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Our crude commodity

by admin November 10, 2009

It’s Canada’s not-so dirty secret. But how dirty?
A new documentary on the much-explored topic of the Athabaska tar sands, H2Oil, does a fine job touring the tar pits and their runoff effects, but falls short on making the topic feel fresh enough to blow a gasket over.

The film showcases some passion against, and criticism of, the massive exploitation in Alberta’s north, but seems to lack in the heartstring-pulling department. This is due to the characters featured in the 75-minute doc; they’re kind of drab.
A village close to the projects, Fort Chipewyan, has every reason to complain – increased cancer rate, added strain on the aquifer, decline in quality of environment – but the way they complain makes their plight unmoving. You can’t help but wonder how enamoured these communities have become with the lucrative work provided by the tar sands.

The film explores illness due to runoff from the tar sands but never features anyone suffering from it. The best it can do to prove that animals are also suffering is an out of focus picture of a fish with a tumour on it’s side that’s hard to make out.
In a way that’s what this film feels like, a bit out of focus and a bit too distant. Athabaska should be felt from a much closer vantage point.

The oil sands are immense – about the size of England &- and already have the capacity to cause an environmental disaster equivalent to 300 Exxon Valdez spills (the largest spill in American history). The industry is set to grow five fold even though it might just be the world’s most unsustainable project. We are the United States’ main supplier of oil but the oil we provide is dirty to process. It takes three barrels of spring water to extract one barrel of crude oil.

H2Oil concentrates on the water usage. After the oil is extracted using heat, pressure, chemicals, and water, the contaminated water is left in “tailing ponds.” The toxic water seeps into water streams, notably the Athabaska River, and towards communities like Fort Chipewyan.

But the film illustrates this story without making it feel real. Athabaska feels far away: A cold, flat place that doesn’t seem like a nice place for anyone to live – tar sands or not. But the truth is that it’s many people’s home, it’s our environment; we’re not showing it as much respect as we should.

The project could have been portrayed in H2Oil as the ultimate expression of Canadian hypocrisy, the American influence on our land, or an example of the conservative stance that economy trumps environment. It’s time to debunk our assumptions and anxieties, but this isn’t a film that does it.

H2Oil plays this Thursday at 9 p.m. in H-110. The director will be there for a question period.