A Calgary author and journalist says most Canadians don’t understand that we’re living in a “petrostate” that could undermine our democracy. Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Greystone Books, $20), told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that Canada needs a national debate on the topic. “I think the tar sands has created a political emergency for the country,” he said.
In his book, Nikiforuk describes the Alberta tar-sands developments as the world’s largest construction project, the world’s largest capital project, and the world’s largest energy project—one that uses as much water in a year as a city with a population of two million.
“We need reporters from our national daily newspapers living in Fort McMurray and writing about this nation-changing event,” Nikiforuk said. “This is an event much greater than the building of the national railway. This is an event much greater than the Apollo moon project.”
Canada, which has approximately 175 billion barrels of recoverable oil, is the largest supplier of oil to the United States, having surpassed Saudi Arabia. “We have become a petrostate without any of the safeguards that a petrostate should have,” Nikiforuk said.
He noted that there is a vast amount of political-science research demonstrating that oil wealth hinders democracy. He said this is true regardless of whether the petrostate is in the Middle East, and whether it’s a large or small country.
Nikiforuk pointed out that Canada has ignored recommendations from the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development calling on countries that generate a great deal of oil wealth to put those revenues into a separate fund that cannot be touched by politicians.
“Canadians need to start thinking of themselves as a petrostate, and they need to start thinking of the kinds of controls needed to protect the country from the excesses of oil,” he said. “We also need to think about the pace, and where we want to go with it. It is out of control.”
He said that oil wealth undermines democracy in several ways. Governments enriched by petroleum revenues reduce taxes, which makes the public feel good about politicians who make these decisions. Oil money is also used to buy votes, he alleged.
“Then, those parties tend to stay in power for long periods of time,” Nikiforuk said, noting that Conservatives have governed Alberta for 37 years. “Parties that stay in power for long, long periods of time tend to become more authoritarian in nature.”
Alberta has the lowest provincial voter turnout in the country. Nikiforuk said governments that remain in power for decades tend to make more appointments based on patronage rather than merit.
“So you end up with all kinds of people being appointed to positions they should not be in,” he claimed.
He estimated that $200 billion has been spent developing the Alberta tar sands if the cost of pipelines, refinery expansions, and upgraders is included.
“It has brought 700,000 people into Alberta since 1996,” Nikiforuk said. “It is almost like the invasion of Iraq, but in this case, it’s a petroboom.”
According to the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, two tonnes of the bituminous sands, otherwise known as tar sands, and two tonnes of overburden must be excavated to create a single barrel of oil. Nikiforuk writes that producing each barrel generates three times as much greenhouse gas as a barrel of conventional oil because of the work involved.
He noted that the tar-sands developments are playing a role in preventing Canada from meeting its climate-change goals. But the impact goes beyond that, affecting cross-Canada labour mobility and causing politicians to amend immigration legislation to allow more temporary foreign workers. “The tar sands has changed Canada in the same way the fur trade has changed Canada,” Nikiforuk said.
He said that Canadian provincial and federal governments have generated $60 billion from tar-sands development, but claimed that Canadians have little to show for it. In his book, he notes that Ottawa will have collected at least $50 billion from tar-sands developments by 2020. “True to the First Law of Petropolitics,” Nikiforuk writes, “government has used this windfall so far to reduce corporate taxes and slash 2 per cent off the federal sales tax. While Norway has kept the resource curse largely at bay with clear accounting and its dedicated oil/pension fund, Ottawa has spent the cash to win friends and influence elections.”
Nikiforuk said that Canada has no strategy for ensuring self-sufficiency in energy over the long term, even though it appears that conventional oil production has peaked around the world. He also said that no Alberta politician ever expected that environmentally concerned Americans would start asking questions about degradation wrought by tar-sands developments. “What we’re seeing is a complete vacuum here in terms of political direction, political policy, political strategy,” he claimed. “It’s dangerous for Alberta. It’s dangerous for Canada. It’s dangerous for North America.”
Andrew Nikiforuk will speak on Sunday (October 26) at 7 p.m. at the Capilano Performing Arts Theatre (2055 Purcell Way, North Vancouver). Tickets are $10/$12.