Why the Battle Over Canada's Tar Sands Is an American Issue

Almost exactly nine years ago, opposition to the US invasion of Iraq was reaching a fever pitch. On February 15, 2003 millions of people around the world  rallied to protest the inexorable march to war, including in over 150 cities in the United States. The case for war — coming from the Bush White House and its supporters through every pore of the mainstream media complex — was fierce and demanding, an hourly barrage of breathless warnings that at any moment Saddam Hussein could unleash nuclear or biological terrorism on Americans. And yet, while the vast majority of Americans (wrongly) believed the Administration's claims that Iraq held WMDs, most still favored diplomacy over invasion.

A month later, of course, after the US and its "coalition of the willing" invaded Iraq, public opposition to the war became unpopular. Vocal opponents were regularly vilified by pundits and politicians as somehow being unpatriotic, traitors, appeasers, cowards, or "blame America 1st"ers. It was not an easy time to stand on principle.

The current debate in Canada over the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline reminds me a little of those days.

Think I'm being bombastic? Well, check out this ad and this ad by the oil industry front group, Ethical Oil, and then decide who is being bombastic.

The theme of these ads, apparently, is that we shouldn't get oil from Saudi Arabia since they persecute women and gays there, and they destroy their natural environment in the process of producing oil.

Now, let me be perfectly clear, the human rights issues in Saudi Arabia are very real and very grave. But is this really the only choice at hand? And I have yet to see Ethical Oil raise concerns about human rights abuses in China, the primary market for Northern Gateway Pipeline oil.

BTW, this is what Ethical Oil wants us to believe tar sands production looks like.

And this is what tar sands extraction looks like in reality.

Ok, so tar sands proponents are stretching the truth about the environmental impacts of oil production. What else is new?

What's new is the sinister tone that the conservative government in Canada and pipeline supporters have taken to defining their opponents. In the hours before an independent review panel began hearings on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver published an open letter warning of "environmental and other radical groups" that:

... threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They seek to exploit any loophole they can find, stacking public hearings with bodies to ensure that delays kill good projects. They use funding from foreign special interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.

(I hope Oliver managed to wipe off some of that unseemly bitumen before draping himself in the Canadian flag.)

This line of attack has been pursued further, as exemplified brilliantly by Ethical Oil spokesperson Kathryn Marshall on a recent CBC news show:

This is becoming a battle between reasonable, everyday, hardworking Canadians and foreign special interests and their deep pockets and their puppet groups who are trying to hijack and gum up a Canadian process.

(Kathryn Marshall mysteriously failed to respond to repeated attempts by the host to inquire about the sources of Ethical Oil's funding, and whether any of it comes from oil companies.)

Last week, Andrew Frank signed a sworn affadavit claiming that the Prime Minister's Office threatened the charitable status of Tides Canada for providing funding to ForestEthics, a vocal opponent of the pipeline. In this open letter, Frank claimed that:

... no less than three senior managers with TidesCanada and ForestEthics (a charitable project of Tides Canada), have informed me, as the Senior Communications Manager for ForestEthics, that Tides Canada CEO, Ross McMillan,was informed by the Prime Minister’s Office, that ForestEthics is considered an “Enemy of the Government of Canada,” and an “Enemy of the people of Canada.”

After the letter was published, Frank was fired for "violating the confidence of ForestEthics."

A government spokesperson denied Frank's claim and Tides Canada CEO, Ross McMillian, published an an op-ed yesterday stating that "Frank had the wrong facts but the right idea."

We may never know the truth, but the larger point remains: The rhetoric directed at opponents of the pipeline is deeply troubling. History has shown time and time again what happens when nations rush to judgment or paint their fellow citizens as "enemies," "radicals," or "puppets of foreign interests." In the US, we don't have to think back too far.

If, like me, you're not a Canadian, you may not think this pertains much to you. I'm afraid you're wrong.

For one thing, the energy and environmental impacts of tar sands production are not limited to within the borders of Canada. The tar sands extracted in Alberta, piped across indigenous lands and pristine wilderness to British Columbia, and shipped on tankers to be burned in China or India is part of an ecological, energy, and economic web to which we are all attached.

For another, I fully expect the debate over US unconventional fossil fuels (shale gas, shale oil, oil shales, etc.) to heat up as we near the 2012 elections — that is, if the environmental community can get it together enough to from a strong opposition.

Candidates on both sides of the aisle — including President Obama — are endorsing more drilling, and the American Petroleum Institute has launched a campaign to equate domestic unconventional oil and gas drilling with economic and energy security. Congressional Republicans hope to force Obama's hand on the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring tar sands down from Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, to either paint him as putting the environment over jobs or risk losing the support of one of his key bases.

As long as we allow proponents of unconventional oil and gas to claim a false choice between energy and economic security and the environment, and as long as we allow them to vilify opponents as being somehow unpatriotic or radical, we run the very real risk of losing a battle where the future of our planet and species is at stake. Ok, so maybe I ambeing a little bombastic. But am I wrong?

photo credit: tar sands photo copyright Garth Lenz.

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