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  • Developing Alberta's Oil Sands: From Karl Clark to Kyoto
  • Erik Lizée
Chastko, Paul —Developing Alberta's Oil Sands: From Karl Clark to Kyoto. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004; 2007. Pp. 320.

As the importance of the Athabasca oil sands grows steadily in contemporary economic and political spheres, a growing number of focused, academic studies have emerged that examine this important resource. Developing Alberta's Oil [End Page 231] Sands represents one of the more ambitious of these projects; it "attempt[s] to present the reader with a single-volume history" of the entirety of oil sands developments (p. xiv). Expanded and refined from the author's PhD dissertation written while at the University of Ohio, the study provides a comprehensive political and economic discussion of oil sands development from rudimentary endeavours in the early twentieth century to the current slate of mega-projects. Paul Chastko examines the interplay between various states (Canadian, Albertan, and American), the oil industry, the scientific community, and the international petroleum market. What emerges is a valuable and easily accessible narrative of the sands' development.

The first section, comprising three chapters and dealing with the period 1920– 1945, discusses in detail the political and economic forces surrounding early attempts at development. Of particular importance are Dr. Karl Clark and Sidney Blair, the early mishaps of the various pilot plants, and the often-tumultuous federal-provincial relationship —all set against the backdrop of the provincial quest for control over natural resources. The second section, an expansive six chapters dealing with the post-1945 period, emphasizes the provincial government's desire to see the sands commercialized, the nature of corporate investment in the oil sands, their role in the larger North American energy market, and their relationship with the emerging environmentalist movement. Particularly informative are the sections that discuss the sands in relation to the OPEC-driven price shocks and the massive commercialization of the sands that occurred under Premier Ralph Klein. Chastko's work is noteworthy for its significant inclusion of the American influence in the saga of oil sands development —his study represents one of the first properly historicized works to incorporate American (and international) sources into the discussion. The reader occasionally wonders, however, whether this came at the expense of Canadian sources. Peter Lougheed's papers, as well as those of some federal government departments, are noticeably absent, while an over-reliance on Hansard is apparent.

One of the main themes throughout the book pertains to the tepidity with which corporate entities approached investment in the sands. Chastko engages in lengthy discussions surrounding the "required conditions" for direct investment and the many handicaps that held back substantial investment. This focus on corporate attitudes towards the oil sands leads to certain problems, most noticeably in the last chapter examining environmental issues. Chastko demonstrates a visible sympathy towards the oil companies, especially in relation to the federal government. Aworrisome tendency to frame environmental concerns as minor and misguided becomes apparent. As just one example, we can look at the sources examined. Chastko quotes a National Post article that laments "the remarkable ignorance about the importance of hydrocarbon energy to Canada's economy" on the part of citizens evaluating the Kyoto Accord (p. 236), a Fraser Institute report, and an editorial by Gwyn Morgan (then CEO of Encana). A single document from David Suzuki is presented in response, while other organizations protesting oil sands development (like the Pembina Institute, Greenpeace, and the Sierra [End Page 232] Club) are ignored completely. Also absent from the final chapter is a serious discussion of the general desirability of exploiting the sands, the potential and massive consequences of development for the Athabasca River watershed (the third largest in North America), or the possibility of a Florida-sized strip mine in northern Alberta.

Another problem with the work deserves mention. The early sections, which discuss dominion-provincial relations, embryonic separation processes, and the Clark-Ells clash, do not contribute much to an understanding of early development of the oil sands above and beyond the discussion presented in Barry Ferguson's Athabasca Oil Sands: Northern Resource Exploration, 1875–1951 (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1975). Similarly, the chapter analysing...


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