Arts & Life
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This article was published 12/4/2012 (3115 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
INSTEAD of slick cinematic polemic, this examination of the environmental ripples caused by the Alberta oil sands is a disarmingly intimate affair, thanks to its writer and director David Lavalee.
A hiking guide-turned investigative reporter, Lavalee once watched his own father nearly succumb to a reaction caused by a gas leak more than 100 kilometres from his Alberta home.
Sensitive to the ramifications of environmental impact, Lavalee confronts with the information that it takes three barrels of water to make one barrel of oil sands crude, and asks the pertinent question: Where does the water come from and what happens to it?
Drop of water
The question inspires him to follow a drop of water from the top of Mount Snow Dome in Jasper National Park, down the Athabasca River to the tar sands.
For its picturesque beginning, there's no escaping the fact that we're headed for hellish territory. The process of mining the tar sands and separating the crude from the sludge takes place is some of the ugliest manufactured landscapes in the world, featuring "tailing ponds" filled with toxic runoff. (The word "pond" is a misnomer since these are geographical features that can be seen from space.)
Courtesy of specialists and various eco-academics, we are aware of "a circular irony" at the heart of the project. Many of Alberta's ancient glaciers are melting away, the result of global warming caused by oil consumption. The melted water is used to separate the oil from the sands, creating still more oil to further exacerbate global warming.
Call it the oil industry's circle of life -- or death as the case may be. Lavalee visits towns such as Fort McKay where the toxic process has harmed the traditional fishing industry of the First Nations people, now susceptible to unprecedented incidents of cancer.
At a meeting between representatives of the oil industry and the residents, one hapless oil flack says she's sorry the previous meeting was cancelled but instead of bringing muffins, they've brought KFC. Then comes another representative who offers up an even less appetizing nugget to chew on: While there may be some toxicity in the environment due to industry, it is being produced at rates the government deems acceptable.
Heart of matter
And that may be the heart of the matter of the doc, demonstrating that the Alberta and federal governments, faced with a choice between the well-being of the oil industry and the well-being of the Canadians who live it its proximity, will back business every time. (A scene from the Alberta legislature showing Alberta's environment minister attempting to deflect responsibility for an ammonia leak that sent schoolchildren to hospital is a sad spectacle of everyday politics at its sleaziest.)
Lavalee is a hopeful sort and finishes off the film with a reassuring look at alternative energy sources that are catching on in other parts of the world, less so in Canada. It offers a teaspoon of hope, in what is otherwise a pond of despair you could probably see from space.
White Water, Black Gold
Directed by David Lavalee
3 1/2 stars out of five
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.
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