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.

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:

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.

“Community” and the Alberta oil sands – special issue now out

This special issue on ‘community’ and the Alberta oil sands from the Canadian Journal of Sociology looks very good. Here is the link to the journal page.

Vol 38, No 2 (2013)

Table of Contents

Fort McMurray, Wood Buffalo, and the Oil/Tar Sands: Revisiting the Sociology of “Community” Abstract PDF
Sara Dorow, Sara O’Shaughnessy 121-140
Community by Necessity: Security, Insecurity, and the Flattening of Class in Fort McMurray Abstract PDF
Claire Major, Tracy Winters 141-166
In the Shadows” Exploring the Notion of “Community” for Temporary Foreign Workers in a Boomtown Abstract PDF
Jason Foster, Alison Taylor 167-190
Where is Fort McMurray? The Camera as a Tool for Assembling “Community” Abstract PDF
Andriko Lozowy, Rob Shields, Sara Dorow 191-210
Cautionary Tales: Making and Breaking Community in the Oil Sands Region Abstract PDF
Clinton N. Westman 211-232
Epilogue: Through the Forest of Time Abstract PDF
Sourayan Mookerjea 233-254

Review Essay/Essai bibliographique

Balises pour une lecture croisée des textes de Luhmann sur la religion PDF
Diane Laflamme 255-267