Is Canada becoming a 'petro-state'?

albertatarsands-620.jpg This file photo from Sept. 19, 2011, shows an aerial view of an oil sands mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alberta. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

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First aired on As It Happens (02/04/13)

Oil pipelines are in the headlines these days. The Keystone XL pipeline proposal to pipe Alberta crude oil down to Texas is awaiting approval by U.S. President Barack Obama. A new plan was recently put forward to pipe oil from Alberta to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick, a project that has received a thumb's up from Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. It comes just days after a pipeline carrying Alberta heavy crude ruptured in Arkansas, spilling thousands of thousands of litres of oil into a suburb and nearby wetland.

The pipeline proposals worry Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the author of The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down. He wrote an editorial in last Sunday's New York Times, entitled "The Tar Sands Disaster" -- one that is bound to heat up the debate around the politics of the oil sands.

ingenuity_gap-big.jpgHe talked with As It Happens about his concerns and why he chose to air his arguments in the American press. In his strongly worded article, Homer-Dixon wrote that "Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state."

Homer-Dixon told host Carol Off that he chose the New York Times as his platform because he doesn't think that Americans understand "what the oil sands industry has done in Canada to our economy and to our political system. What I was hoping to communicate with this article is some understanding of the non-environmental consequences of this industry, the way the oil sands have created imbalances in the Canadian economy and in some respects undermined our democracy and the openness of our democratic conversation, especially about the oil sands in Canada."

In using the term "petro-state," Homer-Dixon said he didn't intend to equate Canada with Saudi Arabia and other countries where economies are entirely based on the extraction of fossil fuels -- he stressed his use of the phrase "beginning to exhibit." But he added that highly resource-dependent economies tend to have boom-bust economic cycles, investment imbalances, "and they also tend in general to have low-innovation economies. And frankly, in that respect, Canada is true to type."

Homer-Dixon emphasized that there is also a political effect. "In societies with enormous concentrations of wealth in one industry like this, the industry will tend to develop very significant influence over the state, over the government...and I think we're seeing that in Canada. The oil sands interest groups have got a direct line into the federal cabinet, and are very fundamentally shaping federal government policy for the whole country." He gave the federal government's "non-position on climate change" as an example. He also pointed to "the muzzling of Canadian scientists who are working on climate change," and said that funding for climate change research has been slashed, and research facilities shut down.

When asked why there is a vigorous debate about the oil sands going on in the United States, but not here, Homer-Dixon attributed it to the pending decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. "The Obama administration has to make a decision [whether to approve it]. And certain environmental groups in the United States have defined Keystone as a line in the sand for the Obama administration especially with respect to the administration's climate policies. So that has heightened the attention to the issue. "

The concern in the U.S. is about the environmental impact of the pipeline, but according to Homer-Dixon, "you can't actually understand what's going on in the absence of a larger consideration of climate change, and both U.S. and Canadian policies on climate change." He believes that many people recognize the necessity of reducing carbon emissions, and he questions whether the oil sands can plausibly be seen as part of Canada's energy industry in the future. "It's a carbon-intensive energy and it's hard to reconcile such an industry with the kind of zero-carbon economy the world eventually has to move to," he said.

Homer-Dixon is particularly concerned that the debate here in Canada is not very open. In his op-ed article, he writes that "the oil sands have become the kind of third rail of Canadian politics: touch it and you're dead," he said. "Anybody who criticizes the oil sands is declared to be unpatriotic." After his article appeared, Homer-Dixon himself was the target of insults, and told he should leave the country. "We need to have a more open discussion about this, a more tolerant discussion, and recognize that those folks who are not supportive of the oil sands industry, may be actually very patriotic and they may be deeply concerned about their country and the direction it's taking."

Thomas Homer-Dixon also spoke with Q. Listen to that interview here.

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