My Experience Working in the Oil Sands
This marks the first time that I describe my observations not objectively, but opinionatedly. I’ve held my tongue a long time in anticipation of the opportunity to share with a receptive audience.
I have a B.Sc. in environmental science from Royal Roads University and worked in the Alberta conventional oil and gas industry conducting technical report writing and site investigations for the reclamation of land involved in conventional oil and gas activities (wellsites), for 2 ½ years. It was a job that essentially consisted of many hours of report writing. In March 2013, I left that position to backpack in Central America for 3 months and upon my return to Canada I accepted a field position as a Soil Specialist in an oil sands mine in northern Canada, where I worked for the next 11 months.
Conventional Oil vs. Oil Sands
For those who may not be aware of the difference between conventional oil and oil sands, allow me to give a crude explanation (pun intended).
Conventional oil is sucking a liquid or gas out of the ground. Typically, a 100m x 100m area of land is cleared of vegetation and the soil is pealed back (often windrowed on along the wellsite perimeter), a singular well is drilled in the center and a pump-jack is installed. These are the sites that are visible to the public as they are distributed throughout the province on both private and public land. Being so visible, the remediation (cleaning up contamination) and reclamation (restoring the soil, topography, and vegetation back to ‘natural’) requirements of conventional sites are regulated by the government.
Oil sands differ in that the oil exists as part of the earth (surrounding the particles of sand) and not in an easily extractable liquid or gas form. The oil sands are an open pit mining operation. To get the oil, the earth itself must be excavated, and hauled to a processor that heats the earth until the oil becomes less viscous (more liquid) and can be separated from the particles of sand. The sand then needs to be disposed of, along with the majority of the water/chemical emulsion used to extract the oil from the sand. Most of the water taken from the Athabasca River can never be returned. The toxic emulsified liquid is pumped into giant unlined ‘tailings ponds’. I have seen those enormous toxic tailings ponds with my own eyes. They will be there longer than their banks are structurally capable of containing them, and long after any oil company will be present to maintain them. Each step of the process is incredibly energy intensive, and we are no longer talking about a 100m x 100m area. At the mine I worked at you could drive for an hour in one direction and not reach the edge of the lease. That isn’t to say the entire lease is an open pit mine, but the lease size is significant as once the lease is obtained by the oil company, entry and exit are controlled. Whatever happens within the lease area after the lease is granted is the oil company’s business. Essentially, it is their domain to do as they please.
I was always ethically supported at the first company I worked for. A tone of integrity was reinforced from the top down. However, during this period I began to question the ethical viability of a system where industry (in this case oil companies) provides compensation to environmental consulting companies to produce unbiased reports. The onus is on the environmental professionals of these companies to uphold the scientific and ethical integrity of the work being conducted, while balancing the expectations of the client. Doing so is essentially relying on the ethics of individuals to safeguard the environment. Such a system is irresponsible. Industry is not concerned with environmental protection they are concerned with profit. To argue otherwise is to tow the line. Eventually I came to realize that even environmental regulations do not exist to protect the environment, they exist to provide benchmarks by which to standardize the exploitation of the environment. I chose to study environmental science as I revered the planet, and was dejected to realize that the majority of employment options available involved its exploitation.
Something strange happens when you live where you work. When every single person that you see in a day is working: the bus drivers, your co-workers, the guy serving your mashed potatoes. There is no one strolling on the sidewalk, no children, and no break from the intentionally designed social structure. When essentially the only people available to socialize with are the same people you work with. When your schedule consists of working 12-15 hour days, returning to camp to eat and make one prison phone-call or sneak in a workout (no time for both), and go to bed to repeat the cycle the following day. Life becomes mechanized to a degree that is both unnatural and intentional. Quite simply- work becomes life. When there is no personal life, emotions are naturally channeled into work. The work politics become supercharged as people invest both their professional and personal energies into their jobs, because, quite simply, there’s nothing else to do.
Working in the Mine
A mine is like an isolated planet, where the global ruler is the oil company- responsible for setting the framework of greed and capitalistic values- and all the hundreds of contractor groups are the individual countries who wage war on one another in ways that reflect those values. When environmental issues arose it was the norm to invest solely in directing the blame on one another, not on finding a solution. The mine runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, period. When mistakes are made, the scene is not frozen to investigate the cause or mitigate a solution—there is just no time for this. Nothing stops production, certainly not an environmental concern. One of my bosses recounted to me his conversation with a certain oil executive at the initial work contract negotiation, where the executive stressed only: “If you slow this project down, I will personally ruin you.” I felt my position existed solely to save face, to provide some semblance of environmental responsibility and reporting, as I never once saw more than a finger wag handed down when infractions or violations occurred.
As a Soil Monitor it was my responsibility to report on daily soil salvage and reclamation activities, police soil salvage operations and consistently negotiate with construction contractor foremen when issues inevitably arose, as our occupational priorities were always in conflict. I was not privy to conversations that took place as a result of my reports, which prevented me from understanding the greater picture. This structure of compartmentalization is not news, but it was my first—very frustrating—exposure to its intentional limitation.
In order to be hired and to even set foot in the mine you need to first pass a drug and alcohol urine test, which is successful mainly at targeting individuals who smoke marijuana, as this is one of the only substances to remain in your system at detectable concentrations beyond the period of discernible intoxication. This is a litmus test for your willingness to be obedient, by allowing even your consciousness and behavior while at home to be regulated by your employer. While being trained as a supervisor I was taught that the one of the first actions to take in the event of a workplace incident was to march the involved individual down to the med center to be given a drug test. I saw this as a clear indication that the priority of the oil company was to offset responsibility onto the individual.
I experienced a hyper-awareness of being watched. There are a plethora of rules that govern all aspects of both work and camp life that treat people like machines and not humans. There are so many that the adherence to all of them is unrealistic, lest all of an individual’s awareness be expended on complying. For example, full PPE must be worn while fueling a vehicle, you cannot wear anything on your head when entering the dinner room, no cell phones at the aerodrome, no photos taken at any time, no headphones while boarding the plane, and your badge is scanned for access privilege multiple times a day. It is truly endless. The number of rules exceeds even the most compliant person’s threshold of what’s reasonable. This leaves you with a lingering fear that at any given moment, you must be doing something wrong. It is this fear that keeps you silent and distant from those around you.
I remember one incident that occurred at the start of my employment where I was overseeing dozers as they salvaged soil from an area. As the dozers stripped the soil and the overlying shrubs and grasses, a growing number of small birds began shrieking and circling overhead. It was evident this last little patch of vegetation represented their nesting ground, and their unwillingness to leave gave me the distinct impression there were already babies there. I felt so haunted and helpless, and trapped by the futility of my position.
I endeavored to pay more attention to my surroundings, and to observe whatever I possibly could. I watched how the smoke stacks pumped out so much effluent that they literally created their own weather for kilometers downwind. How in the winter, the presence of a temperature inversion would cause the emissions to funnel downwards onto anyone and anything below. Working in areas underneath the plumes was an eerie and intuitively alarming experience—it was always much colder there. No one is ever informed as to the emission contents. In fact, there is this misguided rumor that it consists of water vapor.
In my opinion, the “safety culture” is a smokescreen. It is the perception of safety that matters, not the reality. When considering the smoke stack emissions and tailings effluent, how is it acceptable for even the human beings in direct contact with these chemicals to not be made aware of the chemical content or the risks involved? MSDS sheets are compulsory for any and all cleaning solutions but not for the most toxic effluents produced by the mine. The bears emerging from hibernation in the spring are becoming increasingly problematic, as they are consistently drawn by food rewards and becoming less fearful of human interaction. I personally had 3 on-the-ground bear encounters in the span of 2 days. The paperwork, trainings, and procedures involved in safety compliance are constantly changing, and compliance is analyzed subjectively. It seems deliberately complicated and unmanageable- a ploy to keep contractors chasing their tails at opportune moments, as it is an easy way for the oil company to increase the workload or threaten contractors with non-compliance (punishment).
There is one mine that has obtained a reclamation certificate from the government for one of its tailings ponds. In preparation for a scheduled visit by an government inspector, my friend (among others) was charged with spray painting straw green, and placing it over top of tailings effluent which had bubbled up to the surface in multiple “reclaimed” areas, so as not to draw the attention of the inspector when viewed from afar. He took video footage of their activities that day.
For almost all trades, the oil sands represents the highest wages paid in Canada. This is both enticing and dangerous, as many individuals—being the products of a consumer driven society—rush out to load themselves with debt upon the receipt of their first large paychecks. Not realizing that by mortgaging themselves to the capacity that their current income allows, they prevent themselves from ever being able to leave, as nowhere else can those wages be obtained. The honeymoon phase wears off as the true nature of the work environment is realized, and in response to feeling trapped, I witnessed many creative rationalizations as to how people justified staying. Apathy is born of helplessness under the thumb of greed and power, and is the primary means by which people stay psychologically afloat. Even so, there is an abundance of people who show almost physical strain from having, at one moment or another, crossed their own ethical boundaries. They may be able to tell themselves and others a creative story of rationalization, but ultimately there’s no fooling your own conscience. Not surprisingly, there is a prevalence of depressive and antisocial personalities, salted with the occasional outright psychopath.
Many of these men (and women), spend 3 weeks per month away from all family and friends in an inhuman, mechanized environment, and only 1 exhausted week in real life. All because we’ve been told money is happiness. It is no surprise then, that over time, mine conditions become a ‘new normal’, and the outside world becomes less relatable in comparison. If you spend 3/4 of your time on the moon, it will start to feel like home. Many cannot afford to slow their pace, even on days off, as it makes ramping back up to speed that much more challenging once on site again.
I was put in charge of the vegetation management program, which essentially comprised the control of weeds categorized as “noxious” and “prohibited noxious” according to the Alberta Weed Control Act (2010). Two weeks before the program was to kickoff, I was informed that the most prolific weed on site, perennial sow thistle (categorized as “noxious”), was to be omitted from the program. The reasoning given was that none of the competing mines were controlling perennial sow thistle, and the Weed Control Act is not actively enforced by the government. I addressed my concern with my supervisor, his supervisor, and the general manager of my company, and received the same response each time: ultimately we have to do what the client requests. As I would be responsible for all report writing, I felt that by continuing my employment I would knowingly be breaking the law. This represented the ethical boundary that I was not willing to cross.
Ultimately, I didn’t want to let my energy and intention be consumed by a career that is based on self-interest and competition, as these characteristics only propagate the problems with our society.
But We Need Oil, and We Like Money
Both our hydrocarbon dependence and the economy are systems that we humans made up, while taking our absolute dependence on a healthy environment for granted. We get stuck prioritizing our beliefs in terms of our human lifetime (understandably), but the fact is, we are destroying at an alarming rate what it took the planet centuries to create.
There are many in my region of the world who vehemently defend the oil and gas industry because they work industry related jobs. Fair enough, they are in receipt of the privilege of making more money than many other industries. Yet in my understanding, privilege is at the core of all forms of oppression, and it is not until those with privilege willingly decide to relinquish it for moral reasons that we will evolve as a species. If we are unwilling to make any ecologically-minded changes ourselves, as Canadians, how dare we ask others to? Climate change is a global problem that can only be solved by each person, nation and industry taking responsibility.
What these defenders refuse to acknowledge is the oil industry itself has a short shelf-life. Did we learn nothing as a result of the industry collapse in Eastern Canada? The oil sands will not provide jobs indefinitely. Once exploited or un-economical, the industry will pull-out, leaving the same people unemployed who are pushing for development now. When the oil companies have long since pulled out, the toxicity and environmental destruction will remain. Is it intelligent to spend billions to create infrastructure for a temporary industry that runs the risk of being dismantled for political (climate change) reasons anyway? Seeking short-term economic profit at the expense of long-term ecosystem viability is embarrassingly short sighted. Greed is a powerful driver that is made to seem righteous within a capitalist society, but isn’t it true that we all know better?
The world is shifting towards green energy. The world (200 countries) reached an agreement at the COP21 in Paris this Saturday to phase out fossil fuels. Insisting on sucking every last drop of crude out before we Canadians join the shift is like insisting on having those last few shots at the bar when you’re wasted at the end of the night even though you know it’s only going to make tomorrow’s hangover worse. Shall we choose to focus our ingenuity in the direction we know is inevitable, or do we really need those last shots?
Let the question be “where do we want to grow to?” and not “what are we afraid to let go of?”