Register Sunday | September 19 | 2021

Essential Oil

A photo essay.

When the pandemic hit, many of Canada’s economic sectors were asked to halt or quickly pivot their operations. But the energy industry pushed ahead, backed by government officials. In May 2020, Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage quipped “now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than fifteen people. Let’s get it built.” And the province did. Or at least it tried. 

Premier Jason Kenney funnelled $7.5 billion of public funds into the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, claiming it was “a solid bet” and that it could revive the province’s economy. This financial commitment ignored the possibility—now realized—that a shift in American leadership would once again shut down the project. 

Alberta is not an outlier. Ontario, like many other provinces, suspended environmental public oversight rules during the first state of emergency because, the Doug Ford administration argued, the regulations could hinder the government’s response to the pandemic. Officials in British Columbia justified the ongoing construction of major fossil fuel infrastructure projects by raising fears over the possibility that leaving industrial facilities without oversight could put people and the environment at risk. 

Nationally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised a $1.7 billion federal investment for the cleanup of inactive and orphan wells. The relief program effectively functioned as a bailout for large oil companies burdened by unproductive wells and as a stimulus package for the struggling oil field service sector. 

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has been linked to several Covid-19 outbreaks across the country. Last spring, the northern Saskatchewan community of La Loche and the adjoining Clearwater River Dene First Nation recorded 282 cases among just four thousand residents. The first case has been traced to travel related to the Kearl Oil Sands Project in Alberta. 

A year later, in May 2021, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo led Alberta’s per capita growth of Covid-19 cases with outbreaks in nineteen oil sands sites and work camps. Workers spoke out about unsafe labour and living conditions, including crowded shared spaces and little access to sanitizer. Across the Rockies, the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and the Wet’suwet’en chiefs also sounded alarm bells; over one hundred cases of the virus have been linked to the operations of LNG Canada and Coastal Gaslink in Northern BC. 

That the interests of the fossil fuel industry would be prioritized over people’s well-being in Canada is unsurprising, given how much of the nation’s wealth and identity is predicated on the extraction of resources. The first commercial oil well in North America was built in 1858 in Oil Springs, Ontario, triggering the first oil rush on the continent. Hundreds of small wells are still active in the hamlet today. Meanwhile, the energy industry has become intertwined with all aspects of our economy, from national banks to public pension plans.

These entanglements partly explain why Canadian leaders continue to invest in oil and gas infrastructure even when the international scientific consensus holds that we must quickly transition away from such energy sources in order to meet our climate goals. 

From June to September 2020, Amber Bracken, Sara Hylton and Laurence Butet-Roch set out to report on cases of Covid-19 transmission originating from industrial activities. They travelled across Saskatchewan, Alberta, BC and Ontario to document the energy sector’s quiet expansion, visiting sites of pipeline construction, centres of industrial wealth and impacted communities. 

These photographs show that, despite the industry’s economic slow-down and the health risk posed to workers and nearby communities, the pandemic has done little to disrupt the oil industry’s hold on Canada’s future.