Abstract The size of our ecological footprint is often attributed to those social processes governing the consumption of material resources, reflecting the tendency within sociology to pay far more attention to our social constructions of nature, and our effects on nature, but far less attention to natural processes themselves. However, our level of ecological disruption is, more precisely, a function of the effort required to exploit natural resources and convert them into the things we value for use and exchange. As the quality of those resources declines in response to historic exploitation, effort increases, and hence so does our ecological impact, a tendency that interacts with social processes to produce emergent outcomes. This effort factor constitutes an important but largely overlooked feature of social-ecological metabolic relations, one that can offer fruitful opportunities for advances in scholarship in environmental sociology, and for environmental monitoring and mediation efforts by states and civil societies. The effort factor constitutes an important causal mechanism in our socioecological relations, the effects of which are best conceived through the lens of critical realism. This article offers a conceptual elaboration of the effort factor, and a case study analysis with reference to the historical development of oil, with particular emphasis on Alberta, Canada, which highlights the disruptive tendencies embodied in our current fossil fuel-dependent socioeconomic systems. critical realism, environmental sociology, effort factor, socioecological relations, fossil fuels Why do people degrade the environment? This question seems simple but in fact is extraordinarily complex, with scholars offering responses that are both valid and incomplete in varying measure, and scholars on all sides dance tenuously around entertaining any form of “essential” human connection to nature (Carolan 2005; McLaughlin and Dietz 2008; Rice 2013). Although sociological scholarship on socioecological relations now describes a rich and mature field, there remains a tendency to pay more attention to our social constructions of nature, and our effects on nature, and less attention to natural processes themselves: “ecosystem dynamics are not present as a direct antecedent or consequence of social action, and when they are, they are considered as consequences of, rather than antecedents to, social action” (Boons 2013:284; see also Kallio and Nordberg 2006). In other words, our inquiries lack articulation of the specific mechanisms that link society and nature (Carolan 2005; McLaughlin 2012), and thus our efforts at theoretical elaboration fail to move beyond what is in effect a truism: society and nature are interrelated. Making headway requires moving beyond observing associations among events, to focus on the causal mechanisms that produce those events. Some have opened the door with critical realism. In what follows I expand upon this opening with an exercise in operationalization in the form of a simple premise: The effort factor (Davidson and Andrews 2013; Davidson, Andrews, and Pauly 2014), referring to the inverse relationship between the quality of raw materials and the effort required to convert those resources into things people consume. This effort in turn tends to have a positive relationship with ecological impact. In result, even if consumption levels were held constant, in the absence of continuous improvements in efficiency—an unlikely prospect—we will tend to work harder, and spend more, to convert raw materials into consumables, with direct bearing on ecological impact, and societal response. I explore this premise by focusing on a resource for which signs of declining quality are evident: oil. Data collected by the International Energy Agency (IEA 2014) reveals in empirical terms the critical role oil has played in modern civilization—a relationship forged during World War I: Oil has made up the largest share of global energy consumption for at least 40 years. Colin Campbell (2000), former geologist for the oil industry, tells another side of the history of oil. As Campbell and others argue, we are approaching Peak Oil, that point at which global production rates of conventional oil plateau, before facing a rocky but inevitable downward slide. Remaining global reserves consist primarily of unconventional oil sources that require more complicated extraction technologies, such as shale and bitumen (IEA 2012). Emerging information describing the ecological impact of unconventional oil extraction is disconcerting, as is the productivity of the reserves themselves. The estimated current global average “recovery factor” (proportion of reserve capable of being extracted with current technology) for conventional and unconventional reserves combined is just 35 percent (IEA 2008). By contrast, South Dakota’s Bakken oil shale field has an average recovery factor of just 1.2 percent; each well also faces a steeply declining production rate of 65 to 90 percent in the first year, compared to declines of 5 to 10 percent on average for conventional oil wells (Sandreas 2012). Despite low productivity, the costs imposed by each well are significant. Techniques used for the extraction of oil and gas trapped in shale—called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—consist of drilling down as far as 10,000 feet, and then sending several lateral extensions out from the wellbore, also as far as 10,000 feet. Water, sand, and chemicals are injected into the well under extremely high pressure to fracture the substrate, releasing the oil or gas, which is then pumped to the surface. Much of the injected water comes back up too, in contaminated form, and since it is no longer useable, one common disposal method is to pump it back into the ground (this practice has been linked to increases in seismic activity; Balcerak 2013). If this short depiction tells us anything, social factors alone cannot capture fully the nature of our rapidly changing relationships between ecosystems and societies. This provides both the imperative and the opportunity to elaborate upon our conceptual understanding of socioecological relations, by articulating the generative mechanisms that link society and nature in specific ways that foster ecological degradation or improvement. In what follows I explore one such generative mechanism, the effort factor. This is followed by a case study of the history of oil development in Alberta, Canada. First, however, I describe the concept of generative mechanism and its role in complex systems, depicted by critical realism. WHAT IS OFFERED BY CRITICAL REALISM? Critical realism “challeng[es] common conceptions of both natural and social science, particularly as regards causation,” and thus “provides an alternative to both hopes of a law-finding science of society modeled on natural science methodology and the anti-naturalist or interpretivist relations of social science to the interpretations of meaning” (Sayer 2000:2-3). Critical realism supports scientific inquiries that acknowledge that the world exists independently of our interpretations of it, and yet not all interpretations have equal merit (Danermark et al. 2002; Sayer 2000). A crucial feature of critical realism is its depiction of open systems arranged in several strata, including physical, chemical, biological, psychological, and social structures (Bunge 1979). Each stratum is shaped by powers and mechanisms of underlying strata, describing systems within which are internal and necessary relations among structures, powers and mechanisms, and the tendencies they produce through engagement with actors. Roy Bhaskar (1978) further articulates three ontological domains: the “empirical,” or directly experienced events; the “actual,” including events and effects not yet directly experienced, known, or observed; and the “real,” encompassing generative mechanisms or causal tendencies that produce events. Generative mechanisms, first introduced by Rom Harré (1970), may not be observable directly and yet are critical to inquiry because they characterize relations among things (Sayer 2000). Generative mechanisms, or causal tendencies, exist in each stratum by virtue of specific structures—sets of internally related objects—that produce them. While generative mechanisms themselves do not change, they do produce varying effects. A generative mechanism always exists, but can remain latent until engaged by actors; and can also interact with other generative mechanisms, all of which give the outcomes an emergent character. Finally, to the question of causality, for the critical realist agency is a primary source of change, but the effects of actors transpire through and are thus delimited by causal mechanisms that emanate from social and natural structures. According to Margaret Archer (1995), the pursuit of projects by actors individually and collectively constitutes cumulative effects for social structures, which may induce morphostasis—the reproduction of ideas and social relations constituting a stable social order—or morphogenesis, entailing transformation. Structure and agency each have distinct sets of properties and powers that emerge in distinct time periods: “(i) structure necessarily predates the action(s) that transform it and (ii) structural elaboration necessarily postdates those actions” (Archer 2010:274-5). The more complex a social system is, the more likely are emergent outcomes (Archer 1995). Critical realism enables theoretical headway into efforts to understand change within socioecological systems, by offering tools to conceive of our structured, complex natural and social systems, the relations between them, and how such relations are mediated by practices (Danermark et al. 2002). To this end, John Searle (1995; see also Soper 1995) has called for the conceptual separation of social facts from “brute facts”—events and processes that are not socially constructed, despite the fact that our interpretations of them are. Critical Realism in Environmental Sociology Some environmental sociologists have taken up critical realism to great effect, including Paul McLaughlin (2001, 2011) and Michael Carolan (2005). One of McLaughlin’s (2011) key contributions is the adoption of an evolutionary framework (see also Dietz, Burns, and Buttel 1990), represented in his work on “the ecology of social action” and “socially constructed adaptive landscapes.” Following on Darwin, McLaughlin’s work is blatantly historical and probabilistic, doing away with essentialist and deterministic tendencies in nature-society scholarship (McLaughlin 2012). While acknowledging the biophysical boundaries placed on agency, human actors sit squarely at the center of his socially constructed adaptive landscape, through which he explores how actors adapt to changes in, modify, and/or legitimate their relations with nature (McLaughlin 2011). Similarly, Carolan (2005) confronts what he describes as a persistence of atemporal and conflationary theorizing in sociology. For Carolan, prevailing heuristics for contemplating socioecological relations shy away from consideration of phenomena that cannot be directly observed, and: merely presuppose their realist assumptions to be true, a priori, without any philosophical or logical support … These heuristics, in other words, arrive at their ontological conclusions through the backdoor—through epistemology (p. 395). He continues, “environmental sociology needs to be grounded in an explicit realist project … that allows for the speaking of things that cannot be directly observed (and are, thus, beyond the level of the empirical), but which are real nevertheless” (p. 395). Similarly, from Andrew Vayda and Bradley Walters (1999): “If the object of explanation is truly to be environmental change, … [we must] begin research with a focus on the environmental events or changes that we want to explain” (p. 169). A CONCEPTUAL ELABORATION The framework described below has predecessors, although none that have been taken up to any great extent in sociology. Most recently, energy analysts have focused on the energy return on investment (EROI), or net energy—the amount of energy available after accounting for all of the energy inputs used to extract, transport, refine, and consume a particular energy resource. Evidence indicates a decline in net energy as we make our way through the earth’s fossil fuel storehouses (Murphy and Hall 2010). The EROI for oil was at its peak at the point at which the first barrel of oil was produced (with an EROI of about 80:1). Until recently the EROI for conventional oil still represented a comfortable energy profit, around 10:1 on average. But this comfort zone is being swept from underneath us, representing a significant moment, described by David Murphy and Charles Hall (2010) as a “net energy cliff”: that point at which the ratio of energy gained to energy used decreases exponentially. Howard Odum was the first to highlight this relation, initially in 1971 and later with his articulation of the term emergy (1996), defined as “the availability of energy of one kind that is used up in transformations directly and indirectly to make a product or service” (Brown and Ulgiati 2004:62; see also Magdoff 2011). While the EROI’s reliance on a single, quantifiable unit of analysis is elegant and has produced meaningful insights, it misses multiple social and ecological dimensions of relations between energy and society. Within sociology, a number of excellent treatments of natural resource extraction exist that complement the current analysis, although as noted by Carolan above, natural processes themselves are rarely given attention. As an exception to this tendency, the work by a number of sociologists is worthy of note for their pioneering efforts to account for nature in social change. Stephen Bunker and Paul Ciccantell (Bunker 1985; Bunker and Ciccantell 2005) have produced a compelling record of research showing how many core nations like Britain and the United States have transferred wealth away from natural resource producing regions, leaving social and ecological degradation in their wake. As noted by Bunker (1985), in this exploitative process, the energy embodied in the raw materials and the ecosystems within which they reside is quite literally relocated from periphery to core, empowering the latter and weakening the former in irreversible ways. William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling (1994) as well have offered accounts of the politics of off-shore oil development that acknowledge the role of physical factors, such as continental shelf geology, that dictate techniques and locations of off-shore oil wells and subsequently affect public support. The Effort Factor The effort factor pertains to the metabolic processes performed by any cell or organism, which require effort. The effort required to support metabolic pathways is, however, resource specific: a meal consisting of fruits requires very little effort to metabolize, as they can be picked readily and consumed without cooking, and are readily digestible; many grains require milling and/or cooking before they can be eaten, and are more difficult to digest. Effort is also affected by the “fitness” of the laborer: it takes more effort for someone in poor physical condition to run a mile than an athlete. And—the focus of the present article—within any given resource sector, it takes more effort to convert lower quality raw materials into something of social use value, just as it takes a human body more work to extract nutrients from foods with low nutrient density (with negative consequences for health). The effort factor is a conceptual framework describing a generative mechanism emanating from interactions between resource quality, referring to the biophysical properties of raw materials, and the practices used to extract and utilize those materials, here termed labor efficiency. It applies to any place, historical moment, or social group, but its potential to generate an effect only materializes through engagement—a forest unexploited is a forest for which the effort factor remains latent, akin to the difference between potential and kinetic energy. Effort describes a marginal unit of a specific basket of inputs invested per volume of resource output. The most obvious input—the focus of EROI—is the energy consumed in the exploitation and processing of other energy resources. But other inputs are also invested into the exploitation of natural resources and their conversion into things with social use value. These include but are not limited to: land disrupted during extraction and processing, as is required to construct an oil well or mine; materials required for equipment and infrastructure (wells, pipelines); water and chemicals used in extraction and processing; political investments required to secure resource access; and financial investments required to locate reserves and develop new extraction methods. A key component of effort is the development of technologies designed to maximize production. Investments in such production technologies have defined the industrial revolution, and allowed for the replacement of labor in most industrial sectors. Declines in the quality of raw materials compel investments in production technologies, allowing continued exploitation of a given resource. The typical depth of an off-shore oil well for several decades since the first well was drilled off the coast of California was less than 100 feet. Declines in availability of oil at shallow depths, however, have motivated investments into new drilling technologies capable of accessing undersea reserves at depths of 20,000 feet. These technological advances are usually associated with increases in material inputs and financial costs; increases in ecological disruption; and higher risk of catastrophe, as occurred with the British Petroleum oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. All elements of ecosystems have intrinsic ecological values, however, resource quality can only be understood in relation to the products consumed by people, and thus is explicitly anthropogenic, defined by the difference between the natural properties of raw materials, and the required properties of the products derived from them for human consumption. The difference between the properties of trees and the lumber into which they are converted is not wide—the trees are simply harvested, milled into desired dimensions, dried and shipped. Effort nonetheless does vary, affected by the size of the trees at harvest, for example, and distance to market. By comparison, the difference between the natural properties of bitumen—a solid tar-like substance bound with sand particles—and those of the gasoline into which it is ultimately converted, is great indeed. Quality dimensions may include the density of a mineral or energy source within a substrate, the amount of impurities present, the depth of an ore, or other conditions restricting access such as ice cover. Different raw materials, and different sources of the same materials, espouse widely varying levels of resource quality. Rates of raw material depletion, finally, are the net of extraction and natural renewal, and thus the decline in resource quality is tempered by the natural rate of resource replenishment, which can be decades (trees), or millennia (fossil fuels). Labor efficiency refers to human skills and technological tools available to be applied to extraction and processing at a given time and place, advances in which can ease the inputs required to convert raw materials into consumable products. Throughout human history, human skills have been the dominant factor determining labor efficiency, but today, in industrial sectors like oil development, the efficiency of labor is defined largely by technology. Development of technologies to recycle aluminum, for example, reduces pressure on mining for aluminum ores; technological developments that enable more precise location and extraction of a resource can reduce the level of ecosystem disruption caused during exploitation. Note that technology is on both sides of the equation, which may appear problematic. To the contrary, doing so disentangles two very distinctive sets of technologies invoked in natural resource development: efficiency technologies intended to reduce inputs, which can lead to decreases in ecological impact, and production technologies intended to maximize output as the desired resources become more inaccessible over time, which can lead to increases in ecological impact. Importantly, in either case, one would anticipate the returns on investments in new technologies to diminish over time; after low-hanging fruit are capitalized upon, the costs of technological development go up, while rewards decline. An additional point of relevance of the effort factor is its historical directionality. It stands to reason, and to empirical examination, that as we continue to extract from a specific raw material reserve at a rate above its regenerative capacity, the quality of the reserve declines. Consequently, all else being equal, initial efforts to extract a given resource tend to be more readily rewarded than subsequent effort. This tendency, however, is countered by changes in labor efficiency. In sum, as resource quality declines over time, the effort required to utilize a given volume of a particular raw material will increase, in the absence of a proportional increase in labor efficiency. Importantly, effort and ecological impact will tend to be positively related. Ecological impact transpires as a result of the many forms of disruption and waste caused when natural resources are wrested from the earth, and transformed into things we consume. Increases in removals of freshwater from surface and underground sources have deleterious effects on riparian ecosystems. Terrestrial resources of lower density require the disruption of greater amounts of land. The introduction of chemicals to enhance extraction or as is required for processing introduces contamination; the increasing remoteness of global supplies demands more roads, pipelines, and shipping traffic. An increase in inputs necessarily amounts to increases in waste. The number of processing stages is directly related to the amount of energy consumed—energy that currently is provided by carbon-intensive fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). Finally, new technologies may also be associated with new risks of ecological catastrophe. Figure 1 describes the effort factor, in which two structures—the biophysical properties of raw materials, and the efficiency of technological and human labor processes available—constitute the first strata. In the process of resource exploitation, the effort factor produces emergent outcomes in the form of increased labor requirements and decreased resource quality. These interact with a set of structures in the second strata, economic systems, and ecosystems. Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Critical Realist Systems Framework Depiction of the Effort Factor Figure 1. View largeDownload slide Critical Realist Systems Framework Depiction of the Effort Factor Multiple causal mechanisms associated with the second strata interact with the effort factor. Capital’s growth imperative, for example, affects the propensity for investment in resource extraction; unless investors can be confident of the generation of surplus value they will take their capital elsewhere. The ecosystem services available are defined by extraction histories and also condition future development trajectories. Increasing input costs and declines in ecological integrity define conditions of instability under which states, capital, and civil society are likely to respond, although the nature of responses are contingent upon the specific character of these structures, including, for example, the political, economic, technological, and physical infra-structures that shape access to and dependence upon particular resources; the degree of scientific and ideological attention to ecological degradation; and the strength of environmental organizations. Those responses in turn affect future rates of production (demand). Figure 2 captures this second sequence of processes. Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Second- and Third-Order Strata Describing Social Responses to the Effort Factor Figure 2. View largeDownload slide Second- and Third-Order Strata Describing Social Responses to the Effort Factor ESCALATING EFFORT: A CENTURY OF OIL EXPLOITATION IN ALBERTA Before proceeding, it is worthwhile reiterating that casual mechanisms are difficult to observe empirically. However, the forms of quantitative and qualitative data available to researchers today can provide compelling if incomplete glimpses into these mechanisms. A variety of proxy measures that cannot be reduced to a single metric have been identified in the illustrative case below. Our next challenge is the fact that the regional character of raw materials exploitation, variations in extraction technologies, and vacillating global reserve estimates can hamper direct observation of the effort factor at a global scale. Thus, empirical exploration is best approached with attention to a single resource sector and extractive region, which I do here, by focusing on oil development in Alberta, Canada. Blessed with 98 percent of Canada’s oil reserves, Alberta in 2013 celebrated its one-hundredth year of oil production (AME 2013). Oil remains the mainstay of the provincial economy (and cultural identity; Davidson and Gismondi 2011), with an average production of 2.3 million barrels per day (MMBD). Resource Quality The history of oil extraction in Alberta describes a clear decline in quality, defined by the near-total depletion of conventional reserves, followed by exploitation of a large deposit of bitumen, a lower quality unconventional oil product popularly called oil sands or tar sands. The days remaining for Alberta’s conventional oil industry are numbered, with just 1.7 billion barrels remaining of an original 18-billion-barrel reserve (ERCB 2013). The decline in reserve size manifests directly in a decline in the productive potential of an average well. In Alberta, the average daily production rate per well in 1973 was 145 barrels; by 2009 it was 12. Today over 17,000 of 42,000 oil wells produce a daily average of 3 barrels (ERCB 2013). On the other hand, during the past decade the production of oil sands has increased at a rate of 8 percent per year (see Figure 3). With a reserve of 176 billion barrels, Alberta’s oil sands is the world’s third largest remaining proven reserve of oil (ERCB 2013). Sonia Yeh and colleagues (2010) indicate a very high recovery factor of 82 percent for oil sands mining, not surprisingly since mining—unlike drilling—extracts virtually all of the resource within a unit of substrate. “In-situ” well drilling is set to overtake mining though, since 97 percent of the deposit is too deep to mine (AME 2013). These wells have recovery factors of 25 to 40 percent in areas where the reserve is at least ten meters thick, and 5 to 10 percent where reserve thickness is lower, which characterizes approximately 85 percent of reserves (ERCB 2013). Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Change in Volume of Crude Oil and Bitumen Production in Alberta Over Time Source: Data obtained from ERCB 2015 Figure 3. View largeDownload slide Change in Volume of Crude Oil and Bitumen Production in Alberta Over Time Source: Data obtained from ERCB 2015 Labor Efficiency There are some indications of increases in labor efficiency. Some companies operating in the oil sands sector, for example, have reduced the amount of water inputs (Young 2014). The most readily measurable indicator is the decline in greenhouse gas emissions intensity over time for the oil sands sector, which has been attributed in large part to the adoption of co-generation facilities that converted waste heat into 2000 megawatts of electricity in 2011 (NRCAN 2013). According to the Government of Canada, the greenhouse gas emissions intensity of oil sands declined 26 percent between 1990 and 2011, at which point the oil sands contributed 7.8 percent of Canada’s total GHG emissions (NRCAN 2013). Natural Resources Canada projects further declines in GHG intensity; however, even if the rate of decline experienced in the previous time period was to continue, the projected increases in production to 5MMBD by 2040 (NEB 2016) would still result in increases in overall GHG emissions. This level of intensity remains much higher than for conventional oil extraction on average, and further reductions in emissions intensity are unlikely, explained in the following section. Analogous data representing the GHG intensity of Alberta’s conventional oil sector, and how this may be affected by growing reliance on hydraulic fracturing, is unavailable. Effort Lower well productivity means more wells must be drilled to maintain production, and the utilization of new techniques that involve increases in inputs. Growing reliance on bitumen introduces the need for highly capital-intensive, large-scale infrastructure, energy and water requirements, and additional processing. Data on wells and production have been collected since oil development in Alberta began, allowing us to compare the number of wells drilled to the volume of oil produced each year from all wells combined, describing the change in marginal output over time of an average oil well. Figure 4 describes the exponential increase in effort expended in conventional oil production, as the increasing ratio of number of wells drilled to total volume of annual production. Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Increase in Effort Over Time, Expressed as the Ratio of Crude Oil Wells in Operation to Total Production, Per Year Source: Data obtained from ERCB 2015 Figure 4. View largeDownload slide Increase in Effort Over Time, Expressed as the Ratio of Crude Oil Wells in Operation to Total Production, Per Year Source: Data obtained from ERCB 2015 Declines in resource quality in the conventional oil sector have also precipitated shifts in extractive techniques. The first form of well drilling used across North America, called primary recovery, involving simply drilling vertically into the substrate and releasing the fuel, can only be used when the resource is sufficiently viscous, and the volume of the reserve generates sufficient pressure push the oil up through the wellbore. Primary recovery now accounts for just .2 percent of total U.S. production. Secondary recovery, or “water-flooding,” involves pumping water into the reserve to increase pressure, and accounts for 79.8 percent of U.S. production (Mielke, Anadon, and Narayanamurti 2010). The remaining 20 percent consists of tertiary recovery, referring to the use of steam, chemicals, or both, under high pressure (Mielke et al. 2010). In Alberta today, the majority of drilling in conventional oil reserves utilizes a tertiary method called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, involving drilling to a depth of up to a mile, then extending multiple lateral extensions, and the injection of water, steam, and chemicals into the well under extremely high pressure, creating small explosions along the boreholes that release the oil (or gas) trapped in solid substrates. Since 2013, over 80 percent of wells drilled in Alberta have been horizontal fracking wells (AME 2016). These new horizontal wells start with a higher level of productivity than primary or secondary vertical wells, because the extensive boreholes access more of the reserve from a single well, but experience a much steeper decline in production over time. Production from new vertical wells in Alberta declines 26 percent in the first year; horizontal wells decline 40 percent the first year (ERCB 2013). The next notable technological shift, from conventional to oil sands development, is marked by an increase in processing requirements. The tar-like substance, consisting of water, silt, clay, and bitumen, must be wrested from the ground, heated, pummeled, and otherwise tormented in order to isolate the bitumen. Once the bitumen is separated, it must be blended with diluent, a highly toxic additive, to increase its viscosity enough to allow transport via pipeline. Additional upgrading is required to remove carbon, nitrogen, metals, and especially sulphur. Oil sands development is still relatively young, although here too we already observe a technological shift as the reserve is exploited. Bitumen close to the surface is accessed by mining—a straightforward open-pit affair. But mining has already been overtaken by in-situ well drilling to access deeper deposits, requiring nearly four times as much energy per barrel (used to produce steam, run pumps, etc.) than mining (Davidson and Gismondi 2011); consequently, the replacement of mining with drilling foretells a significant increase in this input, suggesting the recent improvements in greenhouse gas intensity may well be reversed. Regional Ecosystems and Economies The decline in resource quality in Alberta’s oil reserves has not been accompanied by sufficient increases in labor efficiency to prevent an increase in effort over time. The future trajectory of oil development in Alberta, however, is by no means predetermined. Outcomes emerge from the interactions between the effort factor and other causal mechanisms, defined by second and third strata structures in this socioecological system (Figure 2). The increase in labor requirements and decline in resource quality defining the effort factor confront two second-order strata. First, the effort factor transpires into increases in financial input costs to be absorbed by the regional economic system, while land disruption and environmental contamination are absorbed by the regional ecosystem. In a capitalist market economy, investors will seek to maximize surplus value. In a staples economy, this translates into an imperative to minimize production costs, particularly in Alberta, as the commodity price received for bitumen- and shale-derived crudes is lower than that for light crude. Production of the low quality bitumen reserves require high initial capital investments, and capital expenditures are increasing faster than the rate of production: expenditures were $19.9 billion in 2011, with production at 1.7mpd, compared to $11.2 billion in 2009, with production at 1.5mpd (ERCB 2013). Conventional oil and gas expenditures have also increased due to a shift to fracking. While no data were available on the costs of fracking well development in Alberta, in the nearby Bakken shale field in North Dakota the construction of a single well typically costs US$5.5-8.5 million (Sandreas 2012). Higher input costs reduce profit margins, compelling larger-scale operations, and also render those investments vulnerable to drops in commodity prices. With a history of conservative neoliberalism, Alberta is one of the few places remaining in the world where oil and gas development is privatized. The oil sands reserve has been leased out to many of the world’s largest energy corporations, including ostensibly Canadian corporations like Suncor that are majority foreign owned, and also non-Canadian corporations. Alberta’s regional economy is historically highly dependent on this sector, and although that proportion is declining, from over 30 percent previously to 18 percent today, shifts in oil prices have a direct effect on the economy. Prior to the drop in oil prices, Alberta enjoyed the highest per capita incomes and lowest unemployment in Canada, but since the drop in prices in 2014, they have become the poorest performing provincial economy. Alberta’s bountiful natural resources and diverse ecosystems help to explain the historic dominance of agriculture, energy development, and tourism here, and have been the source of livelihood for indigenous peoples for millennia. However, there are indications that increasing contamination and land disruption associated with the increase in the effort factor have surpassed the absorptive capacity of these ecosystems, with impacts concentrated in rural production zones. According to the Provincial Environment Ministry (ESRD 2014), total land disturbance associated with historic oil and gas development is approximately 10,000 km2, with 120 additional hectares disturbed each day. An average 3.3 hectares is cleared for each conventional well (Yeh et al. 2010), thus the total amount disturbed increases directly as the number of wells increases. The ecosystem fragmentation resulting from the roads and pipelines required to support the wells render the total land disruption much higher than the amount of land directly cleared for wells (Jordaan, Keith, and Stelfox 2009). Provincial law requires that well sites are reclaimed, but the ecological value of reclaimed sites is by no means equivalent to their original state (they are just seeded with grass), and the rate of reclamation has not kept up (Hartshorn, Fionda, and Sheldon 2015). The transition from conventional to unconventional oil is also associated with increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Yeh and colleagues (2010) found the CO2eq emissions from oil sands mining to be 23 times that of Alberta’s conventional production. Other forms of ecological impact include water and air pollution. In regard to hydraulic fracturing, Jack Doyle (1994:8) explains: produced water [the water injected into the well] is at least four times saltier than ocean water and often contains “industrial strength” quantities of toxins such as benzene, xylene, toluene, and ethylbenzene. Heavy metals … have also been found in produced water. Produced water can also be radioactive—in some cases, as much as 100 times more radioactive than the discharge of a nuclear power plant. Wastewater from oil sands mining is stored in open tailings ponds. Studies have found a variety of suspected and known carcinogens in the tailings ponds, and in nearby water bodies as a result of leakage (Galarneau et al. 2014; Kurek et al 2013; Timoney and Lee 2009). Water inputs, moreover, are derived predominantly from the Athabasca River, centerpiece of the Athabasca-Peace Delta, recognized for its ecological value, and lifeline for indigenous peoples living downstream. While actual consumption by oil sands mining currently is approximately 1 percent of the river’s low-flow rates (Alberta Environment 2017), models of future stream flow for the Athabasca River project a decline in average flow of 8.26 percent with a 3 °C rise in average temperature, and as much as 71 percent for dry years (Schindler and Donahue 2006). The water requirements for drilling are lower, 9.16 gal/MMBtu (Wu et al. 2008), partly because they are able to employ a greater proportion of saline underground water sources, and re-use produced water for injection. What is least debatable is the amount of land disturbed. As of Spring 2013, 715 km2 had been directly disturbed for oil sands, primarily associated with mining. On average, four tonnes of overburden above the deposit and two tonnes of the bitumen substrate itself must be removed for each barrel of synthetic crude oil produced (Woynillowicz, Severson-Baker, and Raynolds 2005). Oil sands mining directly disturbs an estimated 9.4 hectares of land per million barrels of oil produced, compared to 1.4 hectares for in-situ drilling, but when the effect of fragmentation is included, land disturbed by wells is roughly double that for mining (Dyer and Huot 2010), suggesting that disturbance rates will increase as we shift from mining to drilling. Moreover, the land disrupted by exploitation of the natural gas required as an input to drilling is three times as large as the land consumed by the wells themselves (Jordaan et al. 2009). States, Capital, and Civil Society States, capital, and civil society all constitute third-order strata that set parameters around ensuing social responses, with outcomes for future demand, and subsequently production of the resource. In general, politicians seek legitimacy to support their party, re-election, and reputation. Particular features of this provincial state are especially relevant to the means by which that legitimacy is sought. The first regards the high degree of dependency on the oil sector, rendering Alberta a petro state, yet unlike many other petro states Alberta has pursued neoliberal pathways of economic development, supporting a “hands-off” approach to the marketplace. Energy has nonetheless always required close attention by politicians. Globally, fossil fuel subsidies totaled US$550 billion in 2013 (IEA 2014). Investors in Alberta’s oil sands currently enjoy the lowest royalties in the world, dropping from a high of 41.2 percent under Peter Lougheed in 1978, to 3.6 percent today (Boychuk 2016). The province has subsidized the development of this industry in other ways, including underwriting research and development for nearly a century, and an extensive public relations campaign designed to frame oil sands development in a positive light while marginalizing concerns (Davidson and Gismondi 2011). The second feature of this state is the abrupt termination in 2015 of the extended reign of the Progressive Conservative Party, replaced by the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP) during a time of voter frustration with the struggling economy. Historic efforts by the Progressive Conservative Party to maintain legitimacy by symbolic reference to the “Alberta Advantage” as an energy producer, and hands-off neoliberal governance style, suddenly fell flat. The New Democratic Party entered into power with a platform that included promises to review the oil and gas royalty regime, and improve environmental management, including development of a climate plan, which at the time was seen even by proponents of the energy industry as a necessary step to improve Alberta’s poor environmental reputation in the global economy. The actions taken by members of the newly elected party during their first year in office, however, illustrate the challenges associated with maintaining legitimacy in a region with this political-economic history. While the new Premier Rachel Notley boldly stated that the oil sands have no long-term future in Alberta shortly after being elected (Goldenburg 2015), the current government has made every effort to extend the life of Alberta’s oil industry as long as possible. They have lobbied heavily for the construction of new pipelines; the promised royalty review concluded that no increases in royalties were warranted and is considered by some to have been a farce (Boychuk 2016); and their new climate plan allows for a 40 percent increase in GHGs from the oil sands, which seriously compromises Alberta’s ability to achieve overall reductions in emissions. Notably, the provincial NDP was forced into a confrontation with the NDP of Canada over the latter’s support for the Leap Manifesto, a bold carbon reduction plan developed by Naomi Klein (Bridge 2016). Given the uniquely high capital costs required, the low value of the commodities being produced, and the isolation of the oil sands from markets, corporations have effectively lobbied the provincial state to minimize taxes and royalties, and offer other incentives for development. Some of the largest energy corporations in the world, such as Shell, Total, and ConocoPhillips, with the aid of a powerful industry association representing its interests—the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers—have enjoyed close and congenial relations with the provincial government, and have succeeded in effectively ensuring the self-regulation of their activities. The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the provincial agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas development, is funded by the administration fees it collects from oil and gas companies, and is headed by a former executive of an oil corporation. While state-owned energy corporations may operate with a broader mandate when investing domestically, private corporations respond directly to profit. In the current moment of low prices, the companies invested in once-heralded oil sands projects have been shedding employees, and many new projects are on hold: investment has dropped 62 percent (CAPP 2016). One financial analyst has predicted that the era of oil sands megaprojects is over (Cunningham 2015). Meanwhile, large corporations have long since sold their interests in declining conventional oil and gas fields due to the relatively high costs of hydraulic fracturing combined with low expected returns on investment, leaving this sector open to investment by smaller companies, which, lacking capital, pursue development with debt financing, leading to high rates of company turnover and bankruptcy (Boychuk 2016), and an increasing number of abandoned wells that are not reclaimed (Southwick 2016). The disruption of cultural, economic, or ecological systems present conditions in which reflexive members of civil society may respond, to the extent their capabilities and the structural features of their civil societies allow. Aboriginal communities downstream from the oil sands have consistently expressed concern for the ecological impacts they are confronting and the lack of consultation they have received from industry, an effort organized by the Indigenous Environmental Network. Such efforts have yet to influence the pace of development, however, particularly given that the much larger and more economically developed resource-based communities closer to extraction operations have offered consistent industry support. On the other hand, the lax environmental management that has governed energy development at a time when the effort factor has generated increasing ecological disruption, particularly over an enterprise as visually appalling as the oil sands, has generated vehement opposition from the international environmental community, forcing corporations to defend their environmental practices in the international limelight. Despite the concerted efforts of corporations at greenwashing (most notoriously Ezra Levant’s Ethical Oil campaign) in order to maintain their privileged access to the resource, the efforts of international environmental organizations to oppose oil sands have gained traction, especially in pipeline debates. The Keystone XL, proposed to expand the volume of bitumen transported into the United States was terminated by the Obama administration subject to vehement opposition (Trump has since reversed this decision, fueling further protest activity), and international organizations were joined by organizations operating elsewhere in Canada to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline proposed to transport bitumen to shipping ports on the British Columbia coast. The proposed 4,600 kilometer Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick, ultimately the last remaining pipeline option for the oil sands, has been stalled indefinitely. The efficacy of such mobilizations is in itself a reflection of this particular natural resource: Alberta’s oil sands is landlocked, and far away from population centers, thus requiring extensive, and expensive, transportation infrastructure to reach markets, and the necessary scale of operations themselves generate enormous, highly visible scars on the landscape that are readily conveyed through social media (Davidson and Gismondi 2011). While local mobilizations against fracking have led to moratoria or bans elsewhere across the globe, local opposition to fracking in Alberta has been far more tepid, and fracking here has not attracted international attention, given its proliferation across the globe. The lack of local resistance can be attributed to the particular features of this civil society. Despite common perceptions that the oil sector is a major employer, before the drop in oil prices, 133,000 people, or just 6 percent of the workforce (Statistics Canada 2016) were directly employed by the oil industry. This figure belies a high degree of geographical variation, however. In rural productive regions, zones where the impacts of fracking are most acutely felt, the proportion of jobs provided by the oil and gas industry is much higher. As Gramling and Freudenburg (1990) note, economic dependency translates into high levels of industry support even within communities facing acute environmental impacts. Many of these communities, moreover, support historically resonant traditional agrarian cultures that include strong conservative populist sentiments (Brym 1978) that do not necessarily support collective political mobilization against industry or government. The more than 80 percent of Albertans who live in cities and constitute the majority of voters, on the other hand, are far from sites of production. Even among impacted communities, however, a shift has begun to take place that may lead to increasing mobilization. The acute health impacts experienced by many families has been sufficiently alarming that many have written letters to government representatives to complain, and even former industry supporters have begun to organize to express their concerns, with the newly-formed Alberta Fracking Resource and Action Coalition. Simultaneously, as the small companies operating the wells face financial difficulties, more and more of them are failing to pay the rent due to the landowners whose properties are being used to access the reserves, introducing a further source of resentment and conflict in what were previously quiescent relations among farmers and energy companies. DISCUSSION Critical realism provides a conceptual framework useful for analysis of socioecological relations. While researchers most commonly limit analysis to directly experienced events, critical realists call on researchers to explore the plausibility of events and effects not directly experienced, and the generative mechanisms or causal tendencies that produce events. Within this framework, social and ecological structures interact to produce causal tendencies. Agency transpires through and is thus delimited by causal mechanisms that emanate from both social and natural structures, which can be further articulated into multiple levels. States, capital, and civil society represent those structures immediately confronted by political agents, but those structures in turn are shaped by powers and mechanisms characterizing the regional economic and ecological systems within which they reside. These second-order strata in turn are shaped by the effort factor, a specific causal mechanism defined by the quality of natural resources and labor required to convert those resources into commodities. The actions taken by individuals within corporations, state agencies, communities, and organizations have been shaped by several elements within these underlying strata. For many decades during which the resource was plentiful and could be extracted with conventional methods, Alberta’s energy industry received limited criticism, and enjoyed close relations with the ruling conservative party. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, this industrial sector has rapidly shifted from conventional well drilling to bitumen mining and hydraulic fracturing, leading to declines in surplus values and increases in ecological impact, coinciding with neoliberalization of Alberta’s economy. The oil sands thrust companies and state into the international limelight with the sudden need to invest heavily in reputation management, forcing the newly elected NDP government to introduce a new climate plan, while simultaneously seeking to revitalize its ailing economy with further expansion of oil development, generating rifts with its party base. Meanwhile, the impacts of fracking have disrupted historically close relationships among oil companies and farming communities, generating opposition among those who had been oil’s most adamant supporters. This case is in many ways emblematic of the emergence of an era described by geographers as the Anthropocene (Schwägerl 2014), in which humans have become the dominant force in geological change. One important feature of this historic moment is the critical decline in quality of several raw materials upon which contemporary industrialized societies depend. Declines in resource quality have occurred in many sectors as those resources are exploited over time. Because labor efficiency is highly unlikely to improve at a pace that would compensate for this decline in quality, an increase in the effort required to turn raw materials into commodities can be expected. Inputs including land, water, energy, and synthetic components; pollution outputs; and investments in research and technology tend to increase relative to production volume. So do investments required to maintain legitimacy among corporate and state actors, and the social impacts to local residents and workers. For much of our history, the effort factor has been masked by several factors, particularly the regional character of natural resource development, and the lack of sufficient historical data. The specific inputs and resulting scale of ecological impact will also vary by resource, extraction technology, and geography. Land disruption is more consequential in complex ecosystems with limited restoration potential, for example, such as the boreal forests under which the oil sands lay. Neither of these factors invalidates the aggregate tendency toward increasing effort, underscoring the fallacy of ignoring the causal mechanisms introduced by nature, and any notion of equilibrium in socioecological relations. While environmental sociologists have offered resounding critiques of a persistent Western cultural belief in human (technological) progress, the effort factor can enhance our ability to do so, by articulating the dialectical interaction of social processes with processes by which nature itself is governed. The potential directions for future elaborations of this framework are many, including other regions, resources, and histories, as well as other aspects of socioecological relations such as consumption. Such future work will no doubt provide significant advances upon the framework offered here. 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Social Problems – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2019
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