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Blame It On Canada (and ourselves)

by Kenny Bruno

Earth Island Journal editor Jason Mark is harsh on U.S. environmental groups trying to stop the reckless expansion of the Canadian tar sands, calling them “intellectually dishonest” and “strategically lazy” because they are trying to stem the flow of Canadian tar sands oil at the source, rather than focusing entirely on U.S. oil consumption. But those groups (including mine) may not be are not as dumb as the editorial makes them out to be.

Dependence on oil is the mother of all addictions and a damn tough problem to tackle. While we are working on the demand side through energy efficiency, fuel switching (including electrification), and smart growth, the oil industry and its financial backers are investing billions in infrastructure that would lock us into ever dirtier fuels for another generation or more. That financial investment will make it even harder to get off oil. So there is a reinforcing cycle; supply and demand are part of the same problem. That is why the groups the Journal scolds for focusing on supply are also leading the work to reduce demand.

The Journal misses the fact that Canadian tar sands oil represents the marginal barrel – the dirtiest and most expensive oil in the world. According to James Hansen, the exploitation of tar sands and other high carbon crudes represents a climate disaster of huge proportions. Hansen recommends drawing and holding a line against these unconventional, high carbon sources of synthetic crude.

U.S. opponents of tar sands expansion are collaborating with Canadian pressure groups, who are combating their own country’s policies. These groups include not only national environmental organizations concerned about climate and Canada’s emerging status as a petro-state, but First Nations whose right to sustain themselves is violated by this industry. While in the long run reducing oil consumption would probably be the best thing we could do to protect the environment of these indigenous communities, it would be wrong to turn our backs on more immediate solidarity just because we have not been able to get the U.S. to break oil addiction.

Canada is not the innocent nation of its stereotype. Both the federal government and the Alberta provincial government are engaged in an international campaign against clean energy. They have taken their campaign to Washington, D.C., Brussels, Sacramento, Boston, and intergovernmental climate negotiations, attempting to block clean fuel legislation. While it may seem improbable that Canada could succeed in swaying the international community, consider its ally in this campaign: Big Oil. This is a dangerous campaign, carried out for the benefit of the tar sands industry and to the detriment of your children and grandchildren.

Much as we disagree with Mark’s strategic analysis, most of the groups working against the tar sands share his view that oil addiction is at the root of the problem. If Americans can radically reduce consumption, and if Canadian society can do the same, the problem of the Canadian tar sands expansion will be resolved. (Clean up of already-existing contamination is another story.) Still, let’s remember that the addiction metaphor is not exact. Yes, there is a harmful substance and progressively more insane behavior. But there is no cold turkey. Getting off oil requires not just individual action but massive political commitment and a transformation of the world’s biggest economy. And we’re not up against Bolivian coca farmers here, but rather the most powerful industry in the world, along with elected officials who support it and are supported by it.

So we must address demand – but at the same time, we need to motivate the public and public officials by continuing to tell the story of the true cost of our oil addiction. We need to hold the line on the new, expensive, marginal, dirty, high carbon fuels that industry is touting. The largest portion of those happen to be found in Alberta. That geological fact is not Canada’s fault. But blame does go to Canada for being  the dirty fuel’s biggest promoter. … Or should I say pusher?

Kenny Bruno is campaign director at Corporate Ethics International

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I left this message in comments at Jason’s original post, but I am leaving it here for good measure.

Kenny is right. 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 12:33 pm

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