NY Times Op-Ed On ‘The Tar Sands Disaster’: If Obama Blocks Keystone XL Pipeline He Will ‘Do Canada A Favor’

Thomas Homer-Dixon has a must-read op-ed in the NY Times today, “The Tar Sands Disaster.”

The Canadian author and scholar argues, “stopping Keystone XL would be a major step toward stopping large-scale environmental destruction, the distortion of Canada’s economy and the erosion of its democracy.”

Here’s why almost 42% of Canadians oppose the pipeline, why many “want to see the tar sands industry wound down and eventually stopped, even though it pumps tens of billions of dollars annually into our economy”:

The most obvious reason is that tar sands production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities. It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production. It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles.

Also, bitumen is junk energy. A joule, or unit of energy, invested in extracting and processing bitumen returns only four to six joules in the form of crude oil. In contrast, conventional oil production in North America returns about 15 joules. Because almost all of the input energy in tar sands production comes from fossil fuels, the process generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.

There is a less obvious but no less important reason many Canadians want the industry stopped: it is relentlessly twisting our society into something we don’t like. Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.

Everyone knows the tar sands are an eco-disaster (see “New Analysis Shows Simple Math: Keystone XL Pipeline = Tar Sands Expansion = Accelerated Climate Change“).

But Canada is becoming like a petro-state? Homer-Dixon explains how “the tar sands industry is undermining Canadian democracy”:

Countries with huge reserves of valuable natural resources often suffer from economic imbalances and boom-bust cycles. They also tend to have low-innovation economies, because lucrative resource extraction makes them fat and happy, at least when resource prices are high.

Canada is true to type. When demand for tar sands energy was strong in recent years, investment in Alberta surged. But that demand also lifted the Canadian dollar, which hurt export-oriented manufacturing in Ontario, Canada’s industrial heartland. Then, as the export price of Canadian heavy crude softened in late 2012 and early 2013, the country’s economy stalled.

Canada’s record on technical innovation, except in resource extraction, is notoriously poor. Capital and talent flow to the tar sands, while investments in manufacturing productivity and high technology elsewhere languish.

But more alarming is the way the tar sands industry is undermining Canadian democracy. By suggesting that anyone who questions the industry is unpatriotic, tar sands interest groups have made the industry the third rail of Canadian politics.

The current Conservative government holds a large majority of seats in Parliament but was elected in 2011 with only 40 percent of the vote, because three other parties split the center and left vote. The Conservative base is Alberta, the province from which Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his allies hail. As a result, Alberta has extraordinary clout in federal politics, and tar sands influence reaches deep into the federal cabinet.

Both the cabinet and the Conservative parliamentary caucus are heavily populated by politicians who deny mainstream climate science. The Conservatives have slashed financing for climate science, closed facilities that do research on climate change, told federal government climate scientists not to speak publicly about their work without approval and tried, unsuccessfully, to portray the tar sands industry as environmentally benign.

The federal minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, has attacked “environmental and other radical groups” working to stop tar sands exports. He has focused particular ire on groups getting money from outside Canada, implying that they’re acting as a fifth column for left-wing foreign interests. At a time of widespread federal budget cuts, the Conservatives have given Canada’s tax agency extra resources to audit registered charities. It’s widely assumed that environmental groups opposing the tar sands are a main target.

This coercive climate prevents Canadians from having an open conversation about the tar sands. Instead, our nation behaves like a gambler deep in the hole, repeatedly doubling down on our commitment to the industry.

Gosh, that sounds familiar. Guess there are two petro-states in North America.

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31 Responses to NY Times Op-Ed On ‘The Tar Sands Disaster’: If Obama Blocks Keystone XL Pipeline He Will ‘Do Canada A Favor’

  1. Steve Rankin says:


    As a Canadian I can’t think you enough for giving Homer-Dixon’s op-ed wider exposure in the USA.

    Check out this article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail – “Is Canada really ‘halfway’ to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions”?

    Answer is no – not even close! Americans need to know that their ‘friendly” neighbours to the north are a few bricks short of a load and they are hoping the Americans will not notice.

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Only 42% of Canadians oppose it? That is hard to believe. What has happened to the Canada I thought I knew? ME

  3. Canada’s not alone. The U.S. is well on its way to becoming a petro state too. A republican friend of mine was explaining how it’s a waste of time sending everybody to community college to become an electrician or a plumber, because there won’t be any work for them to do. Instead, America should be extracting and selling its fossil-fuel resources.

    So rather than investing in green jobs — a smart grid, energy inefficiency, and so on — America should invest in fracking, coal extraction and deep water ports in the Pacific Northwest from which we can ship “energy” to China. (In other words, become China’s client state.)

    What an ugly vision for our beautiful country. Dirt and oil and pollution everywhere; ruined aquifers, poisoned rivers, polluted air; a rapidly shrinking middle class and no unions; an unstable economy that moves from fossil find to fossil find and is completely dependent on the price of oil; and ever-richer elite of crooked and influential oil barons.

    Fight this!

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Petro-states’ are dysfunctional primarily because of Western, ie primarily US, interference in their affairs. The USA claims the divine right, mediated by Manifest Destiny, to control ‘the greatest material prize in history’ that is the world’s hydrocarbon wealth, to underpin its global empire of Full Spectrum Dominance. Hence the long alliance with the vicious medieval despots of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf tyrannies, currently bearing strange fruit, indeed, in the tens of thousands, in the destruction of Syria. Hence the support for every unsavoury thug that follows orders from Washington, and the undying enmity towards any independent actor who dares think that just because, by some accident of geography, the oil lies under their territory, that they and their country have some right to its wealth. Canada is a typical late capitalist sham democracy, with a choice between Rightwing parties totally controlled by the ‘contributions’ of the rich, the MSM a propaganda apparatus totally in the hands of the rich, all alternatives, particularly the Greens, marginalised and vilified and the whole sordid circus heading towards ecological disaster at warp speed. And if you get rid of Harper, there will be something worse, just waiting for his chance to serve his Masters.

  5. Mike Roddy says:

    Good one, Philip. Let’s see if Obama surprises us here.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Mulga, the US has become a bad actor, but other countries let themselves off the hook by always pointing the finger at us. You Aussies are torching the world with your coal exports, and I haven’t seen any activists stopping the coal trains, or getting arrested over much of anything.

    I had a company for 12 years (Green Framing Systems) doing low cost housing projects overseas. The worst ones to deal with were the Venezuelans and the Romanians, both oil and other raw material exporters. In Venezuela, the rich in Caracas had their own airport, and an entire gated town close to city center. The key to wealth is a government job, and Lefty Chavez stole with the best of them. Romania, in spite of good engineers and hard working people, are one of the most backward countries in Europe, since oil and timber are found there.

    It’s the oil/resource curse, something the US has drifted toward, and that Canada has been under for a long time. Canadians are clearcutting forests everywhere, not just in the Tar Sands, and their gold mining and manufacturing practices are substandard. We’re too dirty to hold their feet to the fire, but I’m glad Canuck Homer-Dixon did.

  7. Henry says:

    Just a heads up;
    The NYT is reporting that James Hansen has officially left NASA to pursue full time activism.

  8. Bob Lang says:

    Doesn’t surprise me that only 42% of Canadians oppose this pipeline. 40% didn’t even bother to vote in the last Federal Election, which means that Harper got a majority Government with only 24% of eligible voters. Now he can do whatever he wants. It’s an elected dictatorship.

    As for the Tar Sands, right now they are a landlocked resource. Keystone XL is not about getting tar-sands bitumen to the US but to an export terminal from where it can be sold globally to the highest bidder. That’s why it’s called “Keystone”.

    Right now this Tar-Sands gunk is selling at such a huge discount that Europe’s third largest oil company Total SA sold its stake in a Tar-Sands project at a loss of $1.65 billion according to Bloomberg News last week:

  9. BobbyL says:

    Got to enforce our environmental laws to protect our water, air, and soil and bring fracking under the laws. Otherwise we will be back to where we were before the first Earth Day, burning rivers, heavily polluted air, and toxic sites all over the place. We have come too far to go back now. Not to mention fossil fuel use must be phased out during the next few decades or else.

  10. Siy says:

    Sounds horribly familiar – substitute ‘Canada’ with ‘Australia’ and ‘Petro’ with ‘Mining’ and you have a carbon copy (pun intended…)

  11. Sasparilla says:

    Well he certainly earned the retirement, although I pause at Nasa loosing one of its scientists who was so well known that there were media downsides to politically bullying him on climate change (nice to have one or two or three of those guys working on climate science particularly for the next GOP administration).

  12. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Mike, have you heard of Jonathan Moylan? He will probably spend many years in gaol after issuing a fake press release which claimed the ANZ bank had pulled funding from the planned Whitehave coal mine which is being strongly opposed by locals and activists. He lost the co more than $300m. Just because we haven’t closed down coal mining yet doesn’t mean that lots of people aren’t trying. And even more are doing everything they can to save carbon and water. Since the carbon price was implemented, there has also been a surge in industrial innovation, ME

  13. Mulga, Mike, ME,

    It’s everywhere. Yes, the U.S. is the biggest gorilla in the room, and overall we’re responsible for more oilxpoitation than everyone else put together. But that didn’t keep the Dutch from being the primary implement of Nigeria’s destruction, or BP from doing its share worldwide.

    My own belief is probably close to Mulga’s. There is an international oilagarchy that involves the ruling elite of most oil producing and consuming countries, who scratch each other’s backs while they rip off the public’s resources and burn them to destroy the planet. Anyone who gets in their way, or won’t play along like Saddam Hussein, is likely to get offed. (No love for Hussein, but there is a reason he’s dead and the Saudi royal family is doing quite well, and it has nothing to do with the democratic leanings of benevolence of the later.)

    We can’t rely on “leadership” to do anything about this — though some good stuff happens like Australia’s carbon price and Germany’s solar feed in tariffs. When the people lead, the leaders will follow, and we need to somehow build an international movement of those who are in harms way from climate change to turn things around.

  14. Mark Shapiro says:

    Worth reading: Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “The Upside of Down”.

    For an in-depth look at Canada’s will descent to petro-state status, see Bruce Campbell’s discussion, starting here:

  15. Paul Magnus says:


    Scientist muzzling probed by information commissioner


    Natural Resources Canada set to spend $9 million this year on energy sector advertising

  16. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Australia under the hideous Howard pathocracy, the regime spent hundreds of millions lying about its policies, using public money. As well it had the undivided propaganda services of the Murdoch obscenity.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mike, I was talking of the US ruling elite. The morally good fraction of American citizens, such as yourself (pardon the impertinence in evaluating your character)I sympathise with. It is troubling to live in a society, such as mine and yours, where the ruling elites are wicked and large proportions of our fellow citizens are likewise, or ignorant, brainwashed and dumb, and hence do not live up to their human potential. The Rightwing swine are present in every society, but the US ruling elite are, in my opinion, the worst and are the global guardians of elite misrule. I hate to actually differ from you, as I always respect your comments, but I do think that you are misinformed about Chavez.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Saddam, like Gaddafi, sealed his fate when he proposed trading hydrocarbons in currencies other than the US dollar. No petro-dollar, no de facto international reserve currency-well, the party’s over.

  19. Artful Dodger says:

    Over a million of them have moved to Alberta for jobs in the last 10 years. They’ll be surprised when the economy collapses, due to storms, floods, and persistent drought.

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thank you both and I know my old friends must have heavy hearts, ME

  21. fj says:

    As powerful as the fossil fuel industry is climate will not let up.

    Climate beats the fossil fuel industry.

    And humanity has no future as a fossil fuel civilization

    The Northeast is still recovering from Sandy and the increasing frequency of extreme events will create such stresses that the high overhead of fossil fuels will make them no longer practical.

  22. fj says:

    It seems difficult to believe that it will take more than two years for this to be overwhelmingly apparent.

  23. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There is a huge and diverse movement of people building Philip, you see them in the background at all the big COPS meetings. It’s not yet big enough to topple govts or persuade the UN but as the disasters get more disastrous and more local groups join together in all our countries, so we approach the point of discontinuity where the human system changes its spots, ME

  24. Artful Dodger says:

    Over 80% of the World economy runs through just 1318 multinational corporations. 147 companies own them.

    Here are the top 50 of the 147 superconnected companies

    1. Barclays PLC
    2. Capital Group Companies Inc
    3. FMR Corporation
    4. AXA
    5. State Street Corporation
    6. JP Morgan Chase & Co
    7. Legal & General Group PLC
    8. Vanguard Group Inc
    9. UBS AG
    10. Merrill Lynch & Co Inc

    Notice that none of them are Oil, Coal, or Gas companies? That’s because the Banks own them.–the-capitalist-network-that-runs-the-world.html

  25. fj says:

    Immediately after Sandy there was a fear that cars would be banned in NYC and it would have made a lot of sense.

  26. Artful Dodger says:

    Pardon, that should be Top 10…

    Read the rest of the 50 in the linked article about a trio of complex systems theorists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. These people know International Banking.

  27. “What has happened to the Canada I thought I knew?”

    As a Canadian living in the Atlantic province of PEI, I would answer your question with “It’s complicated!”

    First of all, the Tar Sands have become a major site of employment for many thousands of Canadians. The running joke is that the capital of Newfoundland (Atlantic province) is Fort McMurray (in Alberta). Also, the majority of oil revenue from the Tar Sands is put directly into the budget which makes us, as a country, dependent on that revenue. In addition, the oil and gas lobby, with incredible help from provincial and federal governments, have worked hard to make the Tar Sands into a “democratic”, “ethical” and “sustainable” energy source. Finally, the federal government has worked hard to muzzle scientists and scientific research that may highlight the threat of climate change, or the risks associated with the extraction of bitumen.

    As a result, “only 42% of Canadians oppose it”.

  28. Spike says:

    Very good news – thank you for posting that.

  29. atcook27 says:

    Hey Mulga, I think that this is a great article for anyone living in Australia. This extreme “petro state” is exactly what our short term future holds. Has anyone else here heard what a gentleman by the name of Steven Greer(see youtube) has to say about the petro dollar and it’s alternatives. He is about to release a documentary blowing the lid on the ruthless cabal that run the planet and thier secrets ( supression of alternative energy technology and ET’s ) It sounds bat shit crazy but my personal conclusion is he is this planets only hope.

  30. atcook27 says:

    So everyone has finally smelled the cheese. It is clear that climate change isn’t the problem. It is a problem that we were warned of in adequate time to avert catastrophe. “The” problem is the fact that we don’t actually live in a democracy and our “leaders” don’t actually give a tinkers cuss about doing the right thing by their constituents. A tiny group of insanely wealthy people run the joint and in doing so extract huge summs of money from the masses. If you have a mortgage, buy any form of fossil fuels, invest your superannuation in the stock market or vote for people that endorse war or military expansion, then whether you know it or not you are part of the problem (ie every single one of us ).

  31. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thank you, ME