Chris Turner

In The Patch, Chris Turner—a seasoned author and journalist—gives a fascinating account of the rise of the oil sands as an industrial triumph, its shift to becoming a symbol of environmental degradation, and the daily workings of the city of Fort McMurray (Photo by Ashley Bristowe)

Features | Sustainability

Award-winning author gives deeper insight into the past, present and future of the Alberta oils sands 

 In his latest book The Patch, National Business Book Award winner Chris Turner showcases varying sides of a polarizing issue symbolic of today’s global climate change debate

A Facebook IconFacebook A Twitter IconTwitter A Linkedin IconLinkedin An Email IconEmail

When award-winning Canadian author Chris Turner sat down to write his most recent book, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands, he intended to fill a gap in the rhetoric. [Read an excerpt from The Patch]

“Basically, the intention was, there is a story that has not been told in its completeness for a general audience,” says Turner. “The initial thought was, surely this is a big enough story to warrant a thoughtful, fairly long piece of journalism about something beyond what you get in a newspaper story.”

In The Patch, Turner—a seasoned author and journalist, whose reporting on energy, climate and sustainability issues spans more than a decade—gives a fascinating account of the rise of the oil sands as an industrial triumph, its shift to becoming a symbol of environmental degradation, and the daily workings of the city of Fort McMurray and its surrounding area, where the story unfolds.

As winner of this year’s National Business Book Award (NBBA), Turner spoke with CPA Canada, providing insight into his writing, his perspective on where the oil sands stand today, and how Canada is viewed globally on climate change action.   

CPA Canada: Why do you feel it was important for Canadians—and, perhaps, the rest of the world—to hear the whole story about the oil sands?  
CT: My firm belief, based on 15 years covering it, is that the single biggest public policy debate we are going to have, at least for another generation, is about how to reconcile what we need to do on climate change and how we intend to provide the energy to people that we need every day to a planet of seven billion and growing, and that there is going to be an enormous amount of friction and debate and conflict around that.

On top of that, the oil sands became one of the first places where that debate has been, or where that question was being experienced the most fully.  

CPA Canada: How did your perspective shift, or change, as you delved more deeply into the subject matter and spent time on site in Fort McMurray? 
CT: I think probably the thing that changed the most for me was gaining an understanding that we are not just talking about an industrial project. We are talking about a fairly significant Canadian community, Canadian city, and the people who live in it and the depth to which it has had an impact coast to coast. I don’t think I understood the full extent of that. It’s the kind of thing [when] industry boosters might say, “There’s not a single part of this country that hasn’t been affected by the growth of this industry.” To actually see and touch that was pretty powerful. 

“The single biggest public policy debate we are going to have, at least for another generation, is about how to reconcile what we need to do on climate change and how we intend to provide the energy to people that we need every day to a planet of seven billion and growing.”

CPA Canada: Your intent in the book was to remain neutral on this contentious and polarizing issue. How did you achieve this given that you do indeed have a stance?
CT: Probably the biggest decision, from a writer’s point of view, was to take myself out of the story entirely. That doesn’t completely eliminate bias or [an] angle but, I think for a reader, I’m not constantly telling them what to think. I’m as much as possible letting the characters in the story, the voices for and against and everywhere in between, have that conversation between each other rather than trying to referee it too much and say so-and-so said this and they’re wrong and here’s why.

That was a conscious decision in part because it was already a charged enough debate. I realize there’s no such thing as truly objective journalism, and I wasn’t aiming for that, but I was trying to be fair to everyone in the story.

CPA Canada: Your characters range from oil executives to immigrant workers, environmental activists to Indigenous community members. How did you represent these varied voices and points of view accurately and fairly in the book?
CT: It was a huge challenge for sure and very difficult to convince the people you are talking to why you are asking them questions. It is assumed any time you are a journalist, when you are trying to talk about climate change and energy issues, particularly the oil sands, that you are either trying to make a case for or make a case against.

Really, the only thing you can do is hang around long enough, or be persistent enough, that people are willing to accept that you do mean what you say and that the intention is to let them have their say and that you intend to respect that in the writing of it. And hopefully when the thing comes out, you’ve done that effectively enough that no one feels like they got misrepresented. 

CPA Canada: Where do things stand for the oils sands and how should Canada respond?
CT: Certainly, the level of rhetoric and the amount of dispute about the industry’s future has not faded at all. It’s actually intensified in some ways. I think the state of the political dialogue around it is not great or helpful…Trying to get back to some sort of collaborative or compromising approach to how we are going to deal with this, it’s going to be tricky from where we’ve gotten to so far. That said, the issue doesn’t go away whether Transmountain gets built or not, whether any particular [thing] happening right now does or not.

One way or another, Canada is going to have to figure it out. We have this industry producing two million barrels of oil a day, we have billions of dollars of sunk costs in it, we have thousands of jobs built into it. Even if the intention is for it, [in the] long term, to play less of a significant role in our economy, we still have to reconcile it with what we are doing on the climate front, [and] on transition to other fuels.

CPA Canada: From a global standpoint, how does Canada’s position on climate change impact our reputation and overall competitiveness?
CT: I think that the symbolic [negative view of the oil sands] has gotten a bit overblown. Yes, on the one hand, in certain climate-action circles, it’s a bit of a black mark on Canada’s record, and also the further you get from Canada, the more distorted the scale and scope of the problem gets… 

Canada has a very favourable position on an energy front…If you look at Canada as a single electricity grid, we are already at 81 per cent [renewable]. Not because we are so enlightened but because we have a lot of hydroelectric power and quite a bit of nuclear as well.

So, we are beginning from a really strong place in negotiating this transition. Yes, we also have one of the largest per capita carbon footprints on earth and that’s something that no one should get a free pass on. But also, we have the assets and resources to manage this transition.

CPA Canada was proud to support the 2018 NBBA as an award ceremony partner. We congratulate Chris Turner and the other fine authors who were selected as finalists. This prestigious program plays an important role in fostering robust Canadian business conversations.