Scraping For Oil

The Province of Alberta is selling off its natural resources. Increasingly, the provincial government is ceding enormous tracts of Crown lands over to the interests of the oil industry. Since 1997, Alberta has leased over 26,000 square kilometres of boreal forest for oil sands development, an area measuring over five times that of Prince Edward Island. This has spurred an enormous amount of economic investment, infrastructural construction and internal migration to provide labour for an industrial expansion that has radically shifted the focus of Canada’s resource economy to the Athabasca oil sands. Oil companies–initially dependent on the town of Fort McMurray for labour, housing, civic services and logistics– have begun to distance themselves from the much-publicized negative effects associated with the boomtown atmosphere in this northern Albertan community. This, coupled with the ever-expanding geographical extents of the region’s resource-extraction activities, has created the perfect conditions for developing privately run industrial enclaves. Situated far from Fort McMurray, the increasingly outlying oil companies have effectively adopted their own private urban-planning regimes, constructing their own housing, recreational facilities, field hospitals and private airstrips to service themselves. Extremely remote, secure, and often behind concrete Jersey barriers built at the end of isolated gravel roads, multinational oil companies are increasingly in complete control of vast expanses of the Canadian landscape.

But arguably, companies have always been in control. Canada can be understood as a corporate construct–where land exploration and settlement has largely been dependent upon the activities of industrial interests. Historically, our federal government has ceded its jurisdiction and landscape to private companies (e. g., Hudson’s Bay Company, Canadian Pacific, INCO, Imperial Oil) in exchange for modern infrastructure (e. g., charted rivers, railways, reliable gravel roads, secure pipelines) and urbanization (e. g., forts, towns, ports, elevators, bases). Understanding the wholesale leasing of the oil sands as an extension of this continued exchange, we should begin asking more about the artifacts that these companies will inevitably leave behind. What form will the residual landscape emerging from the excavation and terra-forming of an entire region take? How will infrastructures, associated with the extraction and transport of a finite resource, transition themselves for a post-oil economy? What forms of urbanization will the industrialization of the oil sands region generate?

To begin addressing these questions, it is necessary to understand the operational activities of the industrial process itself. Oil sands companies have developed an orchestrated process of activities on their landscape based on emerging hydrological, logistical, technological and legal parameters. Initially, while constructing the massive upgrading facilities required to separate bitumen from sand, the primarily forested land is gridded off; its land deforested and cleared; its soil drenched, drained and dried; and its roughly 10-metre-thick layer of overburden is removed and stockpiled before any mining can occur. Simultaneously, massive holding and tailings pond embankments are located adjacent to the future mines to provide the necessary fluid to lubricate the transportation of the crushed sand, which will then have steam pumped into it to separate the oil. Any unfortunate byproducts of the process will be stored in these ponds indefinitely. It is important to understand that all of the leaseable land can be mined and any particular parcel of land will eventually morph from a holding pond to an 80-

metre-deep surface mine to a tailings pond, which will potentially be replanted/reclaimed when it is no longer spatially required. The orchestration of this process responds to adjacencies: holding ponds are located near water sources, tailings ponds and stockpiles are built near upgrading locations, and surface mining constantly follows the clearcutting of trees toward the extending edges of development, with landscape reclamation in its wake. As evidenced in ExxonMobil’s Kearl Lake lease evolution plan, mining marches across the lease by outflanking the original watershed to create a landscape of total hydrological control. Initially a landscape of creeks, rivers and a solitary lake, the lease is programm ed to morph into a quarantined landscape of “water management

areas,” and the loosely defined “reclaimed areas” are expected to somehow regain the ecological characteristics they initially contained. The basic principles of the process are thus clear; oil sands companies will completely transform the ecologic, topologic and hydrologic character of their entire lease holdings.

Multiply this transformation by the number of lease holdings and it becomes clear the entire region surrounding Fort McMurray is undergoing an irreversible transformation. Unfortunately, the breadth of this long-term reality is seldom discussed as more immediate and readily visible ecological, social, infrastructural and governmental issues are at the forefront of the current discourse on the region. Well-founded ecological concerns about the long-term effects of industrial water consumption and contamination, wildlife habitat protection, greenhouse gas emissions and suspect reclamation practices are beginning to inform and organize the dirty realities of the oil sands industry. The complex socio-economic problems associated with the obscenely high wages, rental rates and costs of living resulting in a rapid influx of labour are only just beginning to be addressed by an overwhelmed municipality’s civil services and oil company protocols. Infrastructurally, the region is completely dependent upon the narrow banding of Highway 63, a pipeline right-of-way and the Athabasca River for the transportation of all heavy equipment, construction supplies, hazardous goods and labour to an expanding archipelago of upgraders. Finally, the failure of the federal and provincial governments to effectively coordinate their management of the region has permitted a rate of expansion that has exacerbated all of the previously mentioned issues. Somehow the region needs to begin addressing its short-and long-term futures simultaneously.

A systemic reluctance to adopt or enforce an effective planning framework, particularly of the top-down variety, has permitted this collection of self-interested companies to set the terms and pace of development to the Alberta provincial government. Furtherm ore, the province’s Regional Sustainable Development Strategy and Cumulative Environm ental Management Association have failed to protect Alberta’s environment from rapidly expanding oil sands. Fortunately, oil sands companies are structured to enable decisions free from four-year terms; they plan on digging in for another 60 years. Given the fact that they’ll be around much longer than any sitting government, it’s about time the province transfers the burden of planning back into industrial hands. Albertans should begin demanding much more support from politicians, not from the companies that occupy and profit from their public holdings. Moreover, the historical relationship–where industries acting in their own self interest to invest in the construction of public landscapes, infrastructures and architectures–needs to be reconstructed. Finally, a public that is increasingly conscious of the brevity and economy of this development needs to begin demanding more than watered-down royalties to ensure a sustained future for their lands. Likewise, companies in the business of energy ought to begin viewing their current activities as an opportunity to situate future alternative productions. The perception of the oil sand industry’s enormous abilities to manufacture the landscape, rapidly lay infrastructure, and erect architecture must transition from destruction and catastrophe towards that of construction and creation. Both the public and priva
te spheres need to begin recognizing the immense potential implicit in the industrialization of this landscape.

The ways in which oil companies operate need to be revised. The petroleum industry has increasingly begun to recognize the need to co-coordinate mine planning, tailings storage, surface water modelling, watershed management, landscape design, land reclamation, and end land uses across their various lease boundaries. In the case of Kearl Lake, the evolution of its lease will require multiple modifications to adapt evolving neighbouring activities as well as ecological and legal requirements. The current retreat and volatility of market forces can actually help create the conditions necessary to allow the questioning, recalibration and modification of ongoing operations. The illustrated fluidity of the mine’s orchestral process allows for the adaptation and augmentation of their operations to easily occur while maintaining constant production. A coordinated control over an entire region could produce a self-sustained, infrastructural landscape capable of supporting post-oil economies. Considering this region as an archipelago of common interests may also help redistribute Fort McMurray’s population more evenly. Inevitably, the Athabasca oil sands will be dug up but how ecological stewardship of this kind of petroleum extraction will be conducted demands bigger questions and considerations. CA

Kelly Doran is an intern architect currently working at WILLIAMSONWILLIAMSON Inc. in Toronto.