Canada’s road to becoming a petro-state is lined with lies, greed, and pollution.
Canada now suffers from an advanced state of “petromania,” a condition of rank moral dishonesty compounded by visions of oily grandeur.
When a nation becomes the number one supplier of petroleum to the United States as well as a gleeful addict of its associated trade revenue ($40 billion), it can’t do so without carbonizing its political and economic character.
According to Stanford political scientist Terry Karl any country that relies on “an unsustainable development trajectory” for oil routinely degenerates into a petro-state defined by cancerous networks of complicity between public sector and private oil companies. We’re now living that peril with the tar sands.
The resource curse, a topic verboten in the national media, probably explains why Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice and the Alberta government, a northern Saudi kingdom, have become gleeful marketing representatives for the world’s riskiest energy project.
In recent speeches and newspaper advertisements that could have been written by the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers, Canada’s oil bullies declare that the tar sands are safe, secure and responsible. The claims might even cause BP’s Tony Hayward to blanche.
For starters the resource’s dirty character mocks such open deceit. Chemical engineers typically describe bitumen as a “difficult” and “extreme” hydrocarbon trapped in sand and clay that requires brute force to extract. It is not oil floating on sand. Unlike conventional crude, bitumen is so damn impure and carbon-rich that an ugly processing system vomits up a mountain of five million tonnes of petroleum coke a year or more than the coal industry. Bitumen reminds us that the era of cheap oil is over and that business as usual is a mirage.
Next come the bogus safety claims. Approximately six billion barrels of toxic mining waste now sit in more than 20 dams covering 170 square kilometers of forest along the Athabasca River. That’s enough waste to fill a 10-by-10 metre canal stretching across the Canada-U.S. border from sea to sea. Just to separate the water from this sludge will cost between $20 to $40 billion dollars. Reclamation of the dams will cost billions more. A breach in one of these insecure impoundments by an earthquake, extreme weather, or engineering failure would have catastrophic Deepwater Horizon consequences downstream. Does this sound safe?
Security is another myth. How can a resource that costs between $60-80 a barrel to produce, or twenty times more than conventional oil, engender anything but insecurity in an economy? In addition it takes one barrel of energy to extract five barrels of bitumen while conventional oil enjoys profitable returns of one to 20. Civilizations that increasingly rely on complicated and capital draining projects that offer diminishing energy returns have invested in the petroleum equivalent of toxic derivatives. They will not remain civilized for long.
Perhaps the most preposterous lie is that Alberta and Canada magically belong to an exclusive club known as the “responsible energy producer.” In fact the whole saga of rapid tar sands development reeks of BP-style irresponsibility. The project has become a carbon-making nation within Canada and will soon foul the atmosphere with more ocean acidifying emissions than Canada’s transportation sector or industrial European nations with 10 million people. When a doctor raises concerns about documented increases in rare cancers downstream from the bitumen complex, Health Canada attacks him. When scientists raise concerns about rising levels of pollution on the Athabasca River (a slow spill of 5,000 barrels of bitumen every year), Alberta Environment calls them liars. And just how responsible is it for Alberta’s Environment Minister Rob Renner to tour the United States and belittle low carbon fuel standards?
By their very crude nature, petro-states invariably come to represent and defend the devil’s excrement because it fills government coffers with easy loot. In the process these same governments actively disenfranchise their citizens.
Until Canada recognizes and addresses the peril of the resource curse, we will lie to U.S. consumers and to ourselves. But by calling what is dirty “clean”; what is difficult “safe”; and what is extreme “secure,” we have already imperiled the future of our children.