Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Oil, Gas and Water with Andrew Nikiforuk, Louis Helbig and Marq de Villiers

As Neil Wilson, founding director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival shared in his opening remarks at this event, hopefully the recent ‘climate change’ in Ottawa will be able to start addressing such issues as inaction on climate change and mismanagement of the environment. Wilson subsequently introduced the three authors speaking tonight, sharing that together, they provide an "essential overview of our most important natural resources, our economy and our very future."


First off was Andrew Nikiforuk, who has been writing about oil and related issues for some 20 years, winning numerous prizes along the way. He was one of the first to write about hydraulic fracking. His most recent book is Slick Water . Accompanied by clear and informative images, Nikiforuk explores one of the terribly important impacts of hydraulic fracturing: dramatic ground contamination.


Nikiforuk continued by introducing the audience to a central person from his book, Jessica Ernst. After many years working with the oil business, Ernst launched a multimillion-dollar court case in 2007. This court case was against one of the biggest companies in the business—EnCana—, the Alberta government and the Alberta Energy Regulator in court. One aspect of the case is on its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Why, you ask? Because Ernst discovered the she could light the water from her well on fire due to high levels of methane gas. In her research, Ernst discovered that this was not an isolated case, but that methane gas has been escaping from hydraulic fracturing in many places and on an ongoing basis.


Cheap gas is coming to an end, and Nikiforuk commented that we had best prepare ourselves. Covering up by the oil industry, the government and regulators has to be challenged. Nikiforuk commented that mini-earthquakes are on the rise, which are partially deliberate in order to free more gas. Nikiforuk links these current problems to the history of fracking as far back as the 1860s in Pennsylvania. In those days, when miners depleted one well, they opened up another, and continued to do so over time. Jessica Ernst's work has continued on without much media attention. Nikiforuk's book brings her story and fight to a wider public.


Next during the event was Louis Helbig, who was working as an economist with the government up until 2006, when he left his position to become an artist full time. His book, Beautiful Destruction , takes readers into the air above the oil sands and the surrounding landscapes. The book project started in 2009 and with a photo exhibition in 2010 including some of the images that are now in the book. The exhibition was accompanied by a comment book in which viewers could share their impressions of the images. Subsequently, this comment book took on a life of its own, opening up space for dialogue. What makes Beautiful Destruction most unique are the essays written by diverse public figures: from First Nations' elders to oil executives, as well as many other concerned persons.


Helbig defines the ‘oil sands’ as a cultural problem, largely because people can't even agree on the term. Arguments around the issue of oil are divisive and polarizing. Helbig believes that this leaves little opportunity for finding new group, and hopes that his role as an artist can better engage people’s imaginations.


The third and final speaker at this event was Marq de Villiers, a well-known expert on water issues and an award-winning author. His new book, Back to the Well , challenges us to rethink the future of water, as there is a looming water crisis. The problem, de Villiers contends, is not that we have one big crisis, to which pollution and mismanagement contribute in a major way, but rather that the world faces thousands of smaller, regional crises.


This should make the aforementioned crises easier to address. Nevertheless, de Villiers commented, it is important to remind ourselves of important information; for example, that a child dies every six seconds due to water contamination. While stressing the severity of the issue, de Villiers also sees several paths to solutions. His newest book outlines two particular paths: desalination and cleaning processes. He provided a few particularly interesting examples, such as the surprising contaminant of the Spanish Mediterranean coastline: suntan oil. De Villiers also shared a more encouraging anecdote: that Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, recycles all of its water (an important piece of information in light of the recent drought in California).


Each of the three authors provide significant food for thought, which was certainly seen in the brief but lively discussion to conclude the event. Ultimately, this event successfully demonstrated that everything is connected, particularly when the environment is involved.