You can be certain that there is a Canadian Federal election underway when a sitting Prime Minister of the Federal Liberal Party– considered the party of permanent rule north of the 49th parallel– takes direct shots at the President of the United States. Such words, even though guaranteed to never be followed with actions, tend to give many people who identify as Canadians a small measure of self-assurance and even pride. In the case of this current campaign, Prime Minister Paul Martin is playing wise politics: In his recent broadside against the George W Bush government’s policies on Climate Change (referring to the hopelessly weak Kyoto Accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions), Martin has both sought to appear standing tough to the United States government on the one hand and simultaneously trying to wrap his Liberal Party in the obviously needed role to everyone but Ralph Klein and Stephen Harper as “saviour of the planet”. This followed on the heels of the recent conference held in Montréal regarding Climate Change in general, and focused narrowly on the Kyoto agreements. Even if the Kyoto agreements, upon implementation, could seriously turn around the warming of the atmosphere and the shifting of global jet streams we must ask: are real measures being taken by the federal government– in particular Environment Minister Stephane Dion– to meet these targets?
During December and January of 2002, the revolutionary government of Hugo Chavez and the workers who ran the various oil refineries in the territory of Venezuela were temporarily unable to continue production, until (backed by their government) the workers from the various plants seized and evicted the corrupt managers of the oil fields who, for decades since the establishment of PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela– the state run, publicly owned energy company) simply lined their own pockets with the weath of Venezuela. Though technically in public hands prior, it was the spectacular failure of this managers and technicians lock-out that began the era of true public ownership of the vast oil and energy wealth contained within the territory of Venezuela. These corrupt people who had plundered the public treasury for themselves and their friends for three decades needed to go somewhere that would want their operational expertise in the field. They found such a place, in territories claimed by Canada– in northern Alberta– unceded by indigenous nations still held as possessions by Ottawa.
Today, in Fort MacMurray, Alberta the tar-sands extraction process is just starting to gain the needed technologies to operate at a level that allows an output with a profit. In a cruel opposite of the results for the Venezuelan population, the rising prices of gas, petrol and other energies are seeing the acceleration of drilling, fusions and over-all output. Also in contrast to the Bolivarian Republic, the advance of prices is seeing higher and higher levels of production targets, with more and more schemes implemented to remove “with facts on the ground” the land from the traditional inhabitants. While the tar-sands are touted globally by Canada (accurately) as the largest non-Saudi oil fields left in the world, they come at a price that everyone can understand: massive greenhouse gas emissions. The cruellest distinction between what happens in Canada’s north as opposed to what happens to Venezuelans is that the people of nations colonized by Canada will see their own lands decimated, the environment polluted and the profits going to giant oil and energy companies and not to nfrastructure development– such as schools, hospitals and social housing. In other words, when oil is pumped and refined in Venezuela, it raises standards of living, whereas in Canada, it does the precise opposite for the original inhabitants.
The tarsands project cannot be broken down as to what makes it so dire simply. It is not “merely” the extraction process of the tar sands that is at stake, or even what are the implications for “only” the vast environment of the northern areas of Turtle Island. Then we see what needs to happen to access the Tar Sands near what is derisively nicknamed “Fort Muck”. In the process of getting the Tar Sands to become a useful petroleum fuel for cars among other vehicles, Canada will not only miss their reduction targets from Kyoto, but in fact will need to *double* current C02 emissions. And that’s *before* a single drop of fuel from the territory of dozens of nations gets put into a single gas tank, pipeline, oil tanker or lawn mower.
“There is no environment minister on Earth that will stop this oil from being produced.” So says Stephane Dion, mere days before the Federal Government fell, as part of his lead up to grandstanding at the recent climate change conference. Stating that point leaves it clear that having ministers such as Dion representing “resisting” climate change is about the equivalent of when George W Bush refers to himself as a “man of peace”. It means more than hypocrisy, it is a simple cover story– fed to a public that desperately wants it to be true.
Simply burning petrol produces climate change through the release of C02. The tar sands cannot be burned as a petrol fuel until after the crude is separated from the guck. This process involves steaming the original mess– that requires huge amounts of fresh water; as the scale of the tar sands project evolves, so too the required amount of water. Eventually, this will have to be taken from the agricultural sector and dangerously lower the levels of the mighty rivers in the surrounding areas. We sometimes forget that water levels globally are already threatened; the north of Canada, including the Arctic, currently contain 10% of the world’s remaining fresh water.
How do you heat that water to produce steam? Won’t that take energy? Well, yes. It will take the largest untapped reserves of natural gas on the entire planet in fact. Burning this, too, produces more emissions. For years, the proponents of the tar sands projects denied it, but in the last year people from Ralph Klein to the would-be industrializers of the entire 1300 km long Mackenzie Valley have conceded: Their plan to get the oil out of the tar sands in Alberta involves using the overwhelming bulk of the gas contained in the Beaufort Sea (on the coast of the Arctic where the Mackenzie River– the largest inside Canada’s borders and properly called the Deh Cho [Big River]– meets the Arctic Ocean) as the energy needed to heat the water and separate oil from sand.
The idea of building this pipeline is hardly new; in the 1970’s, the first attempt to build such a pipeline was stopped by the combined power of a united Dené Nation, whose traditional territory covers most of what we call the Northwest Territories, parts of Yukon, northern Alberta and British Columbia. Throughout the vast majority of this territory, this nation remains the majority of the population. Speaking at the Berger Inquiry into possible development of this pipeline 30 years ago, Philip Blake remarked: “One-third of Canada is under the direct colonial rule. Yet you seem willing to only talk of igloos, polar bears and snow when you talk about the north . While your newspapers and television talk about sports fishing up here, we as a people are being destroyed. And it barely gets reported in your TV or newspapers.”
Today, aside from the odd comments regarding how the Deh Cho First Nations Government [representing the Dené people who cover most of the southern portion of the NWT on an area larger than England] want “too much” for access to their land for a pipeline and all attendant social and environmental deficits, from a reading of the business page articles that even bother to reference such a massive undertaking (the largest industrial project in the history of the state of Canada), Blake’s assessment remains accurate. The process of building this pipeline will not only have disastrous economic and environmental effects, it will reduce the Dene of Denendeh (NWT) to a minority in their own country, whereas today they are still the majority residents.
If and when the gas is stolen, liquefied, transported and is readied for burning to allow for the turning of mud into oil, the land where the tar sands sits is not uncontested either. Among many other nations in the area, the Lubicon Lake First Nation– who have recently won UN International Court rulings stating Canada’s refusal to negotiate any agreements with them constitutes a violation of their human rights– now are preparing to resist the further sale of their land by an Alberta that doesn’t own it, sale of “resource rights” to corporations in what will be only a part of a further mad grab of resources on unceded lands. “They don’t even have running water in their homes. and in the meantime about $13 billion of oil and gas resources have been stolen from them,” stated Kevin Thomas, spokesperson for the Lubicon. Though the areas of northern Alberta that have already seen bitumen extracted from tar sands are but a tiny fraction of what the experts believe is ultimately “recoverable”, the giant lakes of toxic sludge water from the steaming process are already visible from outer space, poisoning huge swaths of the Boreal Forests and expected to increase many fold over.
Though such a “plan” is clearly profitable, the implications from any rational point of view outside of the stock price of Imperial Oil is simply staggering. In effect, Canada will allow the theft and waste of the cleanest burning fossil fuel on the planet, in order to produce the dirtiest. The process of building the Arctic pipeline just got re-pegged at $7.5 billion, and the Federal government has already indicated a willingness to use federal funds to subsidise the project, through tax benefits and other incentives. The pipeline itself will be a massive expenditure of energy. The transport of the gas will take energy, where it will then be burned, along with the aforementioned water, to produce yet more greenhouse gasses. This petrol can then be used to fuel hummers and station wagons, further heating the atmosphere and moving around the jet streams– setting England and other nations into a deep freeze.
The sum total of this plan? The current economic outlook of oil corporations, mostly from outside of Canada let alone the indigenous nations upon whose land the corporations drill, is more important to the Canadian Federal government than the meek Kyoto Accords. Though the term climate change is more accurate, for nations that live in the Arctic, global warming is already making their lives Hell. In Hell, we are told resides the Devil– but in this case, there must be two. The Devil we know– George W Bush, whose belief in the rights of the earth to be used as an experimental greenhouse is on the record and repeated often– most often in conjunction with the plans to decimate other Dené lands, the well-known ANWR saga that threatens the porcupine caribou herds and the people of the caribou– the Gwitch’in. That amount of oil is pitiful (projected at most to be ten billion barrels), but not so the case with Alberta’s oil (around 200 billion barrels) or the gas from the Beaufort Sea. There we deal with the Devil we don’t know– Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. Smiling, talking about issues that effect us all, taking to task the Texan Cowboy for his inability to publicly support Kyoto. Yes Smiling, while actually cooking the very same earth at a pace that will leave the Texan Cowboy behind in the dust. The Devil we know, at least, is honest.
MACDONALD STAINSBY is a writer, hitchhiker and social justice activist currently residing in Vancouver, BC. You can access his recent project “Surviving Canada” reporting on the state of indigenous nations controlled by Canada throughout the summer of 2005 at: http://independentmedia.ca/survivingcanada and he can personally be reached via his email: email@example.com
2 Philip Blake, addressing the Berger Inquiry, Fort MacPherson, 1975.
3 Darcy Henton: Edmonton Sun, October 14, 2005.