STUPID TO THE LAST DROP by William Marsden

Knopf Canada, 246 pages, $29.95

It's not just Alberta, it's the whole country
How Alberta is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (and Doesn't Seem to Care)

Book Review By Andrew Nikiforuk

I live in oil-addled Alberta, a sort of modern Deadwood complete with self-possessed con men and blighted landscapes. Every day, the whole province looks and acts more and more like a profane gold-mining camp. Ask newcomers, and they will tell you they are here for the money. The invasion makes most of my rural friends feel like outnumbered Sioux in the Black Hills.

Even the news reads like an outrageous dime novel. One day the premier, a man with no sense of irony, praises the tar sands as a car without brakes; the next day the energy regulator gets caught illegally spying on citizens who want brakes installed on the car, and then lies like Richard Nixon about the spying. Alberta could sure use a Roberto Bolaño or Kurt Vonnegut about now.

With these cheerful thoughts in mind, I picked up Stupid to the Last Drop with a mixture of curiosity and caution. A great title, I thought, and penned by an easterner, no less. The author, William Marsden, hails from Montreal and used to write about motorcycle gangs. Now he's graduated to carbon outlaws in the ever-drying West. Not much of a stretch, really.

Although Marsden does not write with the heated bravado of a Bolaño or a Vonnegut, he does bring a fresh pair of discerning eyes to an unusual series of nation-changing events. With a Montreal mixture of disbelief and awe, he confidently reports how an entire province is destroying itself, and then asks why no one in Canada "seems to care."

Plans to nuke the tar sands

But let's begin with Marsden's intelligently quirky narrative on energy and destiny. The investigative reporter starts off with a curious yet true story about plans to nuke the tar sands, the world's second-largest source of oil after Saudi Arabia. But separating tar from sand in the boreal forest has always been a messy job. The good folks at Richfield Oil and the Alberta government figured out that a couple of atomic warheads might speed up the process in the 1950s.

Marsden can barely hide his incredulity as he relates this fantastic story. Yes, engineers spent years fine-tuning the project before it got axed. And yes, the Russians stole the idea and eventually proved that nuking heavy oil increases productivity, but also leaves an inconvenient radioactive fingerprint. And yes, the U.S. government still holds the patent on the "nuclear explosive method for stimulating hydrocarbons" in the tar sands.

From these surreal beginnings, Marsden tracks the great tar sands rush in the late 1990s to the current cocaine-driven mess in Fort McMurray. He also explains why the oil-obsessed United States understandably views the megaprojects in northern Alberta as a stable refuge from the world market: "gangsters, thieves and a surly Venezuelan."

Next, Marsden encounters several smart Albertans with profound messages. Former premier Peter Lougheed tells him that the province has stupidly forgotten how to behave like an "owner." David Schindler, one of the world's foremost water ecologists, explains how the systematic and ignorant trashing of provincial watersheds could ensure citizens a bleak future within 50 years. David Hughes, an energy and peak oil expert, wonders why federal and provincial politicians don't seem cleverly interested in oil and gas conservation now that Canadians are stupidly reduced to digging big holes in the ground for the world's dirtiest oil. And on it goes.

Set fire to water

But Marsden really finds his mark while recording the tales of ordinary Davids facing powerful yet stupid Goliaths. Francis Gardner, one fine rancher, gets the better of Shell Oil in a brazen, Russian-like encounter on New Year's Eve. Jessica Ernst, a courageous oil-patch consultant, tells how EnCana carelessly drilled into a local aquifer and gave her groundwater a shocking advantage: She can light it on fire. Dr. John O'Connor, a physician with a moral heart, explains how both federal and provincial bureaucrats tried to silence his disturbing documentation of cancer deaths downstream from the tar sands. In these inspiring tales, at least, Marsden proves that moral intelligence has not disappeared from Alberta; it just doesn't appear to exist in government circles any more.

The biggest stupidities that Marsden discovers could and probably should shock any Canadian. A government that gives away its oil for a 1-per-cent royalty is not only stupid but politically bankrupt. A regulator ("eight mulish, white male suits") that rubber-stamps projects and then spies on citizens who question their rubber-stamping is a Soviet-style disgrace. A former environment minister who rants not about the destruction of rivers and forests, but about his Harvard education, is pure Mark Twain territory. Welcome to Saudi Alberta.

Yet for all his insightful storytelling, Marsden offers few solutions and frequently misdiagnoses the problem. Much of his abbreviated oil-sands history skimps on critical facts and he even omits seminal works such as The Tar Sands, by Larry Pratt. The American-bashing is both tiring and old hat. Our best oil customer has not bullied the province into submission, as Marsden suggests. No, our leaders simply gave away the farm.

Nor is Alberta some loony character on the national stage. Explore any Appalachian-sized open-pit mine north of Fort McMurray, and you'll find a new national dream writ larger than life as well as scores of Montreal engineers having the time of their lives. You can call tar-sand developers anything you want, but "stupid" is one adjective that would never come to mind. Most are incredibly accomplished and erudite men.

So let's be honest and stop blaming Alberta for keeping half the nation tanked up in carbon-emitting fuels. The really big truth is this: Canadians are land abusers, carbon makers and resource exploiters extraordinaire. It's what we do best. Our political elites don't give any more thought to destroying a forest the size of Florida than do crackheads or the tired Newfies working in Suncor's Millennium camp. Maybe it's just Canadian to be stupid.

Although Marsden documents the First Law of Petro-Politics (democracies go bad as they drink more oil), he fails to grasp its overall importance in the strange doings he explores. And is it not genuinely foolhardy for Montrealers to ignore Ottawa's disdain of national energy plans as eastern Canada, a region not connected to the tar sands, becomes ever more dependent on oil from rogue or hostile nations?

Yet Marsden's unsettling exposé of careless decision-making sheds more needed light on some very dark corners in Alberta (and Canada). He has walked into a provincial boom-town, populated largely by arrogant and greedy males (Hells Angels with suits), and not flinched.

Good on you, partner.

Contributing reviewer Andrew Nikiforuk is the Calgary author of the award-winning Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Big Oil.