Why the oil sands are unethical

There is probably no more controversial environmental issue in Canada than the oil sands. Some people see them as an important basis for Canadian influence and prosperity. They see Canada as a safe alternative to countries like Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and see how Canadians (especially Albertans) can profit from that. Others look at the oil sands as evidence of humanity’s dangerous addiction to fossil fuels.

Like most addicts, people in general have resolved themselves to the harms that accompany their habit, in terms of things like oil spills and air pollution. The real reason why the oil sands are unethical is because of how exploiting them ignores Canada’s responsibilities. We have a moral obligation not to wreck the planet, and to pass on a country and a global environment that will allow people in future generations to have good lives. Exploiting the oil sands is fundamentally incompatible with dealing with climate change. The exact same fact that makes the oil sands exciting for some people – the size of the fossil fuel reserve – is what makes them dangerous for everybody. If we dig up and use those fuels, the carbon they contain will inevitably end up in the atmosphere. The consequence of that will be further warming a planet that has already been dangerously warmed, from the perspective of coastal areas and small islands, and which is on track to be dangerously warmed for everybody. Exploiting unconventional fossil fuels also prevents us from developing alternatives. Inevitably, we need to move to safer and more reliable forms of energy. Choosing to invest in the oil sands instead is a waste of our talent and resources. It is an investment in a hopelessly outdated industry, which saps our ability to invest in the industries of the future.

In continued with full-speed-ahead development, Canada is also ignoring our responsibilities to the international community. Dealing with climate change requires cooperation and some degree of mutual sacrifice. Firms in other jurisdictions will inevitably point to the laggard countries as reasons why they themselves should not be regulated. Furthermore, we cannot expect states like China or Kuwait to behave ethically when rich, democratic states like Canada – states that should know better – are selling out the welfare of future generations and of people around the world, driven by greed and selfishness. Canada’s abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol was one of many factors that has derailed international efforts to deal with climate change. That being said, Canada can still do the right thing and pledge to make a fair contribution to the reduction in global pollution that is necessary. In order to do that, we need to move from a trajectory of higher and higher fossil fuel production and accompanying pollution to a trajectory where both are winding down.

These moral arguments are something Prime Minister Stephen Harper needs to hear, along with Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis. It’s also something the opposition leaders need to be reminded about. Too often, the opposition just uses the environment as a club to try to beat the government with. They frequently fail to display integrity by openly supporting policies that would actually help deal with the problem: policies like putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution, and restricting the production and use of fossil fuels. The ethics of oil sands production are also something the civil service needs to consider. While their role is to act as non-partisan sources of expert advice, they nonetheless have an obligation to point out when Canada is following a destructive and immoral course of action. To ignore injustice is to be complicit in it. Regulators need to take greenhouse gases seriously as a form of pollution, and the courts need to take the legal implications of climate change into account when rendering their judgments.

You may say that it isn’t greedy to chase profit during times of economic weakness, but that depends on how many people you are hurting along the way. The greenhouse gas pollution produced from oil sands operations (and from burning the fuels that they produce) will alter the climate for thousands of years. If all the people who will live during that time had a say – politically or economically – they would be clamouring for us to keep Pandora’s Box closed and leave these fuels underground. They would be willing to pay us more to leave the fuels buried than people are willing to pay us now to dig them up. Unfortunately, the members of those future generations are silent and defenceless; they do not enter into our political or economic calculations. Because we are only paying attention to the dollars and votes that can be collected today, we are investing hugely in an undertaking that destroys rather than creates human welfare. We are being short-sighted, greedy, and indifferent to the suffering of others. It should stop.

39 thoughts on “Why the oil sands are unethical

  1. Nicholas Ellan

    There is no greater issue facing Canadians today. The total silence on the part of the media is deafening.

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  3. ann

    i wonder if you’ve read up much about addictions. There might be some interesting parallels. I don’t know if its quite fair to say that addicts have “…resolved themselves to the harms that accompany their habit”. I think the reality is actually far more complex. The psychological dynamics of addiction might shed (compassionate) light on why we act as we do with fossil fuels (power, man, power!) that could also help overcome our resistances.

  4. Milan Post author

    What I mean is that there are many cases in which addicts are well aware of the health and other consequences of their addictions – what smoker doesn’t know about lung cancer? – and yet they still find excuses to avoid changing their behaviour.

  5. .

    Revolution in the oil-producing Arab world has created chaos in oil markets and ignited new interest in Canada’s oilsands.

    Unrest in the Arab world has caused crude oil prices to spike in recent days, as oil-hungry Western democracies fret over supply concerns should the spigots suddenly turn off.

    The price for the European benchmark, Brent crude, closed at $113.06 a barrel on Tuesday. The North American equivalent closed down slightly at $104.93 in New York.

    Both have risen to near their pre-recessionary highs. That, in turn has caused renewed interest in the Athabasca basin, home to the world’s second-largest reserve of crude oil.

    “The higher oil prices we’re seeing because of what’s happening in Libya are certainly very useful for pushing the Alberta tarsands as an alternative,” Schulich School of Business Perry Sadorsky said in an interview Tuesday. “That’s a major factor in why some people have changed their tune.”

    Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton angered environmentalists recently by saying she was inclined to support a massive $7 billion, 3,000-kilometre pipeline that would bring more oilsands oil to U.S refiners.

  6. .

    A new monitoring system for oil sands projects could deflect U.S. and European concerns over “dirty oil” and reduce damage to Canada’s international reputation.

    In a discussion paper to be released Friday at a conference at the University of Toronto, a group of influential Canadian academics says no new oil sands project should be approved without such a system, which would study effects on the region’s air, water and wildlife.

    Project approvals or water licences should not be issued until the federal and Alberta governments have “world-class scientific monitoring programs” in place, the group says.

    The report was prepared by David Schindler, a University of Alberta ecologist, University of Toronto geography professor Andrew Miall, and Adele Hurley, director of the program on water issues at the Munk School of Global affairs at U of T.

    A proper information and reporting system needs to be independent from industry, and involve a single integrated monitoring agency, the report says. It should include representatives from the provinces and territories in the region, the federal government and native people, and it should also have long-term funding for twenty-five years, the group says.

  7. .

    Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein Call for Civil Disobedience on Tar Sands
    Peter Rothberg
    June 22, 2011

    The Tar Sands, also known as the oil sands, are one of the largest remaining deposits of oil in the world, and efforts to extract the resource from a mix of clay and other materials underneath Canada’s Boreal forest have created the biggest, and by the accounts of numerous scientists and environmental groups, the most environmentally devastating, energy project on earth.

    TransCanada, one of the largest companies involved in tar sands exploration, has proposed a 1,661 mile, 36-inch extension of the newly built Keystone Pipeline from Alberta, Canada to oil refineries of the United States. This would expand the capacity for refining oil produced from Alberta tar sands by approximately one million barrels per day.

    Time for the fight-back.

    A group of leading environmental activists, many associated with the grassroots group 350.org, and many of them Nation writers, have issued a call and invitation for concerned citizens to take part in a campaign of non-violent direct action this summer in Washington, DC, in all likelihood, organizers say, during the last two weeks of August.

    Why DC in the sweltering summer? That’s when the State Department and the White House have to decide whether to grant a certificate of ‘national interest’ to some of the biggest fossil fuel players on earth, some of whom want to build the so-called ‘Keystone XL Pipeline’ from Canada’s tar sands to Texas’s refineries.

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  9. .

    What leaps out from the government’s own reporting is the impact of the oil sands. From 2005 to 2020, oil sands emissions (production and upgrading) will have jumped by 62 million tonnes – almost the same amount, 65 million tonnes, by which all other government measures have reduced emissions.

    As long as the oil sands emissions continue to soar, governments will be running hard just to stand still in reaching their reduction targets, which makes regulations on the oil sands industry absolutely critical.

    Except that the government has backpedalled again on releasing regulations for the oil industry. Draft rules are now set for late 2012. Full implementation will come perhaps in 2016 or 2017, unless the industry lobby succeeds again in pushing back the start of regulations.

  10. .

    Europe took a major step toward essentially banning oil sands crude, dealing a blow to the industry’s global image and sparking warnings of a trade fight from the Canadian government.

    The European Commission proposed that oil sands crude be ranked as a dirtier source of fuel compared with oil from conventional wells. That would discourage imports of oil sands crude since European oil buyers would seek cleaner fuels to help meet the continent’s long-term carbon-emission targets.

  11. .

    Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan tabled a report saying the federal government’s knowledge about greenhouse-gas emissions and oilsands pollution is so spotty that key decisions are made without fully understanding the environmental consequences.

    Reports said the European Commission has decided to treat exports from Alberta’s oilsands as dirtier than conventional oil — despite intense lobbying from the Canadian government.
    If the decision is backed up by member countries of the European Union, it would effectively block oilsands products from that market.

    “All that foot-dragging on regulations to deal with climate change is coming back to bite the industry,” said activist Gillian McEachern, climate and energy manager for Environmental Defence.

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  13. .

    ENERGY Ontario refuses to call Alberta’s oil sands ‘responsible’


    Alberta’s energy minister is calling on the federal government to rush a decision on a controversial crude-oil export pipeline, after hosting an energy ministers conference that fell short of achieving a national energy strategy.

    The conference failed to achieve complete consensus after Ontario disagreed with language in a conference communique that calls the oil sands a “responsible and major supplier of energy to the world.” “We just weren’t comfortable with the wording that the oil sands are sustainable and responsible,” Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid said in an interview Tuesday, noting that his province is trying to replace coal with wind and solar energy. Alberta’s oil sands are often targeted as an environmental threat and a major source of carbon emissions.

    Ontario did support the remainder of a broad-strokes energy collaboration agreement hammered out in Kananaskis, but the disagreement about the communique wording demonstrates the thorny issues Canada must confront as it attempts to develop a broad energy plan.

    It also shows how Alberta has been unable to win over its provincial and territorial counterparts as it works to develop and export the thick oily bitumen from its massive oil sands reserves. On Tuesday, Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert called on his federal and provincial counterparts to push for a speedy approval of Enbridge Inc.’s $5.5-billion Northern Gateway project, which would carry Alberta crude to the B.C. coast but has been fiercely opposed by many first nations groups.

  14. .

    Redford wants united front on energy strategy
    The Canadian Press

    TORONTO — Alberta’s premier is calling on the provinces and Ottawa to form a united front on oil, gas and other forms of Canadian-produced energy as the country looks to expand the market for its oil and gas beyond the United States.

    Alison Redford said in a speech Wednesday in Toronto that the troubles surrounding development of the Keystone pipeline in the U.S. are an example of why Canada needs to look to energy-hungry markets in Asia and elsewhere.

    “I think the indecision around the Keystone XL pipeline demonstrates the necessity of looking to new markets,” she said of the U.S. government delay of a decision on whether TransCanada Corp. can build a massive pipeline south of the border.

    However, she told reporters after the speech to the Economic Club of Canada that she is not seeking a policy shift away from the U.S., the country’s primary trading partner — rather, she wants to open up to new markets such as China and India as well.

    Her remarks came during a flood of activity in the oil pipeline industry as companies look for ways to move growing supplies from the oilsands to market.

  15. .

    U.K. secretly supporting oilsands campaign: report

    OTTAWA — A British media report says the U.K. government has been giving secret support at the very highest levels to Ottawa’s campaign against European penalties on its oilsands fuel, prompting environmentalists to call Britain Canada’s “partner in crime.”

    The Guardian newspaper says energy giants Shell and BP, which both have major oilsands projects in Alberta, have been lobbying the government of Prime Minister David Cameron to back Canada’s fight against the European proposal.

    According to documents released under freedom of information laws, at least 15 high-level meetings and frequent communications have taken place since September between Ottawa and London.

    The European proposal is to designate transport fuel from tar sands as resulting in 22 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than that from conventional fuels, officially labelling Alberta’s oilsands fuel as dirtier.

  16. .

    Ezra Levant attempts to persuade people that Canada’s oilsands are “ethical” with the philosophical argument that Canada has a good human rights record.

    That’s a bit like saying, “I’m an ethical guy because I don’t cheat on my wife, even though I’ve killed a person by drunk driving.”

    There are more ways than one to be ethical, and human rights is hardly the main point here.

    The point is that Canada’s fast and furious exploitation of oil for overconsumption and profit is wrecking the planet and jeopardizing the chance of humans and myriads of non-humans for a sustainable future.

    How can that be ethical? If the Durban talks on climate change fail to produce significant action to control CO2 emissions, it will show that humanity is not ethical, not even intelligent, just selfish and avaricious.

    P.J. Cotterill, Edmonton

  17. .

    After up to two centuries of our producing climate-altering greenhouses gases, is it right to ask developing countries to forego automobile and airline transport, television, air conditioning and other energy consuming things we take for granted in Canada?

    That is the main excuse Canadians, Americans and their politicians are using to do little or nothing about our high-carbon world.

    Indeed, Canadians are now regarded as obstructionists at climate-change negotiations such as Copenhagen.

    Scientists are telling us the time is critical, with the door closing to limiting the global temperature increase to an already dangerous two degrees Celsius. Canada’s CO2 emissions are even worse than those of the U.S., with a 17-per-cent increase since 1990 (those in the U.S. have increased seven per cent).

    It is unfortunate conservatives such as Ezra Levant, in coining the phrase “ethical oil,” are giving people a false sense about our way of living.

    How can it be ethical to live unsustainably, with increasingly deleterious impacts on our only planet?

    We can change this; only the will is lacking.

    Our children, grandchildren and drought-or flood-stricken people in the Third World do not and will not care whether our atmosphere is warmed by carbon from Alberta coal or oilsands, Saudi crude or Russian natural gas, nor will they care about what side of the political spectrum governments that failed to act were on.

    It is unfortunate most Canadian and U.S. conservatives have politicized an ethical issue.

    Victor Dorian, Edmonton

  18. .

    I worked for Syncrude for five years so I’ve had some direct experience in the bitumen extraction/processing industry.

    The crux of Ezra Levant’s arguments in justifying his application of the glowing catchphrase “ethical oil” to the output generated by these various operations in the Athabasca bitumen deposit region are simply an effort at misdirection.

    He and Environment Minister Peter Kent are being apologists for the industry, whistling past the graveyard of the enormous environmental toll the oilsands are generating to reach for the brass ring of greater public/ international approval of its expansion.

    Levant and others are pointedly asserting that because one nation, ours, doesn’t do immediately condemnable things in the course of operations of its energy extraction/refinement industry, and that this region is less geo-politically in conflict with its own citizenry or foreigners, our industry is consequently ethical.

    This is a ludicrous conclusion, founded on shrugging at the inherent and site-specific harms of our own Alberta industry.

    It is dishonest because it attempts to create a gangway for renewed and intensified investment in the goliath juggernaut that is the northern Alberta bitumen industry.

    This slipshod rationale doesn’t pass either the smell or the shame test.

    Alberta does not get off the hook this easy.

    John McGuire, Edmonton

  19. .

    This is akin to the pernicious folly of the “ethical oil” argument now embraced by the Harper government (and the oil industry, of course) to justify doing little to reduce emissions from the oil in the tar sands.

    In secular philosophy and organized religion, ethics has been about defining and pursuing the notion of the “good.” This “good” is usually set as an optimum, never attained but always kept as a goal. Ethics is not about claiming virtue because behaviour is better than the worst possible behaviour, but rather it’s measured against the nominal sense of the “good.”

  20. .

    ‘Secret’ Environment Canada study warns of oil sands’ impact on habitat

    By Mike De Souza

    OTTAWA — Contamination of a major western Canadian river basin from oil sands operations is a “high-profile concern” for downstream communities and wildlife, says a newly-released “secret” presentation prepared last spring by Environment Canada that highlighted numerous warnings about the industry’s growing footprint on land, air, water and the climate.

    The warnings from the department contrast with recent claims made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Peter Kent that the industry is being unfairly targeted by environmentalists who exaggerate its impacts on nature and people.

    The presentation noted figures from the Canadian Energy Research Institute, a collaboration among industry, government and academics, that estimate the oil sands sector is responsible for more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs in Canada, and will contribute more than $1.7-trillion to the country’s economy over the next 25 years.

  21. .

    Oil sands should be left in the ground: NASA scientist

    Bob Weber and Sylvia Strojek

    One of NASA’s top scientists has told a panel reviewing a proposed oil sands mine in northern Alberta that the resource should simply be left in the ground.

    James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies says allowing new developments such as Total E&P Canada’s $9-billion plan to build the Joslyn North mine would make it too hard to manage the impact of climate change.

    “The simple message is the oil sands may appear to be gold. We do need energy and there’s a lot of potential energy in the oil sands,” Mr. Hansen said Tuesday during a break from public hearings in Sherwood Park, Alta.

    “But it is fool’s gold because it’s going to be clear and understood within a reasonably brief period of time that we cannot exploit unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands and tar shale. If we do, we’re going to have to suck the CO2 back out of the atmosphere and the estimated cost of doing that is $200 to $500 a tonne of carbon.”

  22. .

    Saudi Arabia. Nigeria. Venezuela. Canada?
    Is our neighbor to the north becoming a jingoistic petro-state?

    By Will Oremus|Posted Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, at 6:46 PM ET

    It’s well known that America’s dependence on foreign oil forces us to partner with some pretty unsavory regimes. Take, for instance, the country that provides by far the largest share of our petroleum imports. Its regime, in thrall to big oil interests, has grown increasingly bellicose, labeling environmental activists “radicals” and “terrorists” and is considering a crackdown on nonprofits that oppose its policies. It blames political dissent on the influence of “foreigners,” while steamrolling domestic opposition to oil projects bankrolled entirely by overseas investors. Meanwhile, its skyrocketing oil exports have sent the value of its currency soaring, enriching energy industry barons but crippling other sectors of its economy.

    Yes, Canada is becoming a jingoistic petro-state.

    OK, so our friendly northern neighbor isn’t exactly Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. But neither is it the verdant progressive utopia once viewed as a haven by American liberals fed up with George W. Bush. These days Canada has a Dubya of its own. And judging by a flurry of negative press from around the world—the latest: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other African leaders are taking out newspaper ads accusing Canada of contributing to famine and drought on the continent—it seems anti-Canadianism could be the new anti-Americanism.

    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.” In 2009, he quelled a Bush-esque Afghan-detainee abuse scandal by sending the parliament home to forestall further investigation. The Canadian economy weathered the financial crisis unusually well, thanks to strong banking regulations and booming oil sales to China, and in May 2011 Harper’s party won a majority for the first time. It has celebrated by veering rightward and doubling down on its oil bets.

  23. .

    The project’s active mining footprint now disturbs 715 sq. km. More than 1,300 sq. km have been approved for open pit mines but that could grow to 4,800 km, an area nearly half the size of Toronto GTA (7,000 km) or equal in size to the state of Rhode Island.

    The project’s massive lakes of toxic mining waste, which occupy a 170 sq. km area, may also moderate surface energy temperatures by trapping heat at night and cooling things during the day.

    In addition, steam plants or in situ projects, which use more energy than the mines by steaming deep bitumen deposits, are expected to directly disturb another 6,800 sq. km of forest or an area larger than open pit mines.

  24. .

    Oilsands critics in Europe to counter fuel directive lobby

    Council of Canadians, Climate Action Network and Assembly of First Nations lobby European politicians

    The Canadian government isn’t alone in lobbying European governments about the European Commission’s proposed new fuel quality directive (FQD).

    A trio of stakeholder groups concerned about oilsands development were in London, England, Thursday, looking to counter the Harper government’s attempt at blocking the directive.

  25. .


    Thomas Mulcair

    Thomas Mulcair proposes a new approach — a sustainable approach — for Canada’s economic development. He writes that our government is failing to address what may be the most important challenge facing our country today: managing the economic, social and environmental impact of developing the wealth of Canada’s oil sands. Under Stephen Harper, he writes, Canada has moved to block international agreements to fight climate change, failed to meet our own commitments to end subsidies to the oil and gas industry and is now seeking to export even more raw, unprocessed bitumen to the United States and China.

    Thomas Mulcair estime que notre gouvernement est incapable de répondre à l’un des plus importants défis auquel notre pays est confronté actuellement : la gestion des conséquences économiques, sociales et environnementales qui résultent de l’exploitation croissante des sables bitumineux au Canada. Selon lui, le Canada de Stephen Harper a tout fait pour bloquer des traités internationaux de lutte contre les changements climatiques ; il a renié ses propres engagements de mettre fin aux subventions accordées aux industries pétrolière et gazière, et il cherche maintenant à exporter encore plus de bitume non transformé vers les États-Unis et la Chine. L’auteur propose une nouvelle approche, une approche durable, pour le développement économique du Canada.

  26. .

    Are new guidelines for charities just upholding current law or a way to silence oil-sands critics?

    Kathryn Blaze Carlson Mar 30, 2012 – 6:52 PM ET

    The Conservative government will keep a closer eye on environment-focused charities accused of breaking rules that cap their political activity, cracking down on groups that allegedly engage in politically charged work beyond the legal limit.

    Thursday’s budget arms the Canada Revenue Agency with $8-million over two years to ensure charities devote their resources to charitable work and to improve transparency by asking them to disclose the extent to which their political activities are funded by foreign sources.

    “[Some charities] are not acting like they’re a charitable institution; they’re acting like they’re an environmental lobbyist — that’s the big objection,” said Frank Atkins, a University of Calgary economist. “They’re hiding behind their charitable status.”

    The revenue agency says a charity is allowed to devote up to 10% of its total annual resources to political activities, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said this week the government has received “a lot” of complaints from Canadians who worry their donations are going toward political action rather than charity work.

    “There is clearly a need, in our view, for more vigilance,” Mr. Flaherty said.

    Opponents of the move say this is part of a government ploy to silence oil-sands critics and those who oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline project, claiming the crackdown fits into a pro-business, anti-environment budget.

    “I think this is also about diverting charities away from the work that they’re doing into providing all of the dotted ‘Is’ and crossed ‘Ts’ for Revenue Canada,” said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie, adding the rules will likely lead to random or complaints-based audits.

  27. .

    People outside Alberta do not fundamentally care what the province does about purely provincial matters. Alberta can essentially do what it likes in health care, education, skills training, even tax policy. But development of the bitumen deposits is another matter, because the national economic impact is so great, the emissions (current and projected) are so significant and the reputational impact on Alberta and Canada so evident.
    It is one thing for Alberta governments to defend the province’s climate change actions – to claim that critics do not appreciate what the province has been doing – while still accepting, as all Alberta governments have, that climate change is a reality. It would be quite another for an Alberta government to tell all other governments in Canada and national governments around the world that they are wrong and only it is right about the science of the matter.


  28. .

    GLOBAL warming isn’t a prediction. It is happening. That is why I was so troubled to read a recent interview with President Obama in Rolling Stone in which he said that Canada would exploit the oil in its vast tar sands reserves “regardless of what we do.”

    If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

    Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.


  29. .

    Hidden oil sands growth bodes ill for crude
    Globe and Mail Update

    Those expectations of meteoric growth in the oil sands? Too modest, according to a new analysis by CIBC World Markets Inc., which says the official industry projections may be conservative by 500,000 to a million barrels a day.

    In other words, where the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers suggests oil sands output could surge by 1.4-million a day between 2011 and 2020, CIBC’s read of the numbers suggests it could be more like two-million to 2.5-million – an analysis that portends financial difficulties for an oil patch that sees prices nosedive when there’s too much oil and not enough pipe.

    It’s a bold call because history has shown that industry forecasts are routinely too optimistic – by a lot. An analysis by Raymond James pointed out that in recent years CAPP’s numbers have proven too high by roughly a third. Numerous problems, from engineering and planning errors to price overruns, have conspired to deflate some corporate growth ambitions.

  30. .

    In the longer term, Canada faces a more fundamental question about how we see the global energy economy evolving. The United States is experiencing a similar boom in oil and gas development, yet its longer-term strategic focus is not on energy commodities, but the energy technologies that will deliver clean energy to markets around the world. This seems a wise bet, given that global investment in renewable power trumped fossil fuel investment for the first time in 2011 ($187-billion versus $157-billion, respectively), and the overall clean energy economy is projected to grow from $1-trillion a year now to upwards of $2-trillion by 2020.

    In contrast, the Canadian government seems set on taking a high-carbon gamble by focusing on oil sands while virtually ignoring opportunities to carve out a competitive niche for Canada in clean energy. Given current trends, this bet seems unlikely to pay off.

    As controversial as it may be, Canadians deserve a rational, mature conversation about how the current pace and scale of oil sands development is affecting Canada’s economy, for better and for worse. We need less heat and more light from our leaders – across the country and the political spectrum.


  31. .

    Canada, for instance, is a liberal democracy renowned for its internationalism – no wonder, then, that it signed on to the Kyoto treaty, promising to cut its carbon emissions substantially by 2012. But the rising price of oil suddenly made the tar sands of Alberta economically attractive – and since, as NASA climatologist James Hansen pointed out in May, they contain as much as 240 gigatons of carbon (or almost half of the available space if we take the 565 limit seriously), that meant Canada’s commitment to Kyoto was nonsense. In December, the Canadian government withdrew from the treaty before it faced fines for failing to meet its commitments.


  32. .

    “The oil is getting dirtier due to an increasing focus on deep oil sands development using steam, which causes more greenhouse-gas emissions. What Mr. Oliver also failed to note is that even his government’s own reports from Environment Canada have said that Canada will not meet its climate-pollution targets because of oil sands expansion. In fact, climate pollution from the oil sands has doubled in the last decade and is predicted to double again in the next decade if all the new development is allowed to go ahead.

  33. .

    “Mr. Oliver argues that the oil sands are a small part of global emissions. Climate pollution from oil sands expansion is projected to hit 104 megatonne equivalents of C02 by 2020. That’s like putting an additional 20 million cars on the road in North America. That exceeds the combined emissions from 85 nations.”

  34. .

    Models show that in order to curb tar sands pollution and meet Canada’s shared 2020 climate goal with the United States, regulations on the tar sands would have to establish a price on carbon of at least $100 per tonne. But any meaningful regulation is highly unlikely, said Canadian experts.

    “It will be very difficult for the Canadian government to achieve its own emissions reduction target for 2020 even without tar sands expansion, and more so if it continues to pursue tar sands expansion,” Dr. Danny Harvey, a climate scientist at University of Toronto, told reporters.

    “In any case, deep reductions in overall emissions, beyond the 2020 target, will be required in the following decades that will be impossible to achieve if we lock in 40 years of increased tar sands emissions by building more pipelines,” said Harvey.


  35. .

    Born as an offshoot of Europe that, like other New World colonies, could not survive without a staple to export to the metropolis, Canada has actually managed (that is, been mismanaged) to regress to its origins. Sadly, bitumen is the worst of staples, matched only by asbestos; while it had little overall significance for Canadian economic growth, the governments of Canada and Quebec, while ultimately banning its use at home, wouldn’t ban its export – to poor countries, with weak worker protection – even until the last mine in Quebec closed. There is evidently a serious problem of addiction to resource exports with slight regard of the consequences for the world.

    Bitumen is what economic historians have come to call a superstaple, with an impact bordering on the monocultural. For the New World, the dark side of cotton and sugar was slavery, with horrifying global consequences. For bitumen it is extreme climate change and its catastrophic consequences for the wellness of the world and of all of its species. Slavery was abolished in the face of protest (only in the US was war required). The same must be done to the mining of bitumen. (The ingenious comparison of human slavery and present servitude to oil is developed in Andrew Nikiforuk’s excellent book, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.)

  36. .

    My 1963 article has perhaps encouraged some readers to think too much about linkages and how to enhance them, to focus on incremental change when it is transformative change that is necessary. (The economic historian Tom Easterbrook, one of my teachers and, later, one of my colleagues, liked to distinguish between “growth” and “development,” between a “pattern of persistence” (aka staple trap) and a “pattern of transformation.”) Fifty years on I have grandchildren, and know that the world must move ASAP from dependence on fossil fuels to reliance on green technologies. This will involve a wrenching change for Canada because bitumen is now the superstaple driving our economy and our polity. With our location and our abundance of resources – both being matters simply of luck – it is possible that we will, relative to most of the world, not do as badly from global warming, and be tempted to pretend all is well. To do so would be, morally, ethically, a crime against humanity. In the nature of things, it is those with the greatest capacity to do terrible damage who have the greatest obligation to cease and desist.

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