The Alberta adventure is sadly over

Time to pack up and move to greener pastures

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VANCOUVER, BC Sept. 27, 2015/ Troy Media/ – In the fall of 1978, my wife and I drove from Vancouver to Calgary, symbolically putting the Rockies between us and our families.

We did it not out of spite, but rather to embrace my wife’s future via prairie grad school and mine via writing – ideally for the New Yorker. We both still remember our first night in Alberta. We spent it in a pup tent pitched on gravel at spot E9 in the Lake Louise overflow campground.

We awoke to cold mountain air and made breakfast on our little gas-fired camp stove. As soon as we had eaten, we headed out for Married Student Housing at the University of Calgary where we had rented a small apartment.

Everything we owned was in three cardboard boxes and two suitcases in the backseat and trunk of our Datsun 510. It was an adventure. Just like Ian Tyson sang, we were Alberta Bound.

Calgary in 1978 was full of employment opportunities in an oil patch characterized by national dreams. Companies were planning projects in the Arctic, the western and eastern coast offshores, and while the Mackenzie Valley pipeline was officially ‘on hold’ to enable the Dene to build capacity and settle their land claims, new pipelines were at least probable. When I received a polite rejection slip from the editors of the New Yorker, I simply went downtown and found work, as thousands of others did.


More to the story: Sun rising on BC as it sets in Alberta by Mike Robinson


New friendships were quickly formed, houses were bought, and crazy-paced careers evolved, with many changing employers every few years. It became normal to have dinner with oil patch friends and neighbours who were just back from work assignments in St. John’s, Anchorage, Murmansk, Inuvik, Pond Inlet or Haida Gwaii. There were very few discussions about conventional plays in Alberta, and it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the oil sands really began to build their public profile.

About the same time, I met a shyly charismatic mountaineer and climatologist, Dr. Gerry Holdsworth, who drilled and analyzed the contents of ice cores from Yukon’s Mount Logan, Canada’s highest peak at 5,959 metres. He was a research associate at the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary. One day he explained to me what his research was indicating – that the Logan cores, containing ice originally deposited as tropospheric snow in annual layers, revealed a steadily increasing load of carbon dioxide. He showed me a CO2 load/time graph that looked like a hockey stick, with the upward spike beginning about the start of the industrial revolution in Europe.

From that point on, I watched and read about the science of climate change with a macabre fascination. It was interesting to see how oil patch stalwarts reacted to the litany of papers on the topic from a growing international body of climate scientists. From the start, a vocal group denied the issue, the science and the experts. After all, finding, pipelining, refining, selling and burning carbon had made us all comparatively rich. And besides, “How did you get to work today? Walk?”

As the anger and denial grew, one by one the great frontier projects began to fail, succumbing to lower and lower prices for natural gas. The oil sands emerged as the biggest game in town. The 1970s and ’80s romance of the North, and the offshore plays, were replaced by tailings ponds and monster dump trucks in the oil patch’s ‘home quarter.’

Next the Saudi- led cartel began to dump gulf oil onto the market at bargain prices just as the American fracking plays threatened to make the U.S. self-sufficient in carbon. The halving of oil prices arrived in 2015 to join climate science, church/university endowment/medical association carbon divestment policies, and former Bank of Canada (and current Bank of England) governor Mark Carney’s stern lectures on oil reserves becoming stranded assets. Even the Pope weighed in with his encyclical on climate change.

It has all become enough for our family. Last weekend, we terminated the lease on our Calgary apartment, and loaded the U-Haul for a memory filled drive to the coast, entertained by Ian Tyson’s latest CD, Carnero Vaquero. I noticed that E9 was empty as we sped past. The Alberta adventure is sadly over.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery.

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