Objections, criticisms, demonstrations, non-violent protests – none of these tactics have swayed the Conservative Government, whose support of the tar sands is ferocious. No other political party has dared criticize the Government for this support. Liberal opposition to the tar sands reached a high water mark over a year ago. Since then the Liberals have been retreating, ending with a vague comment in the 2011 general election that “Oil sands development must become more sustainable as this major resource continues to contribute to Canada’s prosperity.” Thomas Muclair, a candidate for the leadership of the NDP, recently stated: “No person in their right mind would call for the shutdown of the tar sands”, an observation followed by a reference to sustainability.
We have to go back to the 1970’s to understand this near-consensus among Canadian political parties. Development of the tar sands was then just underway. Some critics considered that the expected environmental impact was a sufficient reason to refuse development permits. But in the 1970’s Green House Gas emissions were far from a serious concern.
There were substantial wrangles between the Canadian Government and the Province of Alberta concerning the terms on which a consortium of large American owned oil companies would be given the right to exploit the tar sands. Eventually these wrangles were resolved, and the two levels of Government assured the Canadian people that the deal negotiated was the best for Canada. To sell the development over environmental protests, government, the oil industry and many political commentators took a nationalist approach: they pointed out that the tar sands would ensure Canada’s energy self sufficiency for years to come.
Since then the oil company concessionaires have spent many billions of dollars on exploiting this resource. Of course there were impressive economic benefits from all this expenditure. Many jobs were created, towns in the region expanded and prospered, the Province of Alberta enjoyed many years of financial surpluses, and Albertans did not have to pay sales tax, unlike Canadians in other provinces.
The tar sands are now producing significant quantities of oil, but nothing compared with the potential output once they are producing at capacity. Billions will be spent on new pipelines to take the product to exports markets. (New pipelines=More jobs!) Forty years of effort, vast amounts invested, markets that will take bitumen extracted from the tar sands: will Canada give this up because of concerns about GHG emissions? Certainly not with the present party in power, and apparently not with any other party.
So thanks to the tar sands Canada appears destined to better its present second place standing and become the world’s largest GHG polluter based on per-capita emissions.