Saturday, December 6, 2014

Foreign money indeed warps our tar sands policy

Pipelines loom large in the news, in three main narratives: politicians deciding whether to approve, protesters arrested trying to stop construction, and old pipelines springing damaging leaks. The first two topics dominate editorial pages, although those discussions would be better informed if there was wider media coverage of the leak problem.
Free oil for all, bring your own bucket!
The primary debate should concern whether the risk of leaks, which poison huge areas of fresh water or wetlands and even lead to catastrophic fires or explosions, is worth the export dollars that new pipelines are designed to bring in, and how sustained or increased fossil fuel extraction can be reconciled with greenhouse gas reductions that even the Conservative governments of Canada and Alberta acknowledge are necessary to head off climate disaster (although they continue to choose delay over action). Is this the best future path, or should we invest in cleaner industries instead?
But instead, in the right-wing rants of oil-friendly pundits, we find an odd set of diversionary tactics, tangents, or outright illogical assertions.
One is the supposed benefit of “ethical oil” from Canada, pushed as an alternative to “conflict oil” from the Mid-east. Putting aside for later discussion of supposedly superior tar sands ethics, one can address the basic premise, that if we suck more oil-bearing bitumen from our tar sands, other countries will sell less of the oil pumped from their wells. This is economically facile, given the predictions for rising energy demand and the fact that conventional oil will always be cheaper than unconventional oil from sands or shale. The only result of more pipelines from the tar sands will be an overall reduction in global oil prices, leading to greater use from all sources. Our oil simply can’t displace anyone else’s, because ours will always cost more.
Another misleading argument is that our politics is somehow distorted by foreign money. Actually, this argument is very true, just in the opposite way than the conservapundits would have you believe! In their best Doctor Evil voices, they whine about the “millions of dollars” of support some Canadian environmental groups receive from American foundations, while ignoring the billions – that’s billion with a ‘b’ – of dollars in foreign investment flowing into tar sands development. If even one percent of that investment goes to lobbying or PR, then it’s ten million dollars per billion, larger by a factor of ten than the millions from the Tide Foundation or similar ethical environmental players. Canada’s top 10 oil companies have a combined market capitalization of about a third of a trillion dollars (that’s trillion with a ‘t’)! I can only assume the tarboosters either don’t know the difference between million, billion, and trillion, or hope their readers don’t.
The reality is not that foreign environmental interests and their millions have taken over Canada’s policy direction. Quite the contrary, all the evidence is that billions in foreign and domestic investment have achieved regulatory capture not only of the relevant ministries, such as Resources and Industry, but of entire governments. Omnibus bill after omnibus bill guts legislation across the board to take away any prudent obstacle or delay to reckless fossil development and export.
In this situation, a few pennies from foreign enviros are welcome, if small, respite from the avalanche of energy-extraction dollars.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the titles "Keep tabs on foreign and domestic investment" and "Omnibus bills gut legislation that can ward off reckless fossil development"  (Also in the Innisfil Examiner)
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation and a trained Climate Reality presenter.

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