"… an author who writes exceptionally fascinating stories on social and cultural change." — The Globe and Mail

Archive for October, 2017

Big Oil’s last hurrah

Many motorists choose their gas pump visits to match the small dips that occur in the day-to-day pricing of gasoline. I call tbis a “mug’s game.” It’s a term my old boss, John Bassett of the Toronto Telegram, was fond of applying to efforts of his editors to shoehorn late breaking news into a front page that was ready to go to press.

Oil reached an all-time peak of $145 a barrel in 2008. Then came the Great Recession. Prices for West Texas oil tumbled to an historic low of $26.55 per barrel in January, 2016. They have since almost doubled,  to around $51 today. And further increases are coming, according to the U.S. Energy Administration. It predicts oil will average $52 a barrel in 2018, rising to $75 by 2020, $109 by 2040, and peaking at $116 in 2050 (all in 2017 dollars).

Talk about a mug’s game!

Forecasts like these are usually upset by unforeseen, or even expected, events. Who foresaw the Great Recession? Who could have predicted that Saudi Arabia would decide to pump surplus oil into the market in order to knock down prices — and so drive new competitors, like the shale oil industry in the United States,and the Alberta oil sands in Canada, toward bankruptcy.

Anyone who thinks Big Oil is here to stay should read Chris Turner’s epic history of the oil sands, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. In it, he analyzes how that stretchof oil-drenched loam and sand in northern Alberta has been dug into, carved up, and generally desecrated.

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Turner, a veteran Calgary author and journalist, is not anti-oil sands. He’s more interested in how the rise of the oil sands and its capital, Fort McMurray, has affected the people involved — everyone from local Indigenous, to Newfoundland fishermen and Pakistani immigrants who found work tapping into the underground wealth of that northern terrain.

Turner begins The Patch with an account of a small environmental disaster: the death of 1,601 ducks who landed on a Syncrude tailings pond in the middle of a snowstorm. They thought they’d found a safe haven, but didn’t understand that what they took for open water was actually a tarry mix of oil, heavy metals, and chemicals.

From that debacle, Turner goes on to recount early attempts to develop the oil sands. He describes how corporate America came to the scene with the arrival of Sun Oil in the 1950s, becoming a partner in a consortium called Great Canadian Oil Sands.

By 2006, Turner writes, “twice as many Newfoundlanders worked in Alberta as there were employed in the decimated fishery back home.” Then came the twin disasters of the Great Recession and the “The Beast,” the fire that enveloped much of Fort McMurray and the surrounding oil sands territory.

Turner reports on environmental studies that present “a powerful litany of abuses.” He adds: “The oil sands is the largest new source of carbon pollution in Canada — but its emissions intensity per barrel has been dropping steadily for years.”

Despite this, Turner says, “A thing of such scope and power and wealth as The Patch doesn’t go away overnight or in a few years. Building the entire industrial basis of modern society on a new energy regime does not happen overnight or in a few years. We will have The Patch for years, decades … We are all stakeholders. We are all complicit.”

When the Energy East pipeline was cancelled a few weeks ago, it was admitted that market forces — a declining need for new pipelines beyond the Kinder Morgan in B.C. and the Keystone XL in the States — were the main factor in the decision.

Less attention was paid to the announcements of a string of car companies from General Motors to Volvo that they would be phasing out gasoline models in favour of electric vehicles over the next ten to fifteen years. With two-thirds of world oil production now going to power cars, buses, trucks and planes, can oil be anything but a declining force in a future of electric vehicles?

I began my writing career with an article about the oil sands that the Rocky Mountain Oil Reporter published in the 1950s. It was one of the first pieces to recognize that a great new industry was soon to come into being.  I congratulated myself on the $12 check I received.

Now, the oil sands are one of the most widely written about industries in the world. In The Patch, Chris Turner has written a book that brings to life a significant slice of modern Canada. But perhaps his book also signals the last great hurrah for Big Oil.

 

 

 

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The ‘Blue Wall’ of prison injustice

The pictures* offer graphic evidence of institutional cruelty – wire cages not much larger than a phone booth, that hold troubled prisoners in Ontario jails. The pens are not that different from the upright coffins into which men were stuffed for punishment in the Kingston Penitentiary a century and a half ago.

Corrections Canada, the agency that overseees Canada’s federal penitentiaries, recently discontinued use of such devices. It is struggling to slowly move into the twenty-first century, although its insistence on continued use of segregation is at conflict with government directives to put more emphasis on rehabilitation and less on punishment.

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If any further evidence of correctional failure in Canada were needed, one might point to the two lawsuits in which the federal government is continuing to defend the use of segregation of youthful prisoners (18-21) and those with mental disorders. We have seen people die – and be murdered – in Canada’s jails. We continue to warehouse young Indigenous men in the penal system. They make up 27 per cent of the inmate population, while representing less than five per cent of the total population.

These latest disclosures will come as no surprise to Robert Clark, a retired deputy warden of Kingston Penitentiary and author of a memoir, Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service. He spoke at the recent Kingston Writersfest.

Clark set out as a young recruit in the Canadian penitentiary service, determined to bring some humanity to the jails to which he was assigned. He found a system that “almost sanctions the mistreatment of prisoners.”

One of the biggest problems, Cark soon discovered, is the “blue wall” that prison staff erect to hide that mistreatment, to cover up and gloss over official wrong doing.

Based on his own experience, Clark supports estimates that up to forty per cent of the inmates of Canadian jails suffer from mental problems and/or cognitive impairments, He ended his career as deputy warden in charge of the Regional Treatment Centre, a jail within a jail at Kingston Penitentiary. It housed prisoners with identified mental problems.

How these prisoners are being treated, following the closure of the Kingston Pen, is anybody’s guess.

Clark has harsh comments about the “tough on crime” policies of the Harper regime, not all of which have yet been reversed by the Trudeau government. He stresses the importance of recognizing the harm done to victims of crime, and speaks eloquently of the pain victims have shared with him. But Clark insists that harsh treatment of offenders who eventually have to be released is counter-productive to the public interest.

“I was personally offended by what I considered an abrupt and wrong turn in correctional philosophy,” Clark writes of the Harper edicts. “ I concluded I could no longer work for CSC (Correctional services Canada.”)

Robert Clark’s Down Inside truly takes readers inside the Canadian prison system. He describes innumerable cases where the system has failed prisoners as well as the public.

Suicides committed while in segregation have been much in the news in recent years. Clark describes a case he was asked to investigate where a prisoner at the Kingston Pen had killed himself while in a segregation cell. The man had cut his wrists with a smuggled razor blade after covering the small window that allowed guards to look into his cell.

“Even though solitary staff knew prisoners were prohibited from covering their cell windows, they allowed the practice,” Clark says. “The window remained covered for hours.” Nobody bothered to check the prisoner. When guards finally entered his cell after a lapse of many hours, they found him “lying face down in a large pool of blood, a note from his parole officer clutched in his hand.” It had told him of the death of his sister.

While Clark identifies shortcomings within Canada’s prison system, he has little to say (because his book is largely a personal memoir) about failures of the justice system that put most of the prisoners behind bars in the first place.

More Canadians than ever are in jail now, due largely to the Harper government’s laws setting mandatory minimum sentences for such offences as drug trafficking and some sex crimes. In all such cases judges are prohibited from considering alternatives to prison, such as probation, conditional sentences, or the use of restorative justice methods (where the accused is brought together with the victim and both discuss how harm done by the offender can be repaired).

In a postscript to my novel, An Act of Injustice, I argue that many non-violent offenders now in jail (mainly in provincial prisoners) need not be there. Imprisonment does little to prevent further crime, but incarceration costs taxpayers a lot of money that could be better directed toward rehabilitative treatment.

*Published in The Globe and Mail of October 11, 2017