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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

Film Preview: Dirty Oil

Eleanor Whalley previews new film Dirty Oil, which explores the sticky topic of tar sands extraction in Canada. Not nice stuff. Illustrations by Laura Callaghan.

Written by Eleanor Whalley

All images courtesy of Laura Callaghan

Where would you assume America most of its oil from? If I’d been asked a couple of days ago I think I would have mumbled something about wells in the middle east while imagining There Will Be Blood style prospectors. Actually, health it turns out, dosage the truth is that the majority of the oil US citizens use to run their cars, and everything else, comes from as close to home as Alberta, Canada.

Leslie Iwerks’ forthcoming documentary Dirty Oil aims to tell the largely untold story of the Canadian Tar Sands.  Iwerks was previously nominated for an Oscar for Recycled Life, a short documentary about a Guatemala City garbage dump. Now she’s carrying on her ecological documentary making with this film about the devastating environmental effect of the way fuel we use every day is made.

Tar Sands are naturally existing deposits of bitumen, a very dense form of petroleum, which when processed is what you and I use every time we get in a car, or on a bus.  There are a lot of these deposits in Canada, recently they’ve come to be considered as part of the Earth’s oil resources. The problem, (or at least one of the problems ) with that is that the process of extracting liquid fuel from the sands  uses a massive amount of energy and generates up to four times as much pollution in the earth’s atmosphere for the same amount of fuel produced.

Because it needs an awful lot more processing before it can be used than the conventional sort of crude oil (the There Will Be Blood kind of crude oil) it’s actually extremely expensive to process this sort of oil. So why does America get almost all of its oil this way now? The fact is that conventional crude oil has been almost all used up and is so rare now that this expensive, polluting method is a way for people to carry on using up oil without even noticing a change. This isn’t entirely being swept under the carpet though, 1600 migrating ducks have become a symbol for people who want to speak out against the oil production in Canada.

In April 2008 these ducks, landed on what appeared to be a large lake in Western Canada. By now you’ve probably guessed, this “lake” wasn’t a lake at all, but a store for the toxic waste from the tar sands. This waste, known as tailings, is a mixture of horrible chemicals and poisons all covered with a sludgy slick of oil which would have stuck to the ducks feathers on contact, drowning them. To the migrating birds, the store, called a tailings pond, would have looked like an enticing open expanse of water to take a break in. The oil company have said that they do have a bird deterrent system in place at the tailings pond. Unfortunately, on the day these ducks flew overhead, the system had been turned off because of unseasonably cold weather. These duck deaths are the subject of an ongoing court case between the oil company and the Canadian authorities. It seems like the case the media has called ‘The Dead Duck Trial’ is a step toward the authorities really beginning to stamp down on the oil companies and the damage that their processes might be causing.

Last year Canada introduced a new directive stating that producers have to present plans to cut fluid tailings, that’s the toxic waste ponds, like the ones these ducks landed on. As well as the effect on ducks and plants and fish, the direct effect on human health is serious worry for people in Alberta, it has been suggested that a rare and particular sort of Cancer has been found in people living in areas the plants. Residents blame the oil sands, which are 160 miles north from the village. Unsafe levels of chemicals were found in the Athabasca River which flows from the sands and through the village, even though the oil companies say that there’s no way their toxic waste would leak into the water supply.

During his election campaign, President Obama talked often about the US’s addiction to “dirty, dwindling oil”, the difficult question though, is what is the alternative and how do we work towards that?

Leslie Iwerts has said that her hope, when filming Dirty Oil was that one person might leave the cinema and make a positive change in their energy consumption, “They might then come out and say ‘I didn’t know that one windmill can generate over $300,000 of electricity every year… Well, let me go and research that. Maybe I want a windmill on my farm to bring in money, or save money, or both.’”

While I don’t have a farm to put my windmill on, I’m certainly going to be getting on my bike and thinking now about what else I can do to avoid using fuel that could have been mined at such awful cost to the earth. I hope you will too, otherwise we’re all dead ducks.

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