Capitulating to the frackers?

March 3, 2014

Roger Annis reports on the shift of Canada's Green Party and New Democratic Party toward the agenda of the fossil fuel companies, in an article for the Vancouver Observer.

THE ANTI-ENVIRONMENT offensive by Canada's fossil fuel industry and its flacks in government is radically shifting the political landscape of the country.

Each day, it seems, brings some new announcement and outrage being committed against Earth and the humans. More pipelines to be built, and more leaks and cover-ups of existing oil and tar sands facilities that poison the land and water. More threats of oil train disasters as the rail industry and governments claim they can make it safe. More Arctic sea ice loss and the disastrous consequences that will certainly result.

Quebec's government has given the "okay" for oil companies to begin to drill in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The government in New Brunswick is refusing to heed the demands of much of its population to place a moratorium on natural gas fracking. In British Columbia, the government's wildly optimistic forecast for the highly destructive liquefied natural gas industry it wants to foster has been likened by one Vancouver writer to the hallucinations of someone on LSD.

Mi'kmaq tribal members lead a march during their blockade against fracking in New Brunswick
Mi'kmaq tribal members lead a march during their blockade against fracking in New Brunswick

A newly unsettling sign is that, for the first time since the Conservative Party captured the federal Parliament in 2006, not a mention was made of "climate" or "the environment" in one of its budgets, the latest one delivered on February 11. In so acting, the government has specifically ignored a study issued last August by a committee of its own deputy ministers convened to examine climate change.

The government has kept the study under wraps. A news report on it explains, "A wide range of climate-change impacts are being felt across Canada, the report says, including disappearing Arctic sea ice, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, and increased risks of severe weather, and 'it is likely that these conditions will be exacerbated as the climate continues to change in the future.'"

All this comes as the federal government is taking new steps to muzzle critics of its pro-fossil fuel policy. The Canada Revenue Agency is pursuing lengthy and extensive audits of some of Canada's most prominent environmental groups to determine if they comply with guidelines that restrict political advocacy.

To quell growing public unease and opposition to the corporate assault on the environment, capitalist governments around the world are stepping up spying and disruption against social and environment-defense movements and activists. Canada is no exception. Late last year, journalists at the Vancouver Observer published revelations of infiltration and spying by the country's political police.

In the midst of all this, political parties that many consider to be on the progressive side of the political equation in Canada are taking the wrong side on several of the largest industrial projects of the fossil fuel juggernaut. The Green Party and the New Democratic Party (NDP) made pronouncements earlier this month that can only further radicalize and prompt new forms of political organization among growing sections of the population concerned about the fate of the Earth.

NDP Backing for Energy East

The opposition NDP in Ottawa has reaffirmed its support for the "Energy East" tar sands pipeline project of TransCanada PipeLines. A statement by party leader Tom Mulcair on February 6 places him firmly in the camp of the consortium that wants to build the line. The consortium includes TransCanada, the companies that operate the three oil refineries in the province of Quebec, and Irving Oil in Saint John, New Brunswick, owner of Canada's largest oil refinery.

Energy East would see tar sands bitumen piped from Alberta to Montreal and on to Saint John. Presently, the only pipeline on Canadian soil connecting Alberta to eastern Canada is a decades-old gas pipeline, reaching Montreal and southern Ontario.

Mulcair's statement was a direct response to a new study published by the Alberta-based Pembina Institute on the climate consequences of Energy East. It says the pipeline will spur additional tar sands production of 650,000 to 750,000 barrels per day, with resulting greenhouse gas emissions. That's about 30 percent higher than emissions from the bitumen and oil that would fill the Keystone XL pipeline. (The overall capacity of Energy East, including some conventional crude oil, would be 1.1 million barrels per day.)

The NDP opposes Keystone XL, but not necessarily for reasons of climate consequences. Rather, it says the problem with Keystone is that the bitumen product it transports would not first be refined in Canada.

What makes the NDP position doubly incongruous is that much of Energy East's product will be tar sands diluted bitumen for export. Presently, there is no refinery in eastern Canada capable of refining large amounts of bitumen. Refinery owners would have to invest billions of dollars to create such capacity. Will they do this in the face of competition from refineries in other parts of the world (including the 59 refineries in the U.S. capable of doing so)?

Indeed, last year, Irving Oil and TransCanada announced they will build a $300 million oil export terminal in Saint John for the express purpose of raw product, should Energy East go forward. Irving's refinery capacity in the city is 300,000 barrels of conventional crude per day.

With or without domestic refining, is anyone to take responsibility for all the emissions and dirty by-product from bitumen (including the petroleum coke that is then burned in highly-polluting coal-fired generating stations)? And even if bitumen pipelines spurred refinery construction, where is the benefit in that? The few score or few hundred permanent jobs created in a bitumen upgrader or refinery are dwarfed by the productive jobs created by investing in and socially useful construction and manufacturing and in needed social services.

Society urgently needs to re-appropriate the decision-making authority over where economic investments are made and in whose interests this is done. This is doubly urgent in light of the vast sums to be wasted by fossil fuel industry expansion. It's time to end such vast wealth, with such far-reaching consequences when it is invested, lying outside of public control and accountability.

The Pembina Institute report cites the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers projecting that oil industry investment plans in Alberta call for tar sands production to grow from 1.8 million barrels per day in 2012 to 5.2 million barrels per day by 2030. (Proven oil reserves in Alberta are 170 billion barrels, third largest in the world. Almost all of that is bitumen.) But CAPP warns that this supply depends on whether "transportation capacity can grow to accommodate the projected increase in supply." In other words, it depends on whether growing opposition to the tar sands can be tampered down or squelched.

There happens to be a cogent business argument against the tar sands, but the big investors lining up to expand the tar sands have looked at the risks and are willing to make the gamble. A critique of the economics of tar sands was recently penned by Toronto Star business writer David Olive. He warns of the risk of huge investments in the Alberta tar sands when these face stiff competition from lower-cost locations in the world (and, one can add to his argument, that are geographically closer to end users or have cheaper shipping costs than pipelines by using ocean tankers). Olive adds that the days of oil dominance of energy production may well be approaching.

Green Party's Subtle Shift on Tar Sands Production

Perhaps even more disappointing than the NDP rejection of Pembina Institute's warning are the recent declarations of Canada's two elected Green Party politicians in support of continued and even expanded Alberta tar sands production.

Federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month to attend President Barak Obama's National Prayer Breakfast. The event drew 4,000 dignitaries from 103 countries.

The Green leader opposes Keystone XL for approximately the same reasons as does the NDP. She says, "This isn't about whether we have oil sands or no oil sands. I would prefer that we had roughly two million (barrels a day) and the jobs in Canada to upgrade the bitumen so that we don't ship diluted bitumen to the U.S. to be refined. There are refineries in Canada that are under capacity."

One refining option for Alberta bitumen, still far-fetched at this stage, is a proposal by British Columbia financier David Black to build a $25 billion refinery north of Kitimat on the province's north coast. Kitimat is the proposed terminus of the hotly contested Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal. May's colleague in the B.C. Legislature, Andrew Weaver, backs a version of that tar sands project.

As reported in the weekly Georgia Straight:

Weaver suggests processing bitumen into a lighter form called "synthetic crude" before the resource is piped from Alberta to the B.C. coast. "But then you still want to keep the upgraded products out of the water, so then you would refine that as well," he said.

Weaver said that the B.C. Green Party is "not opposed to oil" because being anti-oil means disagreeing with "everything around us."

Weaver is a professor and climate scientist at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of Victoria, B.C. He was a lead author of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th scientific assessments of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is the only elected Green Party member of a provincial legislature in Canada, winning in the May 2013 B.C. election that saw the Green Party score an electoral breakthrough with more than 25 percent of the vote on southern Vancouver Island. (Elizabeth May's electoral district is also in southern Vancouver Island.)

Weaver says the Green Party supports the B.C. Liberal government's "five conditions" for backing Northern Gateway, provided that a sixth condition is also met--that Alberta bitumen be "upgraded" to a less heavy oil before pipeline shipment to Kitimat (and further refined there).

His stance has sparked an avalanche of criticism, including from within his own party. He has responded with a lengthy commentary on his website in which he affirms his shared preference with Elizabeth May that tar sands production should top out at two million barrels per day. He defends the "upgraded" tar sands pipeline and refinery proposal for Kitimat thusly:

The Kitimat refinery proposal goes a long way to addressing the second of the five B.C. government conditions. ["World-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.'s coastline and ocean to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines and shipments."] It meets the sixth condition of the B.C. Green Party. ["A moratorium for dilbit transport along the British Columbia Coast."]

So a marine spill of refined bitumen in the treacherous ocean waters leading to and from Kitimat would be less harmful than a spill of bitumen (dilbit). That's a dodgy assertion scientifically, and certainly a strange argument for an ecologist to make. How much does it matter whether the oil from a tanker rupture ultimately sinks or fouls a shoreline?

Weaver goes on to cite from an article by himself on the pipeline/refinery subject:

Obviously as the Green Party [MLA], I'd prefer to keep [oil] in the ground as much as possible and start to invest sooner than later into the low-carbon economy of tomorrow, but I'm pragmatic and I recognize at some point one may need to develop a compromise and a compromise solution is one that would actually give jobs in B.C.

Why is "compromise" needed? No one thinks that dependence on oil will end tomorrow. But the shift away from fossil fuels must surely begin today. Activists rightly say that blocking the construction of new oil pipelines is crucial to empowering the climate justice movement and to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels over society's energy future.

To make his argument, Weaver wields the "pipeline or else oil by rail" argument that the Alberta and B.C. government first brandished last October. Referring to the pipeline that would be built to support the Kitimat refinery, he told The Globe and Mail on February 21, "(The refinery project) would still need support from First Nations in the region. And there are a lot of other considerations. But it's far better than the alternative. This stuff could get shipped by rail and there is little we could do about it because of common carrier obligations."

The sanctity of railway regulatory laws should prevail over the pressing need to save the Earth?

B.C. NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Chandra Herbert has reacted to Weaver's position, calling it a "sell-out." Herbert affirms that the NDP opposes Northern Gateway, including Weaver's version of it.

But the B.C. NDP position on the other tar sands pipeline proposed in B.C.--Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain--is a moving target and the party has committed its own "sell-out" on the matter. During last year's election, party leader Adrian Dix expressed opposition to Trans Mountain but was quickly condemned by his fellow party leaders and by leaders of the party's trade union base. Dix' declaration was blamed for losing the election. He was subsequently compelled to resign as party leader.

On another climate-wrecking front, the B.C. NDP is on board with the plans of the provincial government to vastly expand shale gas fracking in the northeast of the province to serve a liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry to be built on the northern coast, including various pipelines to deliver the fracked product crossing the same territory as Northern Gateway.

For their part, during the 2013 election, Green Party candidates said they could support a version of the LNG plan provided that "renewable energy" sources were built to provide the huge quantities of energy required to liquefy the gas.

Coincidentally, another hole has recently been shot into industry claims that natural gas is "cleaner" fossil fuel compared to oil or coal. A new report in Science magazine reveals that the leakage of climate-warming methane gas from natural gas projects and pipelines is much higher than previously estimated. Many scientists already argue that greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas, when measured from wellhead to final use, are equivalent to other fossil fuels.

Where will it all end? The corporate appetite for fossil fuel expansion is proving insatiable: "By pipeline, by rail, by truck, whatever--just let us get it out of the ground and sell it" goes the mantra. This is setting off alarm bells in more and more affected communities and amongst more and more people taking the time to learn the science of climate change and its social and ecological consequences. Yet simultaneously, the avenues to effect change through the Parliamentary system and traditional political parties are being closed off.

It's a recipe for rising social protest and new, anti-capitalist forms of political expression and organization. "Coal gas oil...Leave it in the soil" is sounding less and less like a slogan of "radical groups" and "foreign special interests" and more and more like a reasonable and compelling course for society. To get there, we need to challenge corporate power and its grip on political decision making.

First published at the Vancouver Observer.

Further Reading

From the archives