Great Canada Fire

Deleting the real story

By Paul Street

Deletion and de-contextualization are standard instruments in the corporate U.S. media’s propagandistic, power-serving toolbox. The nightly news streams endless terrifying images of violent inner city Black criminality with no reference to the savage jobless poverty imposed on the Black community by contemporary state-capitalist, race-class apartheid. The typical white suburban news viewer is thereby encouraged to conclude that urban people of color are a mass of dangerous barbarians best handled with mass arrest and incarceration.

Nightly weather reporters regularly relay new heat, drought, rain, and snowfall records along with epic floods, unprecedented tornado and hurricane waves, and other extreme meteorology. They do so without reference to the anthropogenic—really capital-o-genic—global warming that lay behind the new planetary conditions. The mass viewing audience is encouraged to conclude that Mother Nature is going off on its own—with no assistance from the human-made Greenhouse Effect cooked up by modern capitalism and Big Carbon.

The national news blares horrifying footage of terror, violence, and “anti-Americanism” in Africa and the Middle East without reference to the role of the giant U.S. military empire in wreaking colossal, criminal, and mass-murderous destruction (with help from powerful allies like England, France, Israel, and the Saudi kingdom) in those lands. (No such destructive criminality can ever be acknowledged in dominant U.S. mass media, which doctrinally portrays Uncle Sam as an inherently noble, benevolent, and humanistic actor on the global stage.) The typical U.S. news consumer is incited to conclude that these parts of the world are chock full of bloodthirsty, Islamist lunatics who “hate us for no good reason.” Send in the drones, gunships, bombers, and Special Forces!

In the summer of 2014, U.S. corporate media gave spectacular coverage to the flood of “unaccompanied minors” fleeing abject poverty and endemic violence in Central America to the United States through Mexico. There was no reference in this reporting to the central and ongoing historical role of the United States in devastating El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras and thus in creating the extreme misery that drove parents to send children on perilous northward journeys. U.S. news-watchers were encouraged to see the child migrants as unworthy of decent treatment from the United States.

Sometimes the failure to make basic contextualizing connections and the doctrinal practice of deletion reaches a level that seems almost beyond belief. I sat stunned while one broadcast-news outlet after another reported on the historic, climate change-driven wildfire that razed much of the Canadian town of Fort McMurray and northern Alberta to the ground last month. None of the broadcasts dared to craft the obvious story connection begging to be made between the epic blaze and the large-scale extraction of tar sands oil in that region.

It was a remarkable story NOT to report. The fire took off and spread thanks to record-setting heat (into the low Fahrenheit 90s) that reflected a pronounced regional warming trend evident for years. Under the influence of climate change resulting from the excessive extraction, sale, and burning of fossil fuels, the northern latitudes are warming faster than anywhere else. One of the consequences is that North American wildfire seasons are getting bigger, fiercer, and longer than ever.

At the same time, to complete the story left out, Fort McMurray is a boomtown with rising population and business driven primarily by the extraction of exceptionally carbon-rich Canadian tar sands oil. The fire-ravaged town is smack in the heart of one of the world’s leading centers of planet-baking oil extraction. It sits beneath the Athabasca Oil Sands, whose “dirty [filthy carbon-rich] oil” is extracted on a giant, Earth-warming scale by great Big Carbon firms including Syncrude, Suncor Energy, CNRL, Shell, and Nexen.

The Alberta tar sands region is home to some of the most carbon-rich, planet-cooking fossil fuels on Earth. Alberta’s vast oil sands are the world’s third-largest crude reserves. Environmental concerns about the mining of those reserves were the main reason that climate activists like Bill McKibben engaged in high-profile protests of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline—a leading news story a few years ago.

The Canada fire story wrote itself, it would have seemed. Imagine the following obvious and reasonable headline: “Nearly 100,000 Flee Planet-Warming Oil Town—Mother Nature Uses Raging Inferno to Tell Canada and Humanity to Break Free From Fossil Fuels.”

In reality, no such headline had a snowball’s chance in Hell of making it into print in “mainstream” (corporate and commercial) U.S. media, which is intimately bound up with the vast, many-sided carbon-industrial complex.

What did appear in leading “mainstream” media was quite different from what any serious investigator concerned for the fate of a livable Earth would have known to be the real story and hook behind the Canadian fire. Below I discuss the fire’s coverage in print and online corporate media. I pay special attention to the United States’ leading newspaper, the purportedly arch-liberal and even (the FOX News right would preposterously have Americans believe) left-wing The New York Times and add some critical (actually left and environmentalist) commentary on the depressing determination of “mainstream” reporters (and/or their editors) to omit the most relevant and urgent point.

Forces of nature against firefighters

An early New York Times report, for example, was titled “Forces of Nature Against Firefighters Around Fort McMurray” (May 5th). Blaming the destruction on “strong, shifting winds,” Times reporter Fernanda Santos quoted a “senior disaster management response manager” on how “forces of nature we cannot control” had plagued firefighters. Santos cited an emergency commander who told the Times that “Mother Nature has conspired against us on multiple fronts.”

The article began with the following sentence: “The Alberta fire department said it would be a couple more days before investigators would be able to determine whether the fire there was caused by people or lightning.” The phrase “by people” referred to the chance that some human individual or group provided the immediate spark with, say, a campfire, not to the giant carbon-industrial complex that has been heating the planet to a treacherous degree for many decades.  Santos and/or her editor(s) did not see it as news worth printing that the “forces of nature” in question bore the clear and obvious, scientifically proven imprint of human-/capitalism-generated carbon emissions, fueled in no small part by the mining, refining, sale and burning of super-toxic, hyper-potent tar sands oil.

One of the largest human outposts in the Boreal Forest

The Times’ editors knew that human-driven climate change was a factor in the Canadian fire, of course. A May 10th article by the Times’ leading climate reporters, Justin Gillis and Henry Fountain, was cautiously titled, “Global Warming Cited as Wildfires Increase in Fragile Boreal Forest.” Gillis and Fountain wrote that “the near destruction of Fort McMurray by a wildfire” was “the latest indication that the boreal forest is at risk from climate change.” They included the burning of fossil fuels alongside other factors—logging, insects, and inadequate emergency fire services—that were threatening the great sub-Arctic swath of woodlands stretching from Canada and Alaska into Russia.

Remarkably and revealingly enough, however, Gillis and Fountain never mentioned the planet-cooking industry that turned Fort McMurray into a boomtown. They referred to Fort McMurray only as “a Canadian city” and as “one of the largest human outposts in the boreal forest.”

Both descriptions were accurate but they left something out: the “human outpost’s” core connection to one of the world’s largest and most toxic centers of human-generated, fossil-fueled climate-change.

Concerns about supplies, not livable ecology

To be sure, there was considerable business news reporting on one aspect of the relationship between the Canadian fire and oil sands production above Fort McMurray—on how the fire threatened that production and hence “economic growth.” A May 8th Reuters report was titled, “Oil Sands Fared Well Through Canada Fire, But Restart a Challenge.” It discussed the oil sands industry but omitted the climate issue, treating the fire in purely short-term, bottom-line economic terms. Reuters’ correspondents, Jessica Resnick Ault and Liz Hampton, stuck obediently to relating how the disruption of the oil sands’ labor supplies and production, leading to an increase in oil prices:

“The mass evacuation of residents from the wildfire-devastated Canadian oil town of Fort McMurray is likely to significantly delay the restart of production, even though energy facilities themselves have escaped major damage from the flames, oil prices jumped in early Asian trading on concerns over the loss of production capacity caused by the fire—equivalent to around half of the country’s oil sands production.

“…A prolonged shutdown will heighten concerns about supplies after three major oil firms warned on Friday they won’t be able to deliver on some contracts for Canadian crude…Only one oil sands production site, CNOOC unit Nexen’s Long Lake facility, has sustained minor damage, and provincial fire officials said on Sunday they expected to hold flames back from Suncor Energy Inc.’s main oil sands plant north of Fort McMurray….The fire has shut down about one million barrels per day or 40 percent of total oil sands production.”

Reuters deleted the obvious scientifically demonstrated connection between oil extraction (including oil sands extraction) and the conditions that gave rise to the fire that interrupted oil sands production. Those are matters that (un)naturally hold no interest to good capitalist journalists who know to stick responsibly to nothing but the basic business facts.

It was unthinkable, of course, that Ault and Hampton might have conveyed environmentalists’ reasonable sense that a 40 percent reduction in tar sands oil extraction was a good thing for human beings and other living things.

Staggering blow to economy, not Earth

Similar in its indifference to capital’s environmental arch-criminality and that criminality’s relationship to the Great Canadian Wildfire of 2016 was a May 11th New York Times report titled “Canada Fire Deals Staggering Blow to Oil Sands Industry and Economy.” Times reporter, Ian Austen, discussed the epic, capital-o-genically fueled blaze purely as a story about markets, production infrastructure, “global growth,” and fuel prices—really (though Austen could not say so) about profits:

“As the fire ripped through Fort McMurray, oil companies severely pulled back or stopped pumping altogether…While the oil markets have remained relatively stable and production is slowly picking up, the economic blow is significant to a region and a country already battered by weak oil prices and uncertainty over global growth…The full toll will depend largely on the health of the oil sands. The largest projects, north of Fort McMurray have been largely unscathed, protected in part by their wide, deforested perimeters…But oil companies are still assessing the damage to the electrical network, the aboveground buildings and the pipelines that ship Fort McMurray’s production. Then there is the complex nature of the projects, which means that oil will not necessarily start flowing again quickly.

“The status of smaller plants, which are largely south of the city, is less clear…The southern plants, for the most part, bring the tarlike bitumen of the oil sands to the surface by injecting vast quantities of steam underground. Plants of that variety, like Japan Canada Oil Sands, have been operating for several years and have built up so much heat underground they can sit idle for up to 12 months and be restarted with comparative ease…The global oil markets are sensitive to that timeline. Goldman Sachs estimates that the lost production, assuming companies can ramp up production over 10 days, will total 14 million barrels. If so, that would have a relatively minor impact on North American stockpiles, which are nearly full” (emphasis added).

So what if oil extraction on the rapacious and reckless scale funded by the likes of Goldman Sachs puts livable ecology and a decent future at grave and ever more imminent risk? So what if tar sands oil is among the most carbon-rich fossil fuels that need to be kept underground if we are to avert environmental catastrophe? So what if the healthiest thing would be for the oil sands to be shut down? Who cares? “Global growth”—and the world petro-capitalist profit rate—must march on!

The “full toll” of the Canada fire includes the exacerbation of global warming, for the burning and vast boreal forest destruction become causes as well as consequences of climate change. But that is a matter of no concern to responsible business journalists.

A minimal impact on Canadian economic growth

The Wall Street Journal was less alarmist about threats to carbon-spewing capitalist growth four days earlier. In a May 7th article titled “Canada Wildfires Raise Threat to Oil-Sands Mining Operations,” the WSJ’s Chester Dawson noted that Suncor had “closed down production of 300,000-barrels-of-oil-a-day at two mines and a pair of oil-sands well sites, and its Syncrude unit has shut its 350,000-barrel-a-day-capacity mines.”   But such (supposedly terrible) developments (welcome for anyone who cares about livable ecology) were nothing for planet-baking investors to get too upset about. For, as Dawson reported:

“The outages are expected to have a minimal impact on Canadian economic growth, according to a report from the Conference Board of Canada released early Tuesday. The Ottawa think tank bases its findings on an estimated oil-production loss of about 1.2 million barrels-a-day over a two-week period…The Conference Board’s findings are based on information available before the latest evacuations. The latest setback could result in a ‘bigger [production] hit’ in May, but the industry will likely make up that lost output in June, assuming operations resume, said Pedro Antunes, the Conference Board’s deputy chief economist. Similarly, efforts to rebuild the oil-sands region will help to offset the decline in economic growth caused by the fires, Mr. Antunes said.”

That was good to know! It’s a shame that carbon-driven climate change is creating an environmental disaster that has emerged as the biggest issue of our or any time—a catastrophe that raises the not-so distant prospect of human extinction. Thanks to fossil-fueled anthropogenic global warming, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado reports that we may have come to “the starting point when melting permafrost begins a likely irreversible release of 190 gigatons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere…Thawing permafrost is threatening to overwhelm attempts to keep the planet from getting too hot for human survival. Without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, as much as two-thirds of the world’s gigantic storehouse of frozen carbon could be released…this might be irreversible.”

The northern latitudes are aflame like no time in recorded historical memory. But hey, Canadian economic growth will march on. And disasters often bring capitalist investment and growth opportunities, including rebuilding!

A close call

There had, however, been a close call. By Dawson’s account, “Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the fires approached the doorstep of oil-sands mines operated by industry leader Suncor Energy Inc. (SU -2.64 percent) and its subsidiary Syncrude north of the town of Fort McMurray, which the blaze devastated this month. Provincial government officials said by late Tuesday firefighters succeeded in halting the advance of the flames to the south and west perimeters of those facilities, and that weather conditions were expected to help slow the spread of the fires later this week.”

What a shame it would have been if “the forces of nature” had claimed some of the most eco-cidal, life-gassing production facilities on Earth!

A loss of production

Things got scary again in Canada for Big Carbon in following days. A May 17th New York Times report was titled, “Fort McMurray Wildfire Upends Plan to Restart Oil Sands Operations.” Times reporter Ian Austen noted that “Rapidly changing winds brought Alberta’s huge wildfire to the perimeter of two of the oldest and largest of Canada’s oil sands complexes on Tuesday, posing a new threat to an industry that just a day earlier had been preparing to resume full-scale operations.” The blaze was “now close to the Syncrude and Suncor oil sands plants” and threatened “to enter the open pit mines where gigantic excavators scoop up tar like bitumen and place it in similarly oversize dump trucks…” Austen reported the Conference Board of Canada’s calculation that “14 days of shutdown would mean a loss of production valued at 985 million Canadian dollars, about $762 million.”

How horrible. Never mind that reduced tar sands oil production is a positive for life’s ever-slimming chances of decent survival in an ever hotter and more volatile and inhabitable world that carbon-addicted capital made.

So it’s not true that reporters made no connection between the Great Canada Fire of May 2016 and the Canadian tar sands oil industry. But the connection went one capitalist and extractivist way. It was all about how the fire, treated as a purely natural disaster, was interfering with oil sands production. The fact that oil sands production is a key part of the planetary carbon-industrial-complex that creates the climatological context for such fires as the one that nearly destroyed the oil sands boom town Fort McMurray was irrelevant as far as “mainstream” journalists were concerned.

Meanwhile, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reports that the global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—the leading force behind recent climate change—has reached 400 parts-per-million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history. Levels that high have only been reached during the Pliocene era. According to Dr. Erika Podest, a leading carbon and water cycle research scientist, “This milestone is a wake-up call that our actions in response to climate change need to match the persistent rise in CO2. Climate change is a threat to life on Earth and we can no longer afford to be spectators.”

By all means let’s “resume full-scale operations” in the Canadian tar sands!

Counterpunch, June 16, 2016