Alberta’s anti-heroes: Klein, Stelmach

Nikiforuk sees the glass as being half empty. Das sees it as being half full. Is one right and the other wrong? Or do they just emphasize different aspects of the same phenomenon?

“Not many nations other than China can claim such records of waste production” — Andrew Nikiforuk (referring to the tar sands)

“We can use the enormous wealth the oilsands can confer to build the common good” — Satya Das

Nikiforuk sees the glass as being half empty. Das sees it as being half full. Is one right and the other wrong? Or do they just emphasize different aspects of the same phenomenon?

In 2008, Nikiforuk wrote Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and Future of a Continent. In 2009, Das wrote Green Oil: Clean Energy for the 21st Century. And they just happen to be the only two books on the tar sands that I’ve read from cover to cover.

Nikiforuk’s book is a well-researched crusade against the excesses of the tar sands exploitation. Das’s book is an equally well-researched crusade which advocates using the wealth of the tar sands to develop cleaner processes for bitumen production and a favourable regulatory and fiscal framework for an eventual transition to alternative energies.

He is particularly enthusiastic about the potential for utilizing waste from the agriculture and forestry industries to create biofuels and fertilizers and other useful products.

A “favourable regulatory and fiscal framework” might give free-market economists nightmares, but as both Das and Nikiforuk note, it was government intervention that developed the tar sands in the first place. Yes, it was the Peter Lougheed government which, in 1974, formed AOSTRA (Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority). It also formed a public/private partnership called the Alberta Energy Company, which is now known as EnCana.

In fact, if there is a common hero in both books, it would be Lougheed, who recognized that government can play a proactive role in the economy and our collective future. It was also Lougheed who started up the Heritage Trust Fund — even before Norway started their version of it.

Except our Heritage Trust Fund stands at $14 billion, while the Norwegian fund is over $500 billion.

Which brings me to the anti-heroes in both books.

These are people like Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach, who not only gutted the fund, but treated the tar sands like it belonged to the Americans instead of us.

But if there is agreement on some matters in the two books, there is also some disagreement.

On the subject of carbon capture and storage, for example, Das approves of Stelmach’s $2-billion initiative, whereas Nikiforuk sees it as an expensive distraction from the real need to conserve energy. In his book, Nikiforuk quotes University of Manitoba geography professor Vaclav Smil, stating that carbon capture comes from the same type of thinking that gives us “a 50-kg female driving a 3,000-kg SUV in order to pick up a 1-kg carton of milk”.

Is that true? Neither author delves too deeply into the issue, and so it will have to wait for a future column.

But overall, is one book better than the other?

I’d hesitate to say. Both are worthwhile reads, and it is important to get multiple views on this vitally important issue.

One author may see the glass as being half empty, and the other may see it as being half full, but unlike some of the more complacent members of our society, at least they don’t see those glasses as being rose colored and perennially full to the brim.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to Visit the Energy and Ecology website at