Canada’s Oil Sands, Pipelines and Atomic Bombs

I am a Canadian, born and raised in Southern Ontario. I founded a Canadian Studies program at my university. I was happy to see our first student recently graduate with a Canadian Studies certificate, and I am currently writing a book on a Canadian topic. So, it has been very painful for me to watch Canada’s recent foreign policy decisions related to global warming and the Oil Sands, particularly this last week in South Africa. My frustration has been magnified by the fact that I myself wrote an article about the Oil Sands years ago that -in retrospect- failed to examine the environmental costs of this resource.

Photo by puttsk at

Recent technical breakthroughs  have led to a current giddy sense of optimism about energy production, and the promise that the Western hemisphere rather than the Middle East may be the future of oil and gas production. As Daniel Yergin noted in a recent newspaper column: “U.S. petroleum imports, on a net basis, reached their peak -60%- of domestic consumption in 2005. Since then, they have been going in the other direction. They are now down to 46%.” Yergin pointed to the technological changes that made this possible: “The reason is the sudden appearance of `tight oil,’ which is extracted from dense rocks.” The spread of shale oil production has reversed the decline of domestic oil production. But there are costs to this development, and choices to be made. For a long time, the Canadian government has said that it would meet the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol, but that it would do so without restricting Oil Sands development. But in Durban, South Africa last week Canada set this position aside for an all-out attack on Kyoto.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement designed to limit greenhouse gases so as to lessen (not reverse) the impact of global warming. The 2011 UN Climate Change meeting in Durban South Africa was intended to bring the world’s nations together to see how to further fight climate change. This meeting was important to Canada because it has the world’s second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia (there are estimates that place these reserves much higher). Any measures to fight global warming could limit the growth of Canada’s petroleum industry.

For Canada, the challenge is that most of its reserves are not in conventional fields. Rather, as we describe in the textbook, the oil sands (or tar sands) are a mix of quart sand and bitumen. This means that it takes additional energy to process this resource into petroleum, so that a barrel of oil from the Oil Sands entails greater greenhouse gas emissions than oil from other sources. In addition, it takes vast amounts of water to process the bitumen into oil. The water is contaminated through this process, and no current technology exists to clean it. This means that the region around Fr. McMurray has vast holding ponds of water, which cannot be returned to the Athabasca river, but remain in situ. Perhaps unsurprisingly, recent investigations have found that pollutants and toxins are entering the Athabasca River. For more information on the environmental challenges associated with the Oil Sands, see the work available a  the Pembina Institute.

These issues have led to a bitter political battle in the United States this year about the Keystone XL Pipeline. On the one hand, the United States desperately needs a secure supply of oil for its development. The oil reserves in Alberta are so large that they could change the geopolitics of energy. On the other hand, the Oil Sands raise an issue: how dirty does oil have to become before we find alternatives? A predictable contest between the environmental movement and business interests ensued. The Obama administration then decided to delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline until 2013 for more environmental review. This was a convenient decision, because it meant that the administration would not have to face outrage from either side until after the 2012 election.

While the Keystone XL pipeline has received considerable attention, the media has not provided similar coverage Canada’s Northern Gateway plans. This pipeline would carry a half million barrels of oil a day across a thousand kilometers from Alberta to British Columbia. According to a fact sheet from the Pembina Institute, it would cross over 700 rivers and streams on this path. There are two particularly difficult aspects to this route choice. First, the interests of numerous First Nations’ peoples would need to be met (they are not united on this issue). For the corporate perspective on this, see this issue see the Enbridge website. Second, the pipeline would pass through the Great Bear Rainforest, home of Canada’s spirit bears (kermode bears), the only population of white (not albino bears) in the world, and perhaps the world’s greatest temperate rainforest (see this map). The oil would then be shipped out to distant markets from the Hecate Strait, which is a difficult body of water to navigate. Many Canadians remember the Exxon Valdez spill, and are nervous about large oil tankers traveling in this relatively pristine environment. In an opinion piece on November 21, 2011, Robert Redford commented: “Crossing the territories of more than 50 first nations, slicing through rivers and streams that form one of the most important salmon habitats in the world and putting at risk the coastal ecosystem of British Columbia? Americans don’t want that any more than Canadians do, and we’ll stand with you to fight it.” The environmental movement is united against the Northern Gateway project. There is also a second proposed pipeline route, the Kinder Morgan addition, which is only now beginning to draw media attention, as it it too passes through the same region.

"Fuel Loading Pipeline Systems" by John Kasawa

But from the perspective of the Canadian government and oil producers, both of these pipeline options would have the advantage of decreasing Canada’s reliance on the U.S. market. The current government is frustrated with the delay of the Keystone XL pipeline, and wants to find alternatives. The Northern Gateway pipeline would allow Canada to more readily sell its petroleum on the international market, and to China in particular. In this sense, Northern Gateway is Canada’s modern equivalent of the fabled Northwest Passage, the route to the East for which the members of the lost Franklin expedition died.

In Durban, Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment, made it clear that he opposed the Kyoto Protocol, and stated that he did not believe that an earlier government should have ratified it. The Oil Sands are located in Alberta, the political heart of Canada’s current conservative government. So there was little surprise that Canada announced that it would not sign on for a phase two of Kyoto. The Canadian government is correct that the Kyoto Protocol had critical weaknesses, because the agreement did not encompass developing nations that are major greenhouse gas polluters. But what the Canadian government is now committing to is years of delay, while a new agreement can be drafted. While nations are leaving Durban with a commitment to arrive at a new agreement, the reality is that this is going to take time, so that Canada has bought the space it wanted to continue its Oil Sands’ expansion.

Canada’s foreign policy has long publicly stressed the role of morality in foreign affairs, at the same time that the Canadian government has quietly made disastrous decisions based on its commercial interests. For example, when India exploded a 12 kiloton nuclear bomb on May 18, 1974, it did so with plutonium from a Canadian CIRUS reactor, despite the fact that the reactor proved to have serious engineering issues. The Canadian government had not only permitted the sale of this technology, but also financed it, despite protests from the nonproliferation community.  Canada also sold a CANDU nuclear reactor to Pakistan. This means that should there ever be a nuclear war between Pakistan and India, the plutonium in the bombs detonated on both sides could come in part from Canadian designed and built nuclear reactors. In addition to the technology itself, Canada also provided the expertise to lay the groundwork for these nations’ nuclear industries and further reactor construction.

There are similar and recent examples of Canadian foreign policy decisions being made for commercial reasons, despite immense human and environmental costs. One that has drawn a great deal of attention has been the Canadian government’s decision to continue to permit the sale of asbestos abroad, and in particular to India. The Quebec government is spending $58 million on a loan to keep an asbestos mine open in Asbestos (yes, that’s the town’s name) Quebec. If you’re feeling depressed about the state of the media, see the coverage on the Jon Steward Daily Show. Roughly 100,000 people a year die from asbestos exposure, which has created a public relations disaster for Canada. It’s hard to justify federal grants to remove asbestos as a toxic substance in Canada, while the Canadian government continues continues to defend asbestos sales abroad. In particular, the government is fighting to prevent asbestos from being labeled as hazardous (really?!). My favorite Canadian comedian is Rick Mercer, who has a wonderful rant on Canada’s asbestos policy, which perhaps captures how many Canadians perceive this issue.

Ever since Canadian Prime Minister Lester Pearson won the Nobel Prize for his efforts to resolve the Suez crisis, Canada has sought to define for itself a role as a moral voice in foreign affairs. But how meaningful is this role for Canada? E.H. Carr is often described as one of the founders of modern realism, but his thought is too complex for simple labels. Carr argued that nations use rhetoric as a tool to advance their national interests. In this case, it seems that Canada’s moral rhetoric regarding foreign affairs was a tool for a middle-sized power to remain internationally relevant. But when Canada had to make a moral choice, the Canadian government chose to throw Pearson’s legacy aside. There is no surprise that nations act based on their national interests. But in the Canadian case, it is important that these priorities include both its environmental interests and international standing. And for a look at why all of this matters, and time is of the essence, consider this recent scientific study.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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