Sometimes it’s difficult to break through messaging, poor media coverage, and casual opinions (i.e. collectively known as bullsh*t) on an issue to the extent that you can productively talk about fundamentals. This was the case at a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) investment symposium I attended this past June.

The CAPP symposium, held in Calgary, is where dozens of oil and gas companies show up every year to vie for the attention and dollars of assembled investors – both individual and those representing big banks, mutual funds, hedge funds and the like.

Although my job is as an activist, I had the opportunity to cover the event from the perspective of a journalist. I’d never worn that hat before – not even for a school paper – so I was excited, especially about my name-tag and my brand new voice recorder, which I was looking forward to thrusting in people’s faces.

Not quite knowing what to expect, I asked another journalist. ‘Oh I hate these things,’ he said. The symposium is a series of twenty-minute, invariably dry, company presentations addressed to investors and spread out over three days. There are also luncheons, social evenings, and investor speed-dating sessions.

The only opportunity for media to ask questions takes place in hallway scrums after each presentation.

For most companies, I used my scrum-allotment to ask if First Nation’s concerns in northeast BC posed any financial risks (NE BC is currently experiencing a natural gas ‘gold rush’ and the BC government is continuing to slither around its constitutional and legal responsibilities to First Nations). Although the responses were uselessly general, I could probably have written something interesting. But as tends to happen in Alberta, the tar sands eclipse all.

Bottling Outrage

It was around 8:30am on the first day of the symposium, and I was in the lobby of the host Hotel surrounded by the usual hospitality industry dcor: chairs, tables, lamps, plants. Interrupting the welcoming aesthetic were two uniforms patrolling the carpet.

Having just returned from organizing protests against Royal Dutch Shell in The Hague and Toronto (read that Bulletin), I interpreted the presence of law enforcement, and their searching glances in my youthful-looking direction, to mean that a demonstration was in the fold. I figured it would probably be around noon to coincide with a keynote luncheon inside, or the lunch-hour rush outside.

And so, at around that time, nothing exciting having happened inside, I made my way down to the lobby where I could see a crowd gathered on the adjacent pedestrian street.

On my way out I was pleased to discover that I must have fit in; my suit and tie drew predatory glances from the demonstrators and an apologetic shrug from the Hotel concierge, who suggested I take another exit, lest I be disturbed by the riff-raff.

Outside it was hot – like only the Prairies can get hot: dry and scorching.

First to catch my eye was the black body bag, conspicuously sprawled out on the pavement bricks.

The bag was accompanied by 50 or so placard-wielding Albertans frustrated by what they see as continual support for the most environmentally and socially destructive industry in Canada’s history: Alberta’s tar sands. Having lived and organized protests in Calgary in the past, I felt at home and was impressed by the turnout.

Greenpeace’s Mike Hudema, a colleague from my day job, was reframing the conference for reporters: “Investors should know that if they are investing in a project such as the tar sands, then they are investing in tremendous environmental destruction and associated human rights abuses,” he said.

To better understand the symbolism of the body bag, which was painted with bold white stencil that read: “RESIDENT OF FORT CHIPEWYAN”, I approached Lionel Lepine, one of several living residents of that northern Alberta community who had traveled to Calgary for the protest.

Lionel, looking to be in his mid-twenties, was once a well-paid driver of the three-story trucks that continually haul 400 tonne loads of gooey sand from the sprawling open pit mines. One day, he decided that he could no longer participate in what he essentially saw as the destruction of his home – so he quit.

I asked Lionel to characterize the mood in his home community.

“Fear and anger,” he said. “People are afraid to drink the water, they’re afraid to eat anything that drinks it or comes from it…Our whole traditional way of life is going to be gone, thanks to the oilsands.”

Fort Chipewyan is located downstream of tar sands central, whose enormous and controversial tailings ponds leach pollution that is being blamed for deformed fish and abnormally high rates of human cancer – hence the body bag, and a table of bottles containing murky-looking downstream water offered up to investors to drink.

The investors I could spot inside gave the protest a wide berth – preferring to watch Tiger Woods putt his way to a 14th major championship victory in the Hotel bar. But curiosity drew Ross Levin, a New York hedge-fund analyst, into the fray.

He was told, both with words and a cage of placards that quickly enveloped him, that those who invest in the tar sands are complicit in its consequences.

He declined the proffered water, and amid taunts and emotionally charged questions retreated, saying to the microphones: “If environmental activists want to change the system, they will have to bear the economic consequences.”

Don’t get me wrong, protests like these are absolutely essential to keep important issues on the fickle public radar, because our media trade conflict for coverage; but they’re not exactly a recipe for Socratic discourse.

Protesters: ‘you are bad bad bad.’

Investors/Industry: ‘you don’t know what the f*ck you’re talking about.’

Cool and Collected

Back inside the symposium it was cool – like only air conditioned hotels with tables of catered ice-water and portable refrigerators of complimentary Haagen Daaz can get cool: crisp and refreshing.

But the explanations from industry on the issue of the tar sands were stale and suffocated further debate. Pierre Alvarez, President of CAPP, had this to say in response to environmental criticism of the tar sands:

“The oilsands are and remain not only an important energy source, but a huge and positive contributor to a sustainable and growing Canadian economy.” Uh huh…

John Wright, the CEO of PetroBank, a company with a controversial coalbed methane project in BC’s Similkameen, said: “There’s no action on the surface of the earth that doesn’t leave a footprint, including farming or planting a vegetable garden.” A vegetable garden? Honestly…

Basically the preferred line was: ‘yes, the tar sands have an impact, but we’re committed to doing it in the best way possible.’ Right…

Their responses sound reasonable, but only if one assumes the tar sands are in fact so fundamental to Alberta and the nation’s well-being that a happy and healthy world without them just wouldn’t exist. I think that
assumption is a bunch of crap, but how do we move beyond my experience at the symposium, and elsewhere, of two sides talking past each other, to a place of deep discourse? If we fail to answer this, then the environmental and social consequences of these assumptions will continue to mount.

Although I enjoyed my brief foray into journalism, I learned that the answer does not lie in scrums, which are structured to solicit one-liners. Rather, a potential path forward revealed itself gradually over the course of the symposium.

Welcome to Nascar Country

I spent much of my off-time in Calgary having beers with friends. One night,  I got into a conversation with a cowboy-boot wearing, Budweiser-hat sporting, Nascar-watching self-styled redneck about his opinion that Indian Residential schools were in fact necessary (because ‘the Natives’ were unable to take care of themselves after they were ‘conquered’ and moved to reserves, where they couldn’t help but ‘breed’ and have large families). I know – your inherent violent tendencies are surfacing – but I decided to experiment with a point-by-point approach.

Five minutes later he was looking embarrassed and explaining that maybe his opinions had been influenced by an experience in which he witnessed the brutal bludgeoning of an innocent person by a member of a Native gang. Bang! With some patience and beers we were at the heart of the matter.

Something akin to this conversation needs to happen for the tar sands in bars and pubs Canada-wide. Listening as ‘the objective journalist’ at the symposium as two sides described the same geographic area and activity in such starkly disparate terms convinced me of this.

I’m not saying it won’t be tough – oil companies are on the verge of launching a collaborative ad campaign to clear up ‘misconceptions’ about the tar sands. The Alberta government is aggressively attempting to do the same; the BC government is happily complicit, supporting a tar sands pipeline and oil tanker terminal for Kitimat; and Stephen Harper, is, well, Stephen Harper.

Investors will not stop investing in the tar sands anytime soon – the potential returns are too hypnotically high. But we can counter this with investments in deeper discourse. Thus, my solution to Tar Sands Dogma: more beer.

Dogwood Initiative is actively campaigning against a proposed tar sands pipeline that would bring the first ever oil tankers, in the order of hundreds per year, to BC’s treasured north coast. Visit for info.