Canada: Rogue & reckless petro-state
by Joe Romm
The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil.
A handful of Alberta tar sand
Over the last decade, Canada has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate. It’s no longer America’s better half, but a dystopian vision of the continent’s energy-soaked future. As a must-read article in the journal Foreign Policy puts it:
For decades, the world has thought of Canada as America’s friendly northern neighbor — a responsible, earnest, if somewhat boring, land of hockey fans and single-payer health care.
Them days is done
The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction — oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada’s government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout’s not just hooked on junk crude — he’s become a pusher. And that’s not even the worst of it.
With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country’s most significant long-cherished environmental laws.
The article’s author, Andrew Nikiforuk, is the author of the excellent book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, which won the winner of the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award. As Nikiforuk explains, the resource underwriting many of these ugly behavioral changes is bitumen, a heavy, sour crude mined from” the tar sands:
Deposits of the badly degraded asphalt-like substance lie under a forest the size of Florida in northeastern Alberta and comprise the world’s third-largest petroleum reserves. Over the last decade, as oil prices increased fivefold, oil companies invested approximately $160 billion to develop bitumen in Alberta, and it has finally turned profitable. Canada is now cranking out 1.7 million barrels a day of the stuff, and scheduled production stands to fill provincial and federal government coffers with about $120 billion in rent and royalties by 2020. More than 40 percent of that haul goes directly to the federal government largely in the form of corporate taxes. And the government wants even more; it’s pushing for production to hit 5 million barrels a day by 2030….
◊ Article continues below video.
Joe Romm, cont.
The 2012 National Inventory Report by Environment Canada, the country’s environmental department, actually boasts that Canada has partly reduced overall emission intensity in the oil sands “by exporting more crude bitumen.”
The quest for this vast, climate-destroying wealth has begun to erode the country’s basic foreign policy values, too, Nikiforuk argues:
Three state-owned Chinese oil companies (all with dismal records of corporate transparency and environmental sensitivity) have already spent more than $20 billion purchasing rights to oil sands in Alberta.
The kowtowing to China, now the world’s largest oil consumer, highlights Canada’s big bitumen dilemma: how to get dirty, landlocked oil to global markets. The United States, Canada’s biggest customer, doesn’t seem to need it as much anymore; imports declined by more than 4 million barrels a day between 2005 and 2011, and with pipeline projects to the United States like Keystone XL stuck in the mud, Harper’s vision of being an “emerging energy superpower” appears in danger. Unsurprisingly, Harper has recently jettisoned criticism of China’s human rights record. As a secret foreign-policy document leaked last fall to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. makes clear, Canada has new priorities:
“To succeed we will need to pursue political relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align".
In 2012, Canada quietly signed a controversial trade agreement with the People’s Republic and approved a $15 billion takeover of Nexen, an oil sands player, by the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. And, perhaps to warm Canadians’ hearts to the Chinese, the government recently lobbied to rent two traveling pandas at a cost of $10 million over the next 10 years.
The bottom line is grim
More than a decade ago, American political scientist Terry Lynn Karl crudely summed up the dysfunction of petrostates: Countries that become too dependent on oil and gas riches behave like plantation economies that rely on “an unsustainable development trajectory fueled by an exhaustible resource” whose revenue streams form “an implacable barrier to change.”
And that’s what happened to Canada while you weren’t looking … the Boy Scout is now slave to his own greed.
Yes, for Americans, that might all sound painfully familiar … except for the part about ever being a Boy Scout.
◊ Climatologist Joe Romm edits the celebrated blog Climate Progress.
Publ. here 14.7.2013