively seeking to throw their lands open to more of the same, but it’s a losing game. The “triumph of the will” is imaginary. It’s hubris in the guise of heroism.

Bad idea in Canada; bad idea in the Arctic. The movement toward life after oil is growing. Quickly enough to save other lives, other land, other overburden?


Find my new book of essays, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, March 2019), available for presale at Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

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