In 1975 my grade five science teacher explained the difference between a renewable resource, and a non-renewable resource. Oil fell in the latter category, he said. At that point in time, there appeared to be a great deal of it to be had for the taking, but the world's oil deposits were no different from the gas tanks in our family cars. Sooner or later, they would hit "empty," and that would be the end of that.
He also mentioned the Alberta "tar sands," which he treated as a footnote -- or "endnote," really. The cost of production involved in getting usable oil from the sands was so prohibitive, he said, that when we finally saw serious investment in this enterprise, we would know we were close to hitting the bottom of the tank.
Here we are, 33 years later.
Canada's premiers are attending a Council of the Federation conference in Vancouver this week. If their faces appear a tad haunted when they approach the cameras, there's a good reason for it. There has been some gentle talk about what's happening to the environment as a result of this "boom" in Alberta. One doesn't have to care about, or even believe in, climate change to simply acknowledge that expelling this much toxicity into our environment doesn't do anyone on the planet a damned bit of good. But at the end of the day, we're still talking about a bona fide economic boom. That slightly slack look on the faces of our premiers is the collective realization that we're all quite literally over a barrel now. We're letting the Oil Mercantilists have their way with us, because any slow down whatsoever will leave us in a vulnerable position we cannot improvise our way out of. Requesting such a belated use of condoms seems like a moot point when we're so clearly caught in flagrante.
For those who can handle it, here is some tar-sands ... excuse me: oil-sands porn: aerial photos by Edward Burtynsky.