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Going to the Ends of the Earth: a Filmmaker’s Journey

In my new film, To the Ends of the Earth, I document the current scramble for extreme energy, also known as unconventional sources of oil and gas, and their environmental, economic and social impact.

To complete this documentary, I’ve spent the past three years travelling far and wide. I visited the Arctic Circle, on Baffin Island, to investigate the effects of oil exploration on marine mammals and the Inuit people. I also travelled to the midwest of the United States, including the Colorado River valley in Utah, to tell the stories of people on the front lines of the battle against fracking for gas and oil shale.

When you’re making a film like this, you often have to take physical risks to get a shot, and deal with security forces working for industry. Whether there’s a law against it or not, these companies often don’t want the scrutiny that comes with their operations and facilities being captured on film.

I learned this lesson the hard way while filming the Burnaby Mountain protests near Vancouver, BC against Kinder Morgan’s pipeline last fall.

For weeks, there was a tense stand-off on the Mountain between grassroots activists, many of whom had camped out to try and stop the Texas-based multi-national’s efforts to do exploratory drilling work. Kinder Morgan was testing to see if they could run their proposed giant tar sands pipeline through this Mountain, which is home to a major university and one of the last major urban forests in this major population centre on Canada’s west coast.

During the height of the protests, I decided to use my drone camera to film the Kinder Morgan Westridge Marine Terminal, at the foot of Burnaby Mountain. Kinder Morgan staff called in my license plate and the next day I had an RCMP National Security Anti-Terrorism Unit show up at my door.

I wasn’t home, but they left a card and the next day we had a phone call, which I recorded.

“What you are doing could be seen as a precursor to terrorist behavior,” the officer said to me. I countered this startling statement with a question: Had there ever been an eco-terrorist attack in Canadian history that had resulted in loss of life or property damage? He replied with an example from the 1980s, a group called the ‘Squamish 5.’ I found it amusing that he had to go back to the 1980s, when I was young, to find a compelling example.

The scariest thing is that this happened back in November 2014, when Bill C-51 was still just a crazed Conservative idea, a bill in the early stages of its development, not yet tabled in the House of Commons. What will happen when it is in full force? Will the act of civil disobedience, or even the act of filmmaking, become an act of high treason?

The fact that the specter of “eco-terrorism” haunts our governments and big corporations tells you something about the current era. We’ve seen this before, such as with the ‘Green Scare’ of the 1990s targeting radical environmental activists. Today, in the era of extreme energy, it sometimes seems like the authorities view us all as “radicals,” even us filmmakers.

In the film I feature an economist’s tool known as the resource pyramid. At the top of the pyramid, energy is easy to find and cheap, requires minimal labor to extract and has the highest capital and energy return on investment, as in the case of Saudi oil. In the middle of the pyramid, resources are more difficult and costly to extract, as in the case of the Alberta tar sands or shale oil and gas: “Drill, baby, drill” has become “mine, baby, mine,” “steam, baby, steam,” and “frack, baby, frack.” At the bottom of the pyramid there are resources such as Utah’s oil shale, the economic feasibility of which, despite billions in investments, remains uncertain.

This transition has been geological — we have moved from free flowing conventional oil to the heavy dirty stuff like bitumen — but it has also been social. With this descent down the resource pyramid has come conflict and resistance against oil projects never before seen in North American history. Deborah Rogers, a financial analyst specializing in unconventional oil and gas I interviewed in Texas, quantifies the costs of this to the industry: “Since 2011 we estimated that pipeline delays due to activism cost the industry about $19 billion.” Far from being an easily dismissed fringe element in society,  ‘Blockadia,’ to use Naomi Klein’s term (she appears in my film) is a force to be reckoned with.

On Burnaby Mountain and elsewhere across North America, we have seen hint of the moral and political power of Blockadia. That kind of popular protest is a great threat to these big corporations profiting off of extreme energy. Developing and implementing alternative and sustainable economics is an even bigger threat.

My film, To The Ends of the Earth, is my contribution to sharing those alternatives and to building public awareness about the need to transition out of this dangerous era of extreme energy.

After over three of work, and having raised over $100,000 for this film, I’ve turned to crowdfunding to help get me to the finish line. If you want to contribute and spread the word, please visit my crowdfunder page here: http://endsofearthfilm.com

Portions of this article were originally published in the Georgia Straight.

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