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

Abstract

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.

Alberta’s Oil: sustainable development vs. the race for what’s left

There is a lot, and somehow an ever-heightening, showdown playing out regarding bitumen in Alberta. And it is playing out as a global drama where everything rides on just one pipeline: Keystone XL.

Last week, Canada’s Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughan, issued what will be the last report under his tenure. Among other things, it dedicated an entire chapter to the federal support of the fossil fuel sector [PDF]. The entire report can be found here, which is much more wide ranging, and considers Arctic energy, liabilities for environmental accidents and marine protection.

Also last week, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, met with John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state. On the agenda was Keystone XL, a proposed pipeline that would transport somewhere around 500-700 000 barrels of bitumen per day to the large refineries on America’s gulf coast.

As has been on-going for awhile now, there is considerable opposition to Keystone XL, with a day of action planned for February 17, if I’m not mistaken.

That day of action will take place in the context of two vastly different approaches (both replete with their own “science and facts” agenda) to the Oil Sands.

Canada’s political position is crystal clear. Get the pipeline built and get the oil flowing. That position has not changed for some time, and was reiterated last Saturday (Feb 9, 2013) by the Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver on CBC Radio’s program The House (listen here). The facts that support this argument rest on arguing that, proportionately, Canadian bitumen is a very small sliver of carbon production pie – one certainly dwarfed by coal, or the oil consumption of larger economies. The news out this morning that Alberta is developing a new oil development strategy to get its resources to market.

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On the other side, folks like Bill McKibben and Michael Klare (author of “The Race for what’s left), are so opposed to this one pipeline that it is taking on planetary importance. Klare’s recent essay  argues the pipeline portends the end of (what is left of) climate stability. And that Obama’s decision on the pipeline could “change the world.”

In this context, a very interesting article also came out last week on Open Canada, which is a great source of thoughtful debate. The article is by Jim MacNeill, the lead author of the Brundtland Commission report on Sustainable Development published in 1987.

Here is the first paragraph of his article, which is very interesting given the current debate, which is positioned ever more between ‘sustainable development’ and crisis discourses from all sides (the global economy, the global climate, the global supply of resources, and so on):

Brundtland Revisited

“Exactly 25 years have passed since the Brundtland Commission presented its landmark report, Our Common Future, to the United Nations General Assembly, which, following an extensive debate, endorsed the commission’s call for a rapid global transition to more sustainable forms of development. I was the secretary-general and a member of the commission at the time. During a recent conference in the Netherlands, I was asked to look back on our work during the mid-’80s and comment on the progress – or the lack of progress – since then. I was also asked to look ahead and examine the prospects of getting off the largely unsustainable path we are still on.  This article is based on those remarks. While my conclusions will seem pessimistic to some, I believe they offer some prospect of a turnaround toward a more sustainable future, providing Mother Nature doesn’t suffer a terminal heart attack before we finally get our act together – terminal not for planet Earth, of course, which is in no danger, but for the narrow range of conditions that enable human life to thrive on it.” READ MORE HERE.