The oil sands are an amazing story Canada’s not telling – by Todd Babiak (Globe and Mail – March 1, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Todd Babiak is co-founder of Story Engine, a strategy company based in Edmonton and Vancouver. His next novel, Come Barbarians, will be published in September by HarperCollins Canada.

How Green Was My Valley, the novel by Welsh writer Richard Llewellyn, is about a young man born into a village of black air, of strikes, of deadly explosions. At the end, you’re keen to accompany the hero, Huw Morgan, out of the coal mines.

More than 50 years earlier, Émile Zola had come to similar conclusions in Germinal.

The novelists and filmmakers who adapted these two works for cinema focused on people – particularly the miners. They were sad, happy, passionate, defeated, pure, compromised, creative, dull, intelligent, stupid.

That is, alive.

Coal Miner’s Daughter, Matewan and other stories, in novels and on screen, do not elevate coal mining into the higher reaches of human endeavour. Of course it’s dirty. But the activity of putting on a helmet and walking every morning into a pit so the world can turn on its furnaces in winter and its lights at sundown is noble. It’s something that thousands of interesting human beings do to help raise their children.

In the spring, President Barack Obama will make a decision about the Keystone XL Pipeline. It has transformed infrastructure into a symbol. Still, Canadian columnists, academics and politicians point out the hypocrisy of Americans, who derive so much of their electrical power from coal. Single American states produce nearly as many tons of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants as do the oil sands.

This analysis assumes that human beings make rational choices. It assumes that you can counter the power of a symbol with numbers and graphs and jargon. The difference between coal and oil sands is cultural and it’s emotional. Human beings work in coal mines. Big trucks work in the oil sands.

The oil sands and the people who have made them the boiler room of Canada are amazing. It’s a story of pioneers and risk-takers and scientists and crazies, who slowly and then very quickly transformed a mysterious tar into one of the largest fuel sources on the planet. The next wave of oil sands entrepreneurs will be devoted to environmental solutions. Yet from the beginning, energy companies, lobbying organizations and governments have ignored the characters in the story.

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