Canadian Government On Attack: Tar Sands Pipeline Debate Heats Up

ForestEthics/Screen capture

The U.S. may have rejected the Keystone XL pipeline—at least for now—but the fight to stop the next tar sands pipeline in Canada is only getting tougher.

The government and Enbridge Inc. are stepping up their game to push through what is largely seen as an alternative to Keystone XL: the Northern Gateway pipeline project, which would carry oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Canadian west coast for export to China. (The project also involves a second pipeline that would transport imported natural gas condensate to be used in the tar sands.)

But it's not happening without a fight. The way Slate put it about a month ago, Canada is becoming a jingoistic petro-state:

Stephen Harper, the son of an oil-company accountant, built his political career in Alberta, a province whose right-wing tendencies and booming energy sector make it Canada’s equivalent of Texas. Harper took over the Conservative Party in 2004 and became prime minister two years later on a platform that evoked Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

...Already in possession of the world’s second-largest oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia, Canada under Harper is aiming to more than double its output by 2035. Most of the new crude will come from the tar sands of northern Alberta, which are lousy with oil-rich bitumen.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., where Enbridge already has a dubious safety and environmental record, the company has proposed a $190 million new pipeline through Michigan.

Attack On Environmental Groups

Canada's Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver issued an open letter last month calling the pipeline part of a plan to diversify the country's energy markets, and calling its opponents "environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity."

The Conservative government also announced plans to begin a review of the charity sector to limit groups' advocacy role following complaints from Harper that groups are receiving questionable “foreign money.” The Calgary Sun reports:

Treasury Board President Tony Clement said the Conservatives had "called out" foreign-funded environmentalists with "agendas that are influenced by their paymasters," while Environment Minister Peter Kent expressed concern about charities funded by "ideologically driven philanthropists" not subject to Canada Revenue Act scrutiny.

The New York Times explains more:

A week before the release of Mr. Oliver’s open letter, a small pro-oil-sands group with ties to the governing Conservatives started a campaign to bar any Canadian groups that receive any foreign financing from taking part in the Northern Gateway review, which is expected to field comments from about 4,300 witnesses.

ForestEthics—which helped drive the commitment by Chiquita and other companies to avoid tar sands oil—has been hit particularly hard. The Globe and Mail reports:

The dismissal of Andrew Frank, spokesman for anti-oil-sands group ForestEthics, comes amid an increasingly tense atmosphere among environmental groups – especially those registered as charities, whose public advocacy is supposed to be limited – that have come under fire by the federal government for harbouring “radicals” intent on “hijacking” the review process for Gateway.

The World Reacts

The push to develop tar sands has sparked outrage around the world. The EU tried to label tar sands oil as more carbon-intensive than other crude sources, and a public message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other African leaders accuse Canada of contributing to famine and drought (studies have shown tar sands are likely to devastate agriculture in Africa).

The pro-tar sands Ethical Oil campaign—which says that the industry is becoming "more ethical each day"—likes to claim that emissions from the tar sands have been reduced. But ask any more independent source and you'll find the emissions, not to mention other environmental impacts, are massive. In fact, the emissions of Alberta's oil sands exceed the levels of 145 entire countries.

And the government's own environmental agency has predicted that emissions from the oil sands will triple 2005 levels—to 92 million metric tons—by 2020. (But most government agencies seem to be on board anyway.)

"Toxic Wilderness"

What's really at risk from the pipeline is not only a spike in greenhouse gas emissions, but precious local ecosystems upon which many of Canada's own people depend.

BBC reports:

"It's got to the point where we have to be very cautious about the animals we are taking from the land because it is not uncommon for us to pull a fish out of the lake that has cancers on it," said Crystal Lameman, a member of the community.

"It's not uncommon to kill a moose and go clean it and see that there are pus bubbles under its skin."

Many of their traditional hunting grounds have now been deforested, so they have launched a legal case against the federal and provincial governments for the breach of a treaty which they say guarantees their traditional way of life.

"When you have the development of oil sand deposits, there are vast landscapes that go on for miles that are barren and a lot of big lakes of toxic water that have been used in the process of extracting the oil," said Jack Woodward, the lawyer representing them.

"So what's happening is that the landscape that was used and loved by these people is being transformed into a terrible toxic wilderness."

The Canadian government has had to work hard to get to this point. The LA Times had a good story last week about how Canada has pitted the U.S. as a foreign bully:

Over the last few weeks, a two-agency review panel has convened the first in a long round of hearings on Northern Gateway, pointedly described as a pipeline that won't deliver much oil to the U.S. Instead, it will allow Canada to end its sole dependence on American buyers for its most important export by opening up markets in Asia, and allow it to attract the badly needed foreign investment to develop the sands...

But with Keystone's recent turmoil in the U.S., Northern Gateway has risen to new prominence as a defiant Plan B for a nation increasingly aggressive in combating international hurdles, whether it's greenhouse gas treaties, low-carbon fuel standards or U.S. presidential politics.

It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how this plays out in a country with a history of being far more progressive, both politically and environmentally, than its southern neighbor. It'd be nice to think of that as a sign of change in the U.S., but that seems a bit too optimistic. At least for now.

Tags: Alberta | Canada | Carbon Emissions | Global Climate Change | Oil | Tar Sands

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