Kingston Whig-Standard Book Review: Andrew Nikiforuk takes on oil industry in new book

Author takes on oil industry in new book by Wayne Grady, September 2, 2015, Kingston Whig-Standard

2015 09 03 Slick Water, The Devil is in the Details

KINGSTON — When Andrew Nikiforuk was an editor at Equinox magazine, in Camden East, he specialized in stories about people whose plight crystalized what was happening in the bigger picture.

He wrote features about First Nations groups trying to stop the damming of Alberta’s Old Man River, for example, and about the Alberta doctor who was barred from practising because he called attention to increased cancer cases downstream from the tar sands.

He continued crusading with his books. In 2002, he wrote Saboteurs, the story of Wiebo Ludwig, the Alberta farmer who was charged with sabotaging oil wells when sour gas in his area was found to be causing stillbirths. And in Tar Sands, Andrew drew the world’s attention to the catastrophic effects of using river water to extracting dirty oil from the Alberta ground.

Now he has written Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. The insider in question is Jessica Ernst, who has launched a $33-million lawsuit against a major oil producer, Encana, the Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator. Ernst, an environmental scientist living near Rosebud, Alta., claims that massive hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that Encana has conducted in its wells in her area has released poisonous gases into the region’s aquifers, poisoning her well water.

“I first met Jessica in 2004,” Andrew says, “when I wrote a story for the [Globe and Mail Report on Business] about the incredible industrialization of the countryside from coal-bed methane drilling. I didn’t understand what fracking was at the time. We’ve corresponded ever since. I’ve watched her story evolve in ways I never imagined possible, and I determined to write about it. I’ve stuck with the story for more than a decade.”

Fracking is the practice of pumping high-pressure liquid chemicals into an oil or gas well in order to fracture the rock around the well and thus release more oil or gas. The practice has been around for a long time: oil companies in Pennsylvania in the [1860s] dropped nitroglycerine-filled “torpedos” down their unproductive wells, with mixed results. Sometimes the wells produced more oil, sometimes nothing happened, and sometimes the rock fractured so much that oil leaked into nearby wells and aquifers. Little has changed since then.

Fracking has been banned in most European countries as well as in two Canadian provinces: Newfoundland and Quebec. In Alberta, however, more than 171,000 oil wells have been fracked. Virtually all of the oil now being produced in Alberta comes from such unconventional practises as fracking. And there are plans afoot to begin fracking in southwestern Ontario and the Atlantic provinces.

“The thing to remember,” says Andrew, “is that fracking causes underground mini-earthquakes. And what do we know about earthquakes? They have a habit of liberating carbon dioxide, radon and methane gas into the atmosphere. A hundred and eighty years later, fracking is still a brute technology. The industry has very little control over where the cracks will go. They refer to fracking as an art, which simply means that it isn’t a science.”

Before [and after] she launched her suit, Ernst worked as a consultant for the oil industry, helping clients clear environmental regulations in order to carry out their business. … Part of her suit is the contention that the close relationship between Big Oil and the former provincial government has violated the public interest: in response, the regulatory board, which is supposed to prevent the oil industry from harming the public, has accused her of breaking into offices, altering documents, and even of ecoterrorism.

Andrew’s book is his fourth, since Saboteurs, about the Alberta oil and gas industry. Taken together, they form a powerful indictment, not only against the methods now required to extract Alberta’s reluctant oil, but more importantly against the silence the provincial and federal governments have imposed on public protest against documented pollution and contamination, increased rates of cancer, and other public ills.

“No one in government is monitoring these negative health effects,” he says. “The oil companies settle claims against them and impose silence on the people the people they pay off, saying the payment is only made if they sign agreements not to talk to anyone about their grievances – sometimes down to the next generation. There have been hundreds of out-of-court settlements, behind which the companies can hide the consequences of their actions.”

Early in Slick Water, Andrew cites French technology philosopher Jacques Ellul, whose book The Technological Society changed the way we have to think about the systems and the people we allow to control our lives.

According to Ellul, Andrew writes, “technology has so transformed communications, elections, and travel that people can no longer live spontaneously, any more than an astronaut can walk freely in space without a life-support system. Humans depend so heavily on this artificial world of technique, said Ellul, that they have lost touch with the natural world.”

As a consequence, Ellul points out, opposing technology is no longer considered an option: “If a machine can yield a given result,” writes Ellul, “it must be used to capacity and it is considered criminal and antisocial not to do so.”

That, according to Andrew, is the paradigm in which Jessica Ernst is trapped. To question the right of Big Oil to poison and then silence the general public is considered to be a criminal act, at least in Alberta, at least under the Conservatives.

Have things changed with a new provincial government in power?

“We’ll see where the NDP comes down on this case,” Andrew ways. “So far, the new government hasn’t said or done anything. In a sense,” he adds, “my book is an autopsy on what it’s been like to live in a province run by one party for 42 years, with the consequent corruption and overt deception. I didn’t realize that until the government changed.”

Andrew will share the stage at Kingston WritersFest with Diane Ackerman and Ed Struzik on Sept. 26, The event, called “Big Idea: Think Tank on the Environment,” will be hosted by Carol Off, and is sure to be one of the most stimulating, and sobering, events of the year.

Wayne Grady is a Kingston writer whose work also appeared in Equinox and Harrowsmith magazines. …

The Big Idea: Think Tank on the Environment

2015 09 26 Kingston Slick Water event, Andrew Nikiforuk, moderated by Carol Off

• Kingston WritersFest 2015, featuring Diane Ackerman, Lawrence Hill, Nino Ricci, Chef Jamie Kennedy, and 50 more authors. Tickets on sale at the Grand Theatre box office.[Emphasis added]

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