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From the Editor

Don’t Blame Canada

I’ve always been surprised that so many environmentalists, typically found on the political left, are such stalwart believers in the conservative doctrine of supply-side economics.

For proof, just look at the various enviro-campaigns against the fossil fuel industry. Hoping to choke the coal industry, greens go after strip mines in Appalachia. Determined to address the risks from natural gas “fracking,” campaigners demand state-level moratoriums on the practice. The same thinking is at work in the fight against the Canadian tar sands. Convinced that they can slow the razing of the boreal forest if they can only plug the oil outflow, environmental groups in the US and Canada have set their sites on stopping the expansion of cross border pipelines, halting the retrofitting of American refineries, and preventing the shipment of mining technologies. The basic idea seems to be that by squeezing supply we can increase the price of fossil fuels – and discourage their use.

But trying to reduce US oil consumption by targeting the petroleum industry in northern Alberta makes about as much sense as trying to stop cocaine use in Los Angeles by eradicating coca plantations in Bolivia. Which is to say: It doesn’t. That’s because, in economist speak, oil demand is fairly “inelastic.” It doesn’t respond very easily to price increases. Why not? For the simple reason that we’re hooked.

Attempting to halt gas guzzling by plugging oil wells is intellectually dishonest and strategically lazy. From the tactical standpoint of a campaigner (even one who passed Keynes 101), I suppose it makes some sense. There is, after all, the fine tradition of monkeywrenching. Today’s green groups are more likely to rely on lawsuits and scathing op-eds than spend time pouring sand in the gas tanks of bulldozers, but the central goal is the same: to slow down destruction by making it hard to get the oil to market. And if you want to stretch the addiction metaphor, it is valuable from a harm-reduction standpoint. The caribou, moose, and fish living in Alberta’s Athabasca watershed benefit from any delay in tar sands mining. So do many of the First Nations peoples who are slowly being poisoned by the oil extraction and processing there.

There’s a big difference, though, between delaying destruction and stopping it altogether. To do that, going after the supply side of the equation is insufficient. As long as demand for oil continues, someone will take the liability risks, suffer the public embarrassment, and endure the legal assaults to do the dirty, and very lucrative, work. Oil – just like money, water, and illegal drugs – always finds a crack to flow through.

Environmental campaigners can do all the blaming and shaming of Canadian oil tycoons and financiers that they like. The fact is, there’s no way to halt the tar sands at the source. The only way to shut down the mines is to make them obsolete. And that will require finally getting over our addiction to oil. Given that more than half of the tar sands petroleum is consumed in the United States, the responsibility for the destruction up north lies with those of us who live south of the 49th parallel.

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Wow, Jason, your piece is off-base.

Truth is that absolutely no one who has raised the spectre of Canadian tar sands oil is advocating that it’d be better if we just relied on some Fantasyland friendly democracy awash in sweet crude.

No, indeed, “time to get off oil” is a core message and purpose of tar sands campaigners. Highlighting the excesses of oil sands sludge and deep sea drilling is a great way to make the point.

Almost no one knows about oil sands, and the reality of its extraction. If a person really sees the images and understands that the largest untapped source of oil is THIS, they quickly draw the inevitable conclusion. If this is really the last best oil on Earth, just maybe it’s time to get off oil.

Here’s my recent presentation at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment where I make exactly that point.

By Michael Noble on Fri, March 18, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Dear Editor,
So much goes into our overall energy discussion that looking at one or another source of energy creates more confusion than clarity. If we look at the energy appetite of the current developed countries and the anticipated appetite of the undeveloped countries its easy to see how we are already way behind the curve. We look at tar sands and say its bad, yet we are doing worse here by spending billions on “fad” alternatives (wind, solar, ethanol…) that lack the ability to scale and cost way too much given their power density. Our coal industry generates about 220 million tons of coal combustion waste (CCW) more toxic than anything generated by tar sands and fracturing gas wells. No discussion on this, in fact the EPA has approved the use of CCW in agriculture and consumer products. The dry wall in your office may contain it, it may contain toxic materials. This is such a big problem, too few scientists involved, too many politicians and bloggers creating mis-informing sound bites. There are over 2200 sites listed on the EPA Superfund list that cover all of the areas being developed by energy companies. Are they getting a bad rap for water issues caused by so many superfund sites never cleaned or just can’t be cleaned.

By David on Tue, March 08, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Dear Editor,

How can it be that the opponents of reckless expansion of the Alberta tar sands are “intellectually dishonest and strategically lazy” when they are the very same groups and people that agree with you entirely that the responsibility lies with the consumption side, and who are fighting for exactly what you advocate, which is reducing demand?

Sierra Club, NRDC, NWF, RAN - you name it - the US groups most active on tar sands are also active fighting oil consumption. Maybe you should look more closely at their approach and their message before you call them names.

By Kenny Bruno on Fri, March 04, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Well my good sir, here is an site that will perk up your mood, maybe.
And may I add that, while we may be hooked, the reality is we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel, without… asking around for a new dealer. Sure we could scale back our usage, but our stash is getting so low, we’re willing despoil massive watershed areas to get the last little bit? We’re willing to do that? What if there alternatives? Well, it looks like there are. And it looks like large oil and natural gas firms are so reactive, and so unwilling and fearful to take the kind of “huge risk” that it would take -the type of risk that they boast their companies were built on -to develop viable fossil fuel alternatives. And they have almost more money than anyone to throw at this.
So, and so new pioneers have finally stepped up to the plate, and now it looks like traditional energy companies will find themselves on the wrong side of time and technology, or at leas not in on the ground floor with what my gut tells me is a good thing.

So yeah, they can use all the energy they want extracting what oil they can from the miserly Canadian tar sands, or they can potentially taint the whole of the eastern US with heavy duty pollution from fracking, markedly lowering the quality of life for millions, or -sure, ok, let’s grind the entirety appalachians into a fine powder looking for coal. Meanwhile there’s R&D of alternatives languishing. I myself would forgive all the oil companies for the getting us addicted to hydrocarbon energy in the first place if they got behind ideas like this, instead of steamrolling the lives and livelihoods the unwilling, and unwelcoming who happen to be in the way.

By warriorsoftherainbow on Wed, March 02, 2011 at 9:34 am

But your basic assumption that the reason for campaigning against tar sands is “to increase the price of fossil fuels – and discourage their use” is ridiculously far of the mark.

The basic idea, in fact, is to campaign against the extraction of ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels with specific dangers over and above those of ‘conventionals’ - toixic tailing ponds, water contamination, greater carbon intensity, impact on indigenous tribes etc etc. These fuel sources are relatively new, and with the right regulatory framework it MAY possible to stop them. (eg in Europe, the EU Fuel Quality Directive). This needs to be done alongside reducing demand.

You wouldn’t have argued against removing lead from petrol (gasoline) on the grounds that ‘the real problem’ is petrol demand, would ya? This is the same thing.

By Arthur on Wed, March 02, 2011 at 4:11 am

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