By Еvan Osentоn
Hard to believe, but a coalition of small-town Albertans took on a multinational corporation–not to mention the oil industry on which this province is built–and won.
A product of the National Film Board, Worst Case Scenario was two years in the making and documents the Clearwater Coalition’s successful effort to block Shell from drilling an exploratory sour-gas well near Rocky Mountain House, Alberta. In a change from the usual documentary sermon, three-time NFB documentarian Glynis Whiting’s film presents the human side of the dispute; both of the residents concerned about their health and their livelihood and of the oil giant to whom opposition (at least in this part of the world) is a relatively new concept. Whiting’s film comes at a critical period as concern surrounding the oil industry and its possible complicity in rural health problems is making news all over the province.
Sunday April 1, Calgarians were treated to a preview screening of Worst Case Scenario at the Roundup Centre, introduced by none other than geneticist and host of CBC’s The Nature of Things David Suzuki, who also narrated the film. The timing of the screening–the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board denied Shell’s application March 20–made for a charged atmosphere among the several hundred in attendance. After the screening, a panel consisting of Suzuki, Whiting, Shell representative Georg Gerlach, AEUB representative Greg Gilbertson and Clearwater Coalition spokesperson Eric Tait fielded questions.
Gerlach and Gilbertson were under the spotlight; Gerlach for Shell’s record with sour gas and public health concerns in Alberta and Gilbertson by audience members questioning the AEUB’s integrity (by Gilbertson’s own count, 30-50 complaints regarding proposed sour-gas wells were received by the AEUB last year but only two applications were denied).
"Landowners feel powerless and disenfranchised over decisions affecting their health and livelihood," explained Tait. "The AEUB is there primarily to facilitate applications but their rules favour the companies."
Tait, along with others depicted in the movie, suggested the AEUB is in collusion with corporations and the government, and that this is what makes this recent decision–and this documentary–so special. Gilbertson admitted "the process can be improved" and described a list of 87 recommendations the AEUB has drafted to improve their reputation in the public eye.
But despite the documentary’s depiction of the triumph of the "little guy" over corporate interest, and despite Gilbertson’s reassurances, many at the screening still expressed dissatisfaction. "Did the NFB’s presence affect the AEUB’s decision?" they asked. Would this board–funded by corporations and an industry-sympathetic government–have acted in accordance with the coalition’s wishes if a camera crew hadn’t been following their case?
As Suzuki noted, "I personally would be astounded if this film didn’t have an influence [on the AEUB]." This, coupled with the fact there are already 6,000 sour gas wells in the province–despite legitimate health concerns surrounding production and lax contingency measures in event of emergency–lends credibility to Suzuki’s suggestion.
However, this documentary and Sunday’s panel discussion were worthwhile in that all sides of the issue were represented and all acquitted themselves fairly well. In fact, to the NFB and the panel’s credit, this was an informative and highly entertaining evening despite the volatile topic. It didn’t hurt that Worst Case Scenario is a well-crafted documentation of a conflict–citizen vs. system–that should interest anyone who likes to cheer for the underdog. For anyone employed in the energy industry, for those critical of the industry, or for those simply interested in the relation of citizen to corporation to government in Alberta, this documentary is a must-see.
Worst Case Scenario aired Wednesday on CBC and will repeat Sunday, April 7. Copies of the film can be purchased from the NFB.