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April 28, 2013

Canada's Alberta oil sands

Scott Stockdale

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As the debate about where and how to send the bitumen from Canada's Alberta oil sands continues, environmental damage - while important - are but one aspect of the deleterious affects the oil sands are having on Canadian society, according to Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, and author of The Ingenuity Gap and the Upside of Down

In the wake of his New York Times editorial entitled The Tar Sands Disaster, Dr. Homer-Dixon said, on the CBC radio program As it Happens, that he doesn't think Americans understand what the oil sands industry has done in Canada to our economy and to our political system.

“We need some understanding of the non-economic consequences of this industry: the way the oil sands have created imbalances in the Canadian economy and in some ways undermined democracy and the openness of our conversation – especially about the oil sands in Canada. Most Americans I spoke to were really quite surprised when they heard this story.”

He noted that Canada is “true to type” of highly resource dependant economies around the world that tend to have boon and bust cycles, investment imbalances and low innovation rates. But the political consequences of this type of economy are more insidious, Dr. Homer-Dixon implied.

“In societies with tremendous concentrations of wealth in industries like this, the industries will tend to develop very significant influence on the government: special interest groups of various kinds, and I think we're seeing that in Canada. The oil sands interest groups have got a direct line into the federal cabinet. They are fundamentally shaping federal government policy for the whole country.”

He cited the Canadian government's position on climate change – or non-position – as one of the most significant examples of the oil sands lobby shaping government policy, but he stressed that this is only one example.

“The muzzling of Canadian scientists: for scientists working on climate change, funding has been slashed. Research groups have been shut down.  Facilities have been shut down: those working on climate change. Climate change scientists working in federal public service whose salaries are paid by Canadian taxpayers' money aren't allowed to talk about their research publicly without prior political approval.”

He added that in some departments it's become the case that scientists aren't even allowed to submit their scientific articles to scientific journals without prior political approval.

Dr. Homer-Dixon said he finds this extraordinary and he thinks most Canadians do as well, but he suggests they just have to connect the dots.

“In the background of all this is significant respect to oil sands influence.”

Dr. Homer-Dixon said that as more and more people come to understand that we have to start the process of ramping down carbon emissions and start the process of moving to zero carbon energy systems, we have to wonder if an industry like the oil sands is going to be a plausible part of the Canadian economy in the future.

“It's a carbon intensive industry and it's hard to reconcile such an industry with the zero carbon economy that the world eventually has to move to.”

While the oil sands debate – particularly focused on the Keystone XL pipeline – rages in the U.S., Dr. Homer-Dixon said the oil sands have become something like the third rail in Canada.

“Touch it and you're dead. I've received messages in the last couple of days saying, 'Get out of the country. You're fundamentally anti-Canadian. Anybody who criticizes the oil sands is declared to be unpatriotic.”

This, Dr. Homer-Dixon said is a dangerous situation we've got ourselves into and in order to remedy it we need a more open and tolerant discussion about the oil sands issue.

“We need to recognize that those folks who are not supportive of the oil sands industry may be very patriotic and may be deeply concerned about the direction the country is taking.”

After CBC interviewer Carol Off pointed out that in the U.S. they refer to Alberta's oil as “Tar Sands,” while in Canada the ubiquitous term is oil sands, Dr. Homer-Dixon said the fact that we're not allowed to say tar sands in Canada without being deemed unpatriotic or some kind of dangerous environmentalist is indicative of the mental and political state we've got ourselves into.

“I think we need to reflect on the state of our political discourse and the damage that this industry and its special interests are doing to Canadian democracy.”

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