Contested energy spaces. Disassembling energyscapes of the Canadian North
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For decades, extractive industry developments have had direct and indirect impacts on indigenous communities in Wood Buffalo, Alberta, Canada. Yet, in a seemingly paradoxical manner and despite massive negative attention, there are several indigenous communities in favour of industrial developments on their traditional lands. To investigate this paradox, I embarked on an exploration of the contested energy space of the Canadian oil sands—investigating and analysing the characteristics, governance and power plays therein. In this PhD research project, I investigated how to conceptualize the socio-material complexity of contested energy spaces in the Canadian north, to identify instability and potential for change within them, and to understand the power relations between industry, state and indigenous communities. Hence, the overall effort of this PhD transcends the apparently narrow issue of indigenous responses to industrial impact, touching upon larger, more complex and generic problematics of energy and society relations.
Employing qualitative, Grounded Theory Methods (GTM) on a variety of scales, I present the research in two theoretically focused papers and two more empirically grounded ones. In paper #1, I discuss how to conceptualize the sociomaterial complexity of contested energy spaces. In this paper, by employing assemblage theory, I identify contested energy spaces as complex places or situations. I argue that to analyse and understand these complex situations, we need to equip assemblage theory with acknowledged geographical concepts of place (and materiality), scale (and networks) and power (as the mobilization of resources), providing analytical categories and tools for geographers investigating contested energy spaces specifically, and hopefully also contributing to the ongoing scholarly discourse on place.
Furthermore, in paper #2, I investigate how to identify instability and potential for change in contested energy spaces. Building on my initial reflections in paper #1, I elaborate on the instabilities of contested energy spaces, underscoring that instead of talking about techno-institutional complexes, regimes or a coherent systemic “fossil capitalism” held together by co-articulation of institutions, infrastructures and practices, we can talk about a looser association of different social and material elements drawn together and pulled apart by a range of different forces. I argue that this is liberating because it frees us from the assumption that changes need to have an impact on the fundamentals of larger socio-technical regimes to be significant. For me, the important point is to illustrate that contested energy spaces are fragmented, contested and converted at particular sites. Therefore, contradicting those who suggest that assemblage thinking blunts critical sensibilities, I find in paper #2 that it is helpful in opening spaces for negotiation and contestation. I argue that there is a normative rationale for shifting researchers’ attention towards instability and change. Destabilizing the permanence of contested energy spaces may be productive in its own right. The emphasis on structural constraints runs the risk of reproducing the oil industry’s carefully scripted narrative of its own inevitability. It is critical that the specific lens that spatiality affords geographers is also used to identify the cracks in the wall and the leverage points for transformation.
Papers #3 and #4 discuss how to understand the power play between industry, the state and indigenous communities in the contested energy spaces of the Canadian north, but from two perspectives, or on different scales. On a macro scale (paper #3), I show that industrial activities have had great impacts on the social, cultural and environmental realities of the contested energy spaces. The burden has been substantial for local communities and has added to the prolonged historical conflict between the Crown and indigenous communities over rights and entitlements. This complex relationship has led to substantial challenges for all stakeholders. In response to these challenges, the federal duty to consult, along with provincial environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and locally negotiated impact benefits agreements (IBAs), has been delegated to industry, where corporate social responsibility (CSR) and stakeholder management form important centrepieces. This delegation has been legitimized on pragmatic grounds, to underscore the better positioning of industry to consult indigenous communities, to assess its own impact and to negotiate compensation and benefits agreements. I have identified an interrelated, nested and multiscalar governance structure emerging from these four distinct governance features (Consultations, EIAs, IBAs, and CSR) that can be viewed as a joint mobilization effort by government, extractive industry proponents and indigenous communities to realize a workable, win–win regulatory environment in the contested energy space of Wood Buffalo.
On a micro scale (paper #4), the indigenous communities calibrate their participation in the emerging governance processes in the contested energy space of Wood Buffalo to strengthen their negotiating power. In this paper, I take assemblage theory as the basis of an analytical framework to examine indigenous Métis communities in Wood Buffalo. I reveal that indigenous engagement with extractive industry development is neither static nor (only) responsive in character. Rather, indigenous communities are strategic pragmatists that creatively and proactively engage in the development of extractive industries in their traditional territories. Viewing the interactions between the component parts of the contested energy space of Wood Buffalo as the workings of an unstable and changeable assemblage reconfigures our interpretation of indigenous engagement; we no longer see the people as passive victims or as only responsive to external pressure; we now see indigenous communities as proactive, pragmatic component parts of the Wood Buffalo carbonscape. I show that through strategic pragmatism, their traditional ways of life are imbued with substantial transformative capabilities. In paper #4, I show that these capabilities have moved the Métis communities of Wood Buffalo into formalized alliances with other stakeholders striving to evolve and change, to harvest strategic resources to their benefit.
Hence, by approaching my main research question through these four papers, I have eventually reached some conclusions: the indigenous communities of this study favour high-impact industrial activities in their traditional territories for several specific reasons. First, the complexity exposed in contested energy spaces does not offer simplistic or conventional understandings of indigenous agency. Second, the governance innovations of the contested energy space of Wood Buffalo entail different and untraditional approaches by which different stakeholders seek benefits from a highly lucrative industrial adventure. Third, by underscoring the instability of contested energy spaces and their constituent parts, I show that indigenous communities are no less adaptable or pragmatic than other stakeholders, and they strive to evolve and change to harvest strategic resources for their betterment.