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Climate Change? Blame Canada

07/07/2012
English: This is a picture of Syncrude's base ...

English: This is a picture of Syncrude’s base mine. The yellow structures are the bases of pyramids made of sulphur – it is not economical for Syncrude to sell the sulphur so it stockpiles it instead. Behind that is the tailings pond, held in by what is recognized as the largest dam in the world. The extraction plant is just to the right of this photograph and most of the mine is to the left. Deutsch: Tagebau der Syncrude Canada Ltd. zur Verarbeitung der Athabasca-Ölsande in Alberta (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Nicest Country On Earth is now a petro-state, recklessly drilling for profits as the world warms

What has happened to Canada? To the dismay of many Canadians, a country with an international reputation for its relatively progressive environmental policies (at least compared to the United States) is rushing headlong to dig up all the oil, gas, and coal it can. The country’s leaders can scarcely muster the effort to pretend to want to limit greenhouse gas emissions. And the Canadian media has largely gone along with the program. Put it all together, and you have a country that has become a full-blown petro state.

People are starting to notice. Last December at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Canada beat out tough contenders like Saudi Arabia and the US to be elected “Colossal Fossil” by environmental campaigners from around the planet. Canada had the dishonor of being the most uncooperative country out of 193 nations at the climate summit. It was the fifth year in a row that international environmental groups gave Canada their ‘highest’ award for its consistent efforts to block any agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

By contrast, the European Union managed to persuade the rest of the world to breathe life into the Kyoto Protocol, the only international agreement to reduce. Less than 24 hours after those very difficult climates talks ended, Canada declared it wanted no part of Kyoto, a treaty it had once championed.

During the two weeks following its announced withdrawal from Kyoto, Canada approved expansions of tar sands operations by oil giants Exxon, France’s Total, and Canada’s Suncor. Those multi-billion-dollar expansions are expected to increase tar sands oil output by one million barrels per day by 2020. That will result in an additional 220 million tons of carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere annually from both the energy-intensive tar sands production process and burning the resulting gasoline and diesel. Well-to-tank greenhouse gas emissions from Canadian tar sands crudes are 72 to 111 percent higher than the conventional oils, according to a May study from the US Congressional Research Service.

Those three expansion projects alone will generate more climate-damaging emissions than the annual emissions of sizeable economies such as Argentina and the Netherlands.

“My early Christmas present to myself — and to Canada — was to exercise our legal right to get out of the Kyoto Protocol,” Peter Kent, Canada’s Minister of the Environment, said in a speech in Calgary, Alberta on January 26. Under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, Canada promised to reduce its emissions six percent below 1990 levels by 2012. In 2010, Canadian emissions were at least 26 percent greater than in 1990.

“It really wasn’t a tough decision,” Kent said.

“Canada has become a ‘petrostate’,” says Alberta journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, author of the award winning book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. A petrostate is a country where much of the wealth comes from oil. “The Canadian and Alberta governments now lobby on behalf of the oil industry and fight any restrictions on carbon emissions to combat climate change,” Nikiforuk says.

Canada’s federal government collects about $5 billion a year from the tar sands industry alone. From 1999 to 2008 Alberta received $10 billion a year in revenues from the oil and gas industry, according to the Parkland Institute, an independent research centre at the University of Alberta. The tar sands brought in less than $2 billion a year due to absurdly low royalty rates. Meanwhile tar sands producers averaged more than $10 billion a year in pre-tax profits.

Hooked on energy dollars, the Canadian and Alberta governments only make decisions that favor growth of the energy industry, Nikiforuk says.

Most of that energy industry growth is in the tar sands located in pristine boreal forest and wetlands of northern Alberta. The industry likes to call them “oil sands,” though the oil is actually a tarry bitumen mixed into the sandy soil. Environmental activists call them “Canada’s Mordor.” No matter that they are called, the tar sands are the world’s largest industrial project. Nowhere has fossil energy expansion or investment been faster or larger. Since 2001 nearly $300 billion has been invested by the oil and gas industry.

While the tar sands may be located in Canada, more than two-thirds of all oil production is owned by foreign entities. China alone has put $36 billion into tar sands development. Even “Canadian” oil companies like Suncor are predominately owned by non-Canadians, which means that a majority of the industry’s profits are sent out of the country, according to a recent analysis of stockholdings by a Canadian conservation group.

The massive increase in fracking will put new burdens on the region’s fresh water resources. “Fracking is using huge amounts of fresh water in a region that suffers water shortages,” Donaldson says.

Millions of liters of water are needed for each well. The gas industry has obtained rights to take 275 million liters from local rivers, lakes and streams every day. Sixteen companies were fined last October for failing to account for how much water they were taking. According to media reports, the fines were less than $1,000.

Canada is also tapping into its significant coal deposits. The country is fifth in the world in terms of coal reserves, behind only the US, China, Russia and Australia. BC is also Canada’s main coal export hub, with three coal export terminals including Westshore, the busiest coal export terminal in North America. Most of the nearly 30 million tons of coal exported each year is from BC and Alberta.
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Stephen Leahy is an independent environmental journalist based in Toronto. His work has appeared internationally in the New Scientist, Earth Island Journal, Al Jazeera, and in international publications ranging from London to New Delhi. To see more of his work, visit his website.

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