The Good Neighbour

What’s it like to live next door to Norwegian-owned Statoil’s Alberta oil sands operations?

Director Astrid Schau-Larsen’s The Good Neighbour, Den Gode Naboen in Norwegian, follows the journey of Julie Strand Offerdal as she gathers evidence of how the activities of Statoil – a 67% Norwegian government owned oil and gas supplier– impact the lives of people living right next door to their Canadian oil sands operations.

Director Astrid Schau-Larsen’s The Good Neighbour, Den Gode Naboen in Norwegian, follows the journey of Julie Strand Offerdal as she gathers evidence of how the activities of Statoil – a 67% Norwegian government owned oil and gas supplier– impact the lives of people living right next door to their Canadian oil sands operations.

While writing her master’s thesis on Statoil’s social investments, Julie found it difficult to navigate the polarized dialogue surrounding oil sands development. She decided to see first-hand just how good a neighbour Statoil has been, and set out on the roughly 4,500-kilometre trip from Montreal to Alberta in a converted diesel truck that ran on used vegetable oil collected largely from restaurants and diners encountered on the way.

Statoil, headquartered in Stavanger, Norway, is one of the world’s largest oil and gas suppliers and operates in 34 countries worldwide; its largest activities are located in Norway, operating approximately 80 per cent of Norwegian production. Although Statoil is partially privatized, it began as a wholly state-owned company in 1972 and a majority share is still held by the Norwegian Government. Statoil promotes itself as being a company with a conscience. Norway’s petroleum industry has been in operation for over 40 years and it contributes significantly to the country’s economic growth and maintenance of the country’s social services through the State’s Direct Financial Interest (SDFI) arrangement.

The Good Neighbour speaks to two main issues with oil sands production: the lack of government rules and regulations regarding the operations of international companies in the region, and ineffective public participation in the decision-making process. The documentary includes a mixture of evidence of Statoil’s activities and oil sands production, from discussions with professors, scientists, politicians and environmental activists, to Province of Alberta and Statoil representatives and First Nations communities.

The alarm has been raised many times about the continued and increasing development of Alberta’s tar – or “oil” sands, depending on your point of view – and the topic is no stranger to the A\J archives. Several authors have contributed reviews of documentaries, books, and current events that analyse the industry and its environmental, political, economic, and social impacts.

The Good Neighbour presents a selection of commentators including Green Party leader Elizabeth May and David Schindler, one of Canada’s most influential environmental scientists and a Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta. They discuss the lack of governmental oversight and rapid expansion of development, which May says are enabled by the real ‘culprits’ of deliberate provincial and federal government policies to boost oil sands production. May draws attention to the fact that Canada has no coherent energy policy, and so oil sands development has been given priority over other approaches to energy production.

Greenhouse gas emissions are also a commonly-cited issue stemming from tar sands development, but in A/J’s 2012 interview, Schindler contends that of larger concern to him are the disturbance of the landscape and the inadequate environmental restoration that’s going on across Albertan extraction projects. A close second is the disregard for treaty rights, specifically Treaty 8 of 1899, which covers the affected area.   

Julie Strand Offerdal picks up on the latter point in her discussions with affected neighbouring populations, specifically the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation in Janvier, Northern Alberta. The community sits in the epicentre of the oil sands activities, 120 kilometres south of Fort McMurray. 

Treaty 8 refers to the right to hunt, fish and trap; a right which oil sands development directly challenges. Statoil is the main developer in the community’s trap line, or traditional hunting grounds. Aside from well-known negative impacts to the health of water, plant and animal life stemming from oil sands development activities, the mere presence of production dissuades animal life from their traditional habitats and feeding grounds. Members of the community must now travel two hours away to hunt and trap, and although they don’t subsist exclusively off the land, it’s important for their culture and way of life.

By law, the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation has absolute control over its reserves, including negotiation control over traditional lands. From their position, the government is not respecting the law. The Crown does mandate public consultation; the members of First Nations must be informed about the industrial work being done and given a chance to voice their concerns. The industry, however, isn’t required to pursue any further public participation or act on these concerns, in spite of treaty agreements and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which mandates acquiring consent from First Nations, not just informing them of development. To compound their frustrations, royalties and taxes from oil sands development flow past their community to municipal, provincial and federal governments.

From the perspective of a small community of First Nations people, it’s challenging to negotiate with multi-national corporations, so a group was been established that brings industry and First Nations communities together monthly for consultation: the Conklin Resource Development Advisory Committee. Statoil has signed on as a participant, and although they follow Canadian rules and regulations, community members feel the rules themselves are not enough. 

Throughout the documentary, Offerdal unveils the community’s exploration of how to utilize development so that the next generation can have a semblance of environmental and economic security. For instance, industry funding for community engagement activities and education initiatives increase the possibility of educational attainment. The community hopes to gain a level of freedom from government and industry funding in the future. 

Offerdal made several attempts to speak to and arrange a tour of Statoil’s operations in the area to seek balanced representation, with no success. The Good Neighbour draws on informal interviews, observations and research, to offer a window into the lives of neighbouring populations faced with detrimental and polarizing conditions and to highlight the strength of a community finding opportunities to move towards future economic stability and self-sufficiency.  

Den Gode Naboen (The Good Neighbour), directed by Astrid Schau-Larsen, Norway: Ramz Media, 2013, 59 minutes

Reviewer Information

Amy is a graduate student at the University of Waterloo pursuing a Master of Arts in Planning, with a focus on the adaptive reuse of historic buildings. She has an Honours Bachelor of Arts in Studio Arts from the University of Guelph and is interested in built and natural heritage conservation, photography, all forms of culture, and identifies as a maker.