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Taking on the Tar Sands


In his first speech to a business audience after his election in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s announcement that Canada was an “emerging energy superpower” signaled his government’s commitment to unflinching support for the relentless expansion of Alberta’s tar sands, primarily to supply synthetic crude oil to the United States. Since then, the tar sands have been the subject of extensive national and international media reporting, even receiving attention in Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, where his staff disparaged the tar sands as “dirty oil.”

Andrew Nikiforuk’s and Tony Clarke’s books are the first efforts to synthesize all the recent interest in and controversy about the tar sands for a popular audience. The two books provide complementary perspectives on the world’s largest and most environmentally destructive energy mega-project, which is currently producing about 1.3 million barrels of oil per day and is intended to expand to five million barrels per day by 2030, primarily for export to the U.S.

Based in Calgary, with a long history of reporting on energy and environment issues, Nikiforuk provides an investigative journalist’s grassroots perspective, drawing from many interviews and personal contacts throughout Alberta. Based in Ottawa, with an extensive background in freshwater and international trade policy, Clarke examines the tar sands from Canadian and American energy-policy perspectives, drawing primarily from secondary sources.

Canada: “Energy Supermarket”

Both authors repeatedly mock Prime Minister Harper’s pronouncement of Canada as an “emerging energy superpower” with epithets like “energy supermarket,” “energy satellite” and “energy colony.” Nikiforuk provides an insider’s deep insight into the corruption and collusion within the Alberta government based on the First Law of Petro-Politics, where political freedom invariably declines as the price and production of oil increases. Clarke focuses more at the federal level, where he describes the efforts of the Harper team, centred around the ultra-conservative “Calgary School” at University of Calgary’s political science department, to build a “firewall” around the tar sands, thereby ensuring that no environmental factors – like the Kyoto Protocol – could limit their relentless expansion.

Inspired by the leftist Latin American energy sovereignty initiatives in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil, Clarke proposes a “Canada first” program of economic planning and energy nationalism, which would involve phasing out the tar sands and providing a “just transition” for energy workers. In contrast, Nikiforuk throws numerous barbs at Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez for nationalizing its oil industry.

Despite outlining an Alcoholics Anonymous-style “twelve-step program for energy sanity,” Nikiforuk proposes that tar sands production be capped at two million barrels per day. Not only would this almost double the current production from the tar sands, Nikiforuk does not seem to realize that twelve-step programs require complete abstinence from the addictive substance to be effective.

Taking Oil for Making Oil

Neither author confronts the fundamental insanity and immorality of burning so much natural gas to steam out and upgrade the tar-like bitumen into synthetic crude oil, where further expansion of the tar sands would require all the Arctic natural gas from the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline in the Northwest Territories and eventually all the Arctic natural gas from the Alaska gas pipeline. Regardless of any critic’s policy prescriptions, the very recent global financial crisis and the collapse in the price of oil is already shutting down the tar sands, much to everyone’s surprise.

Both Nikiforuk and Clarke naively report the assertions from the Canadian Boreal Initiative (CBI) that the boreal forest is a carbon “sink,” presumably to be marketed by industry as carbon “offsets.” Scientific evidence has shown that the boreal forest has now become a net carbon emitter due increased forest fires and insect infestations, both caused by climate change. The CBI is a front group of the Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia, whose $4.2-billion fortune is derived from Sun Oil and Sunoco, which first brought the tar sands into commercial production in 1967 at the Great Canadian Oil Sands Project, later to become Suncor. Although Sunoco later sold their stake in Suncor (worth $5.9 billion in 1995), Sunoco continues to refine tar-sands oil in Ohio, and has very recently announced its interest in establishing partnerships with tar-sands producers to convert the Sunoco refineries in Philadelphia in order to allow the processing and upgrading of tar-like bitumen.

Canadian Energy and the Pew Family

Although Clarke mentions that most mainstream environmental organizations dealing with tar-sands issues are funded by the CBI/Pew, and therefore advocate only for moderate reforms, he proposes a strategy of “dialectical interplay” and coalition-building with these groups. Given Clarke’s concerns about the energy “proportionality clause” in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), he should be especially leery of entering into alliances with the Pew-funded Natural Resources Defense Council in the U.S., whose executive director once bragged about “breaking the back of the environmental movement on NAFTA” to ensure its passage. Clarke also mentions the pivotal role of J. Howard Pew’s Sun Oil in eviscerating Trudeau’s National Energy Program in the 1970s, but does not make the connection with the more recent involvement of the very same American family in shaping Canadian natural-resource affairs.

Describing the technical complexity of the tar sands and their environmental impacts requires a dizzying array of statistics. Nikiforuk repeatedly uses the device of comparing the size and scale of the tar sands to well-known geographic features in great detail, but this ultimately makes for some tedious reading. Clarke makes more extensive and effective use of tables, charts, maps and photographs, but only describes the environmental impact of the tar sands in a more superficial way in the fifth chapter, instead devoting the first half of the book to history, policy development and a more thorough discussion of peak oil.

Nikiforuk’s book, written in his caustic style of investigative journalism, makes the more entertaining read, sometimes resembling a political thriller. The absence of traceable references, however, is frustrating. He also plays fast and loose with some numbers, stating, for example, that Alberta has approved “nearly 100 tar sands projects” when the actual figure from the Alberta Department of Energy is 82. Clarke’s book, complete with 384 endnotes and a study guide, is more suited to an academic audience, especially in an undergraduate course. It contains several errors, however, concerning Aboriginal case law, northern development issues, the energy subsidy from natural gas required to produce synthetic oil (it is one to three, not two to three) and the volume of tar-sands oil exported to the United States: 527,000 barrels per day in 2005, according to the National Energy Board’s most recent figures – not 1.2 million barrels per day, as stated by Clarke, which would amount to virtually the entire production.

This article appeared in the March/April 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (The Great Recession).


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