The Alberta tar sands are Canada’s Mordor. Like the fictional barren land, home to the evil Sauron in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the tar sands are vast, destructive and represent the real-life death of nature. The air is foul; water is being poisoned and drained. Large tracts of forest and wetlands are being torn from the earth, and in the gaping holes where life once thrived sit giant ponds of toxic waste.
Thanks to a government that has placed trade and foreign investment above environmental and social needs, Alberta has become one of the last playgrounds for Big Oil. It is here that Shell, Total and Exxon have made their home
Locked in by free trade
Exports to the lucrative US market are a driving force behind tar sands development. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provides the foundation for this destructive energy-trading relationship. Signed in 1994, NAFTA deregulated Canada’s oil and gas sector, removing restrictions on foreign ownership and undermining import and export restrictions.
Edward Ney, Canadian ambassador shortly before the agreement was signed, was very candid in explaining that US access to Canadian energy reserves was a primary motivation. In fact, NAFTA’s ‘proportional sharing clause’ obliges Canada to continue exporting energy to the US in the same proportion as the three previous years. This means that our Government could be challenged for cutting back on exports to the US – where the majority of tar sands crude is sent – unless Canadian markets faced proportional cuts. Taken alongside export restrictions, this undermines the ability of the Canadian Government to direct energy policy in the public interest and make the transition away from the tar sands.
At the same time as environmental and social protections have been severely weakened, the rights of corporations have been enhanced under this trade law. For example, the Alberta government’s ability to revoke water licences granted to tar sands corporations could be challenged as an ‘act of expropriation’ under NAFTA, which allows for corporations to sue member governments if they feel that their rights have been violated or the compensation they receive is not adequate.
Low carbon fuel fight
Post-9/11, political priority in the US was given to reducing reliance on ‘foreign oil’. Canada, and more specifically the tar sands, was increasingly framed as a ‘secure’ energy source. The election of President Obama, who spoke clearly about wanting to turn a new leaf in his country’s climate record, sparked hope for many on both sides of the border that change may be afoot.
But while the US now far outpaces Canada when it comes to investing in ‘green jobs’ and renewable energy, a US climate plan that could change the countries’ trading relationship remains elusive. Meanwhile, the Albertan and Canadian governments, backed by a strong fossil fuel lobby committed to ongoing tar sands production, have been fiercely lobbying in the US to ensure that this dynamic does not change. This has most visibly included opposing Low Carbon Fuel Standards (LCFS).
LCFS would, in practice, exclude carbon-intensive tar sands oil from the US market. California recently passed LCFS legislation to help it cut emissions from its transport by 10 per cent by 2020, and a number of other US states are currently reviewing similar standards.
Not surprisingly, Canadian government officials have responded with trade-based threats. Back when California was considering its legislation, our Natural Resources Minister issued a letter to Governor Schwarzenegger suggesting that any LCFS discrimination against tar sands would ‘threaten’ to be perceived as an ‘unfair trade barrier’. Now the legislation has been passed, it is subject to a legal challenge by the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association, which boasts every major corporate player in the tar sands amongst its members.
‘I also am a steward’
Despite all this, strong and effective campaigns challenging the tar sands have emerged on both sides of the border in recent years. The growing movement is diverse and includes indigenous, environmental, social justice and community-based organizations.
The Council of Canadians is among many organizations calling for a tar sands-free future and stronger policies that would prevent profit interests from trumping social and environmental priorities. We are demanding a Canadian Energy Strategy which features meaningful regulatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, a just transition to conservation, energy efficiency and the rapid expansion of public and community-owned renewable energy. Intimately linked to these efforts is our trade campaign, which challenges agreements, especially NAFTA, which stand in the way of progressive change.
In the words of Tolkien’s character Gandalf, facing the darkest of times against Mordor: ‘All worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in the days to come. For I also am a steward.’ Just as the right and good prevails in the mythical land of Middle Earth, so the environmental stewards opposing Canada’s Mordor will overcome.
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