Settler Geology: Earth’s deep history and the governance of in situ oil spills in Alberta

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Contaminated soil from an in situ flow-to-surface event in northern Alberta

In my latest article, I examine 4 related events in which processes that superheat bitumen into a hot emulsion deep underground forced it to Earth’s surface…rather than having it stay put for long enough to be pumped out. I have a lot of data I gathered on the governance response, but this article targets just one part of it (the rest will be in a new book I’m writing on Alberta). Namely, what was the official ’cause’ of the bitumen flowing to the surface?

Here is the paper (free for 50 days from this link, and available from my publications page). If you have a subsription to Political Geography click here.

At first glance, the answer seems straightforward: the technology used to extract the bitumen was clearly the driving force. But things are more complicated than this for a variety of reasons. The most interesting part for the argument in this paper is how Earth’s deep history (i.e. geologic time) was used to explain causal relationships as ancient marine environments, glacial advances and retreats, and floods from the geologic record were used to explain causal relationships in the present. By looking closely at this case, we can see how geologic and human time are made commensurate with one another…that is, how they are put on the same scale of time.

Of course, these temporal scales are not brought together in just any old fashion. Instead, they are brought together in ways that fit with existing governance structures designed to extract value from land. That is, from the structures put in place through settler colonialism. As it happens, settler colonialism has a very peculiar, and quite flawed, idea of time underpinning it and which make it appear natural despite its violent effects on Indigenous peoples, lands, and relations. I have created the term ‘settler geology’ as a shorthand to refer to how this temporal framework is extended to make Earth’s deep history a natural fit with the cultural time of settler colonialism.

Those who follow debates around the Anthropocene will be familiar with a very prominent premise: that the scale of the Anthropocene is incommensurate with human time. Or, in other words, that the two not only operate on vastly different time scales but that, in addition, geologic time cannot be explained in terms of human time (or vice versa). This premise, and adjacent ideas of incommensurate aspects of the Anthropocene (like Tim Morton’s idea of hyperobjects like climate change that are too big to be candidates for experience) are the target of my latest article in Political Geography. In it, I show how geologic time is made commensurate with the governance of one of the planet’s largest fossil fuel extraction operations: the Alberta oil sands (or tar sands, if you are looking to battle it out over terminology).

Settler geology: Earth’s deep history and the governance of in situ oil spills in Alberta


Alberta’s bitumen industry is frequently identified as a key site of environmental politics in the Anthropocene owing to the scale of its fossil fuel extraction operations. While popular images of surface mining activities often focus these discussions, approximately 80% of the bitumen reserves in the Canadian province lie too deep for surface mining and are extracted through in situ technologies, including processes that inject high-temperature, high-pressure steam to mobilize geologic formations of the tar-like fossil fuel. This article examines how in situ extraction was governed in response to four flow-to-surface (FTS) events in which bitumen unexpectedly migrated to Earth’s surface as the result of in situ operations. The governance response to these events is of particular interest because it counters the assertion that existing governance institutions operate on time scales that are incommensurate with those relevant to the Anthropocene. The Alberta case shows the opposite owing to how Earth’s deep history was used to provide temporal syntax for a geotechnical debate that ensued over what caused the FTS events. By detailing the controversy over what caused the FTS events, and the search for “enabling conditions” that would link causal explanations to the spatial distribution of the four bitumen seeps, Earth’s deep history was also made commensurate with the political geography of settler colonialism in Alberta. The article introduces and develops the notion of ‘settler geology’ in order to capture the naturalization of geologic forms of reasoning about Earth’s deep history, the geologic force of anthropogenic in situ operations, and the temporal framework of settler colonial governance in Alberta.

New paper in special issue on Helen Ingram’s legacy in water, politics, and governance

Very happy to have a new article out in the Journal of the Southwest and in a special double issue honouring the work of Helen Ingram. Full table of contents is here for the double issue, which includes pieces by Peter Gleick, Henry Vaux Jr., Marcela Brugnach, and others, and which Margaret Wilder skillfully edited and introduces.

My contribution begins with an event in Alberta, when Dr. Ingram was asked to join a special panel on monitoring the oil sands, and then resigned when the terms of reference stymied some of her basic commitments, such as to equity and engaging with Indigenous peoples. Entitled, Water Policy in Alberta: Settler-colonialism, community, and capital, I trace out how water policy has been structured in Alberta in ways that produce inequality and how it has evolved to put newer, glossier ideas (like water governance) into similarly inequitable structures. It is available to download by clicking here (or from my the ‘publications’ link above).

My latest article on water management in Alberta now out

My article, Water management and the procedural turn: norms and transitions in Alberta, is now out in Water Resources Management. I think it is behind a paywall so if you want a copy feel free to email me. I’m also writing up a guest blog post in ordinary (that is, non-academese) language for the Alberta Water Portal that should be done soon.

Here is the abstract:

Water management reforms promoting deliberative, decentralized decision making are often accompanied by procedures designed to accommodate a range of stakeholder perspectives. This paper considers the role of political and ethical norms affecting this ‘procedural turn’ in order to understand the management of transitions in complex socio-technical systems. It examines the discourse and practice of water reforms in Alberta, Canada in order to identify how new procedures were designed alongside changes to management institutions. It finds that the existing social and cultural context is an uneasy fit with procedural norms theorized in deliberative models of democracy. Using examples from the Alberta case, it draws out implications for understanding the procedural turn in water management and the role of norms affecting transitions toward sustainability.

Downstream discrepancies: water and energy in Alberta

Earlier this week Sarah Boon wrote a nice piece on how Canada is, by undermining its water policies, also undermining its cultural foundations. I agree, and have said as much (though not so thoroughly) here, by arguing that the long-held wisdom of the policies and norms that helped to build a society should not be discarded lightly, even if they are not wholly satisfactory any longer.

Instead of jettisoning them, we should think of them as a kind of upstream heritage. Upstream, that is, in a temporal sense where our water histories affect the options we have now. Likewise, today’s policies will constrain our options later.

In Alberta, we can see contests over the upstream heritage of water histories being played out in real time. And we can note a significant discrepancy.

On the one hand, Alberta recently approved an expansion of the Jackpine Oil Sands project. Canada’s environment minister openly remarked that there would be negative impacts but that the expansion was “justified.” But what justified it is altogether unclear, as this nice post details. Even the Edmonton Journal is worried about the risks of rushing Oil Sands development. And with the environmental agency that monitors the Oil Sands in danger of folding, the on-going awkwardness of over 170 square kilometers of manmade lakes burying waste products and recent concerns those lakes (read tailings ponds) are leaking, the Environment Minister’s claim just doesn’t wash.

Now, if we turn and look the other way, to Alberta’s only upstream neighbour – British Columbia – we see a different story. There, the Site C dam approval process has Alberta up in arms. The assessment for the dam is here, but Alberta is worried about elevated levels of mercury downstream (i.e. in Alberta) if the dam is approved. The Ft. Chipewyan Metis are suing BC Hydro over the effects of the two existing dams in that same watershed (see here and here). There is also community opposition to the project (and has been for some time, as I’ve noted before).

To me, the double standard over water and energy reveals a glaring discrepancy in the way downstream effects are understood. The Ft. Chipewyan communities are downstream of both B.C. and most of Alberta’s energy projects, so they see and live the negative impacts of both. Alberta, by contrast, is at once claiming that its upstream neighbour should be more careful while using only the loosest ‘justification’ when it comes to its own downstream effects. Of course, nobody will be surprised if the discrepancy rests on some argument for self-interest. But in this case, the self-interested party(ies) are, as Sarah so nicely put it, undermining their own foundations.

In other news, here is a recent study on un-burnable oil that was just published.

Leaky energy

A lot of things seem to be in the background until they break.

When that happens, they are all too ready-to-hand. Like a broken Fukushima-Contamination-Pacific-Ocean-450x253tool. One of these things is energy. Specifically, the tools we use to avoid thinking about how energy leaks. Usually we think about leaking energy in big events – like nuclear disasters like the ongoing contamination of ocean water at Fukushima where around 300 tonnes of contaminated water leaks into the ocean each day.


But all energy leaks. It is part of the deal. Thermodynamically, I mean. Using energy leaks it out in less well-ordered forms after we take what we need and let the rest go. That is just part of the package. Call it exhaust, pollution, fact of life, whatever you like.

So the point of environmental policy cannot be to stop energy leaks. That will never be a successful strategy. And it is one that is failing us all about. Not only at Fukushima, but also in the Canada’s Northwest Territories, where old mines are now leaking into over 100 lakes. Earlier this week, Alberta announced it had “contained” a spill of over 100 billion litres of coal particles into the Athabasca River. That spill happened on October 31st.

Energy is going to leak. Good environmental policies should start internalizing that fact rather than try to ignore it, stop it, or shunt it “away.”

Quick fix to Alberta’s ongoing oil spill: drain the lake

I’ve been trying to keep tabs on Alberta’s ongoing oil spill that started several months ago (see previous posts here and here and, for why they matter given the current regulatory regime, see here).

The latest news from Reuters is that the company in charge of the operation, CNRL, has been ordered to drain the lake where the spill is occurring. The lake is over 50 hectares, or over 100 acres, in area (I don’t know what the depth is) and about 2/3 of the water is supposed to be drained. There are some mixed messages as well, such as the claim that water quality has not been affected – presumably, I suppose, because bitumen is heavier than water and, given the slow nature of the leak, it may just be sitting on the bed of the lake. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the entire aquatic ecology of the lake isn’t affected. Again, however, just a bit of me wondering aloud on how to make sense of that claim.

This news comes as a delegation from Alberta is about to go on a charm offensive in Europe as the EU gets set to vote on a fuel quality directive that could impact imports from oil sands sites.

In other news…

If you have a chance to tune in today to CBC Radio’s program Q you can hear Edward Burtynsky and Jennifer Baichwal talk about their new documentary “Watermark” that is set to be released (or maybe just was). If you miss the program live, podcast download is also available later today. I’ve put this up before, but here is the trailer for that film:

Early reactions to Alberta’s wetland policy

Well, that didn’t take long. There is an article in the Edmonton Journal on environmental groups and their criticisms of Alberta’s new wetland policy. Mainly, but not solely, because it exempts a large number of industry projects.

There is also a detailed response from the Environmental Law Centre here. It describes the policy as taking baby steps in an adult world.

Alberta’s new wetland policy + updates

Alberta released its new wetland policy yesterday. You can download it here (PDF). It has been a long time in the making, and for those who are interested in comparative exercises, you can crosscheck the actual policy above with the recommendations made by the Alberta Water Council in 2008.

In other news, the on-going oil spill in Northern Alberta has now triggered an investigation by Environment Canada. It will likely be some time before we know what the full impacts will be. But in the meantime, the federal government disbanded the regional land and water boards in the Northwest Territories. On its face, this move seems to fly in the face of the NWT Water Strategy adopted for 2011-2015. And it is not just on the face. It is difficult, if you are familiar with the aims and agendas of the current mining push in the North, not to see this as a step away from partnerships with those affected by new projects.

On this front, there was a fairly decent article in Oilweek, an industry magazine, on the impacts of oil sands mining on the Ft. McKay First Nations and the cumulative impacts accruing there.

Finally, Nic Rivers at the University of Ottawa put out a new study on water and economics in Canada. It’s based on a model that, like any, has some limitations. But Nic is a particularly astute researcher, so well worth the read.

Grounding water policy

The oil spill I mentioned earlier in Alberta is still on-going. I think we’re at about 3 months now estimates from a few days ago have the leak at about 1.2 million gallons. And counting.

The problems with this leak have a lot to do with the sort of mining technology being used and, clearly, some unpredictable factors nobody foresaw. But it also raises some concerns over groundwater law and policy that are finding traction elsewhere.

Here are a few of the things I’ve seen recently that caught my eye. The first is by Cynthia Barnett (who wrote Blue Revolution, which is a great book on water if you’ve not seen it) and can be read here. It covers a lot of ground – literally – and is a nicely written piece that considers ground water issues around the world.

51jllnVHJOL._SL500_AA300_Another is a recent blog post by Michael Campana at Oregon State University on groundwater monitoring in the U.S. He is the ‘aquadoc’ and has a number of good posts on groundwater, including reference to a forthcoming book on groundwater and conflict by his colleague Todd Jarvis.

Mike also linked to a 2013 report (PDF) on a framework for developing a monitoring system that might be of interest to some.

Water and oil don’t mix, except in groundwater

This past week has been strikingly bad for oil spills in Canada. The horrendous loss of life with the explosion of rail cars in Lac-Megantic was compounded by 5.7 million litres of oil being dumped.

In Alberta, it has recently come to light that what sounds like an in situ mining project has now leaked tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the surrounding ecosystem with no sign of abating just yet. This sort of spill is a very serious kind because there is no off switch.

The reason there is no off switch is because in situ mining projects in the oil sands superheat steam to liquefy bitumen underground and then push the slurry out under considerable pressure. So the only way for the spill to stop is for the pressure to go down, which is not something anybody has control over at this point.

Meanwhile, oil and water are mixing all throughout the groundwater and surface water areas affected. And are doing so under a category of industrial activity that Canada’s federal government no longer regulates through environmental assessments but which amounts to 80% of oil sands activity. Whoops.

Recently, Postmedia news started a new series on oil spills in Alberta and one of the most eye-popping stats is that there has been an average of 2 spills per day for the past 37 years. If you are a research type, you might be interested in the open data made available on where and when those spills took place. If you are not, then a big excel spreadsheet is probably not that interesting.

I’m on my way to Alberta this week to spend time back in my home province.