Letter from a Petro-State

December 3, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Over a year ago, a colleague at the University of Waterloo, Thomas Homer-Dixon, penned a compelling opinion piece for the New York Times in which he addressed, from a Canadian perspective, the debate surrounding the future of the planned Keystone XL Pipeline. If built, this pipeline would transport unprocessed, environmentally toxic Alberta tar sands bitumen to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, Illinois and Oklahoma. Given the fact that Keystone has recently just failed, again, to pass the House, it is worth returning to the question raised by Homer-Dixon: is Canada becoming a ‘petro-state’? For Homer-Dixon, a state could be defined as a petro-state if virtually all of its main features could be ever more narrowly geared to the development of this single sector: non-renewable energy.  This narrowing has deleterious implications for innovation, economy and democracy. Let us address each of these in turn.

If we understand basic research in science to be directly related to innovation insofar as many forms of technology and their application stem not from research in applied science per se but from basic research, then in Canada we have seen specifically a drastic diminution in a  substantive commitment to technical innovation. Two years ago, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government announced that it would only fund science with determinant applicability, which is to say, those forms of sciences that could be directly marketable. Moreover, it has actively muzzled government scientists and librarians, severely limiting what they can and cannot say in public. For Karl Popper, the “open society” was a society in which there existed a robust culture of “conjecture and refutation” which constituted the very condition for the possibility of scientific innovation. That is, scientific truth-claims are those claims that can stand the open test of evidence-based falsifiability by other scientists and the public at large.

In my own province of British Columbia, the government has announced a dramatic shift of priority away from liberal arts and science at the level of secondary education, despite evidence that employers prefer prospective employees with a general education, to training geared specifically to the oil and gas industries which it is actively promoting as the economic future of the province. It has just secured the green light within the legislature for the development of a number of new Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects. The closure of scientific discourse, as well as roll-backs to liberal arts education, of course, does not bode well for social innovation. Prospects are slim for envisioning new modes of living together – ever more important with increasingly levels of migration and societal diversity – insofar as robust and unrestricted discussion and debate is its necessary if not sufficient condition.

Economically, with the price of oil now at $67 a barrel and falling, the Canadian dollar has plummeted with little end in sight. The oil-producing province of Alberta, as well as the federal government, is beginning to worry about the prospect of a staggering diminution of tax revenue. This is surely only to worsen with OPEC’s recent decision that it would not scale back its oil production and would wait to see what the reaction of the markets would be.  Vulnerability to such fluctuations and contingencies of the market for its products has always been a hallmark of petro-states unless, of course, they can form a cartel, such as OPEC, to act in concert and have some chance of collectively determining the price of oil. Short of that, Canada will simply have to weather the stormy seas without a rudder.

Yet the negative feed-back loop with respect to innovation is unmistakable. There will be even less money invested in the liberal arts at the secondary level and the increasing proportion of dollars spent on narrow training for this faltering industry will fall on hard, dry ground.  In short, it will be increasingly difficult to break this vicious circle by social investment in ‘green’ industries such as wind-farming, electric cars and solar-energy production, to name but three.

While lack of innovation and economic vulnerability are serious, they are not quite as serious as the drastic rollback of Canadian democratic institutions as a result of the country’s metamorphosis into a petro-state. The reason for this is that it is at the level of democratic institutions that changes can be initiated. The Harper government won its long sought-after majority in 2011 on a promise to transform Canada such that it would be unrecognizable. This is one of the few promises that it has kept. On a power base of a paltry 40 percent of the electorate, it has centralized power in a Westminster system that already over-archingly favours the executive branch of government.

The Conservatives have introduced into Ottawa unheard-of levels of secrecy and control. They have stifled debate, to an unprecedented level, occasionally proroguing Parliament in order to do so, on some of the crucial questions facing Canadians. Government ministers typically send their parliamentary secretaries to the House of Commons who, often in a way that seems to express a limitless contempt for the democratic process, typically avoid answering the questions that are put to them. At the international level, the government in league with the governments of Australia and New Zealand, sought to keep the issue of global climate change off the agenda at the most recent G20 meeting in Brisbane, with the deeply disingenuous argument that the purpose of the meetings were to focus on “economic issues,” as if climate change could somehow be extricated from the economy as a simple “externality.”

More specifically, though, the government has used this increasingly controlling and secretive style of governing to push through an agenda extremely favourable to the development of the tar sands which lies at the very geographical core of its support, namely Alberta. In 2012 it introduced a massive omnibus budget bill that contained provisions that effectively gutted the protection of waterways. These rivers, creeks and lakes and oceans are especially important economically and spiritually for the many First Nations whose land remains unceded and who therefore must be consulted but typically are not, particularly when it comes to the development of oil and gas. It remains to be seen what the long-term implications are of a recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Chilcoltin First Nation that in a historic move granted a First Nation in the interior of British Columbia the title to a tract of 1500 acre land. This means that any development of that land would have to involve serious and thorough consultation with the Chilcoltin Band.  

The tendency of the government to ride roughshod over the concerns of First Nations leads to flashpoints of conflict and crisis. Indeed, it was the passage of the Omnibus Bill, as well as the baleful conditions of a tiny First Nations community in Northern Ontario called Attawapiskat in 2012 that led to the indigenous social movement, fronted predominantly by young educated women, called ‘Idle No More’ that took the country by storm with the kind of flash mobs, protests and conferences that garnered it truly international attention. 

Earlier this year, it led to the standoff in New Brunswick at the Elsipogtog Nation that was opposed to fracking in and around its community. This led to the government sending in an RCMP contingent including snipers, to enforce an injunction filed by Texas based SWN Corporation for explorative activity, to deal with peaceful protestors, many of the them grandmothers, mothers and children concerned about to the degradation of their potable water. The sight of snipers just metres away from this vulnerable community was horrifying to many at home as well as abroad. The coercive measures of the police were met with increased agitation and this led to elders being pepper sprayed, police cars set ablaze and over 40 arrests.

More recently, on Burnaby Mountain, just a few kilometres east of Vancouver, it led to a standoff between police and protestors, very much reminiscent of the ultimately successful struggles to defend the old-growth forests against logging companies around Sulfur Passage in Clayoquot Sounds in the early 1990s.  The police were enforcing an injunction-line granted by the courts to the energy giant Kinder Morgan, started by a former Enron executive, to complete its survey work as part of its application to the National Energy Board to expand its capacity to move tar sands bitumen by a factor of three from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean and to markets in Asia. The injunction was granted on the authority of the National Energy Board and marked the first time in history that the authority of a board appointed by the Federal Government has been permitted to take precedence over municipal by-laws. Yet the legitimacy of this board has been widely questioned. For example, in submitting his resignation from it two weeks ago, Marc Eliesen, the former head of BC Hydro, claimed that it was “industry-captured,” “fraudulent” and a “farce.”

In this case, the by-laws establish the particular area on Burnaby Mountain to be “conservation lands” and therefore off-limits to development. This sets a chilling precedent though one that is currently being appealed on constitutional grounds: that an executive-appointed board – one whose very legitimacy has been so contested – can simply over-ride democratically elected bodies. As it turns out, the injunction was recently dropped as, in Kinder Morgan’s attempt to extend its duration by 11 days, it came to light that the injunction zone was based on inaccurate GPS coordinates. This inspires precious little confidence in an oil company which in 2007 spilled something like 1500 barrels in the very community in which they now want to triple their distribution capacity. The more than 100 citizens who had crossed the line of injunction to protest Kinder Morgan’s presence have now had the civil contempt charges directed at them dropped. This is a battle won in an ongoing war for citizens and First nations within this country to be able to collectively determine their fates.  

A key consequence of the transformation of the Canadian state, which was once a model of a pluralistic, multicultural, federal democracy, into a state that is in the process of restructuring itself around a specific sector of the economy – a sector that will have disturbing and disrupting future consequences not just for Canadians but for every creature on this planet – means that genuinely democratic action is likely to take an extra-parliamentary form. And this action will continue to be led by a ever more confident, articulate and determined First Nations leadership and a new generation of uncompromising young environmentalists who see their own futures hanging in the balance.  Indeed, growing numbers of Canadians are seeing themselves displaced and disenfranchised by a state that has historically done the same to aboriginal peoples. Democracy in Canada  will be able to renew itself only by virtue of massive civil disobedience and by way of a profound reevaluation of the legacy of colonialism that constitutes the history of the country.

Tags: environmental effects of tar sands, Tar Sands