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Scouring Scum and Tar from the Bottom of the Pit

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Faced with the undeniable reality of “Hubbard’s Peak” in global conventional oil supplies, the world’s largest multinational energy corporations are now hell-bent on squeezing oil out of tar in northern Alberta, like junkies desperately conniving for one last giant fix in a futile attempt to quench America’s insatiable “addiction to oil” (described so eloquently by President George Bush II). Along the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, a sub-arctic town almost 1,000 kilometres north of the U.S. border, tar literally seeps out of the riverbanks where Aboriginal peoples once used it to patch their birch-bark canoes. But most of the tar sands lie hidden below northern Alberta’s boreal forest, in an area larger than the state of Florida.

The first serious effort to dig huge tar pits along the Athabasca River to steam out the oil began in 1963 with the Great Canadian Oil Sands Company developed by Sun Oil Ltd., later to become Sunoco, and eventually Suncor. By 1967, the company’s scion, J. Howard Pew, self-proclaimed “champion of free enterprise and enemy of godless communism,” had sunk $240 million (over $1 billion in today’s currency) into this project in an effort to wean Americans from dependence on foreign oil – Canada being considered an American territory. However, this Pew family project was less than successful, since separating the tar from the sand and then turning it into crude oil requires huge amounts of energy, steam and water. Even after the tar is melted down into bitumen, it still has to be “upgraded” into synthetic crude oil by adding hydrogen, usually made from natural gas.


In 1996, WWF threatened to sue the federal government for approving Canada’s first diamond mine due to the absence of any protected areas in the central arctic region. WWF then withdrew its lawsuit in exchange for the government’s commitment to develop a Northwest Territories Protected Areas Strategy. Since this strategy was approved in 1999, WWF has not formally identified, much less established, any protected areas in the central arctic, while only two areas have received temporary protection elsewhere in the Northwest Territories under this strategy.

In Alberta, the once-feisty Edmonton branch of CPAWS is pursuing a similar approach around the tar sands, where it is promoting four protected areas, all of which have low oil potential and no leases. This pattern of environmental organizations adopting a docile “low-hanging fruit” strategy soon after being bankrolled by the Pew has been thoroughly documented by American activists and investigative reporters, including Jeffrey St. Clair, Alexander Cockburn, Mark Dowie and Felice Pace.

Setting Up Fronts

Until the early 1980s, the Pew religiously followed J. Howard Pew’s founding mission “to acquaint Americans with the evils of bureaucracy, the paralyzing effects of government controls on the lives and activities of people, and the values of the free market” by funding right-wing extremists like the John Birch Society and the Heritage Foundation. Since then, the Pew has adopted a much more sophisticated strategy of setting up dozens of socially progressive “front groups” across North America like the CBI, an innovative right-wing twist on classic Marxist-Leninist organizing tactics.

In 2003, the CBI established the “Boreal Leadership Council,” composed of WWF, CPA WS, Ducks Unlimited, Suncor, Tembec, Alpac, Domtar and several First Nations. Its goal is to implement the “Boreal Conservation Framework” by protecting at least half of Cana- da’s boreal forest, with the remainder available for “leading-edge sustainable practices.” Concerned that this arbitrary benchmark of protecting half the boreal forest has never been scientifically justified, the David Suzuki Foundation did not endorse the framework. As pointed out by the free-market environmentalist Larry Solomon of Energy Probe, the “Boreal Conservation Framework” actually amounts to a massive resource giveaway requiring government subsidies, as industrial development in the far northern boreal forest is currently uneconomic under market conditions.

Lacking any accountable governance structures and directed by carefully chosen Pew operatives, front groups like the CBI not only fund but also insist on entering into partnerships with established advocacy organizations. Thus, the front group can serve as a “drag anchor” on any activities that are excessively disruptive to the status quo. According to an employee of CPAWS, the CBI is now reviewing and vetting their draft press releases. A project officer of a major Canadian foundation recounts tales of environmental organizations pleading with him for grants, desperate to break their dependence on the Pew/CBI as their sole funding source.

The Sierra Club of Canada originally took a hard-line position against the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and the tar sands. In a wacky turn of events, shortly after receiving funding from the CBI/Pew, Sierra Club endorsed the Pembina-orchestrated “oil sands declaration” and threw its support behind the Alaska Pipeline as the “lesser of two evils” on the entirely false assumption that none of the Alaska gas would go to the tar sands. Sierra’s flip-flopping continues with its most recent announcement that it now wants a moratorium on further oil-sands development.

The only bright light in this deep, dark pit of depravity is a report entitled Fuelling Fortress America, released in March, 2006, by the Parkland Institute, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Polaris Institute. This report clearly advocates a moratorium on further tar-sands development, a national energy policy and exemption like Mexico from the “proportional sharing” clause of the NAFTA free-trade agreement, which only allows Canada to reduce energy exports to the United States in proportion to reductions of our own consumption.

“Canadian Oil Is Ours”

While allegedly supporting boreal conservation in Canada, the Pew is also busy addressing American foreign policy regarding the tar sands. With its partner, the $6-billion Hewlett Foundation, which also funneled $1.85 million through the Pew to the CBI in 2004, the Pew established the “National Energy Commission,” a bipartisan group of twenty energy experts. This group includes James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA and a member of the “Project for a New American Century,” which advocated pre-emptive war and the invasion of Iraq as early as 1998. In its 2004 report, “Ending the Energy Stalemate,” the Commission advocated, “a $300 million increase in federal funding over ten years to improve the environmental performance of technologies and practices used to produce unconventional oil resources” in Alberta’s tar sands and Venezuela’s Corinoco heavy oil belt. Overall, the Commission advocates $36 billion in government subsidies to the energy sector to be financed though the sale of carbon credits.

Canada’s tar sands and arctic natural gas have been on America’s foreign-policy radar screen at least since 2001, when Dick Cheney’s “National Energy Policy” report stated that the continued development of the tar sands “can be a pillar of sustained North American energy and economic security.” Last year, American politicians were outraged by a relatively small Chinese investment of $225 million in the tar sands, which prompted energy analyst Irving Mintzer to blurt out the widely held but publicly unspeakable opinion of Beltway insiders: “The problem with the Chinese is that they don’t know that the Canadian oil is ours. And neither do the Canadians.” Mintzer is also a co-author of the report, U.S. Energy Scenarios for the 21st Century, commissioned by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

In 2005, Dick Cheney’s “National Energy Policy” was transmuted into legislation called the “National Energy Policy Act,” with the support of the “Set America Free Coalition,” a front group of the “Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.” A member and advisor to both organizations, James Woolsey proudly proclaims that, “We’ve got a coalition of tree-huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, hawks and evangelicals,” including the Natural Resources Defense Council, a regular recipient of millions in Pew and Hewlett funding, which has also become involved in a boreal-forest campaign in northern Manitoba.

In addition to providing $13.6 billion in subsidies to the energy sector, the National Energy Policy Act has a “Set America Free” sub-section, which establishes “a United States commission to make recommendations for a coordinated and comprehensive North American energy policy that will achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2025 within the three contiguous North American nation area of Canada, Mexico, and the United States.” Since the United States currently imports 60 per cent of its oil supply, this continental self-sufficiency will require much additional Canadian and Mexican oil. Furthermore, the Act establishes a Task Force to initiate “a partnership with the Province of Alberta, Canada, for purposes of sharing information relating to the development and production of oil from tar sands.” Finally, the Act requires the Secretary of Energy to update his/her assessment of domestic heavy-oil resources to include “all of North America and cover all unconventional oil, including heavy oil, tar sands (oil sands), and oil shale.” However, this legislation merely formalizes the continent-wide “deep integration” that has been well underway with the establishment of the “Security and Prosperity Partnership,” which released its “Oil Sands Experts Working Group” workshop report in March, 2006.

Beware of Foundation Grants

Canadian environmental organizations should think long and hard about accepting money from and becoming financially hooked on the largesse of gigantic American foundations. Although there is no recent evidence of such activities, the CIA has a long history of funneling money through philanthropic foundations to achieve American foreign-policy objectives by co-opting the soft, non-radical Left, as carefully documented in Francis Stonor Saunders’ book, The Cultural Cold War. In 1976, a select committee of Congress found that CIA funding was involved in nearly half the grants made by 163 foundations in the field of international activities.

While countries like Sweden and Iceland are seriously planning to break free from oil by 2020, multinational corporations are busy digging Canada deeper into a tar pit, determined to become history’s last kingpin pushers to oil junkies across America and around the world, no matter the consequences to the planet’s climate. The double tragedy is that so much potential opposition to this self-destructive lunacy has been readily defused through a wad of cash, an addiction just as cunning, baffling and powerful as oil itself. Members and individual donors to environmental organizations need to hold their leaders and staff to a much higher standard, making sure that they match their rhetoric with results instead of just bouncing from one mega-project cash cow to the next in an endless hustle to line their pockets with lucre.

This article appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Oil Sucks!).


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