Is anything more convoluted and contradictory than the politics of oil? Or more bizarre than our refusal to face it?
Consider this: Canada has the ability to get off imported oil. We produce about twice as much each day as we use. It would be difficult, but not impossible, to ensure that, as Green party leader Elizabeth May suggests: “As long as we are using fossil fuels we should be using our fossil fuels.”
Self-sufficiency would have real environmental and economic benefits. It would ensure security of supply, and bring all production under domestic regulation. We can’t control how Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or Venezuela handle their production, but an all-Canadian market would ensure every barrel had to meet domestic environmental standards.
The reason we don’t do this is largely political. It would require building pipelines that activists oppose on environmental grounds, even though the alternative, shipping crude by rail, is worse for the environment, and more dangerous. It’s also cheaper to import foreign oil, even if it’s from countries with lower environmental standards.
Since we won’t take the steps to be self-sufficient, we import oil, much of it from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, as is well known, lack the respect for human rights that Canadians enjoy. Women are treated as second class, political dissent brings long prison sentences, torture is common, executions frequent. Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered for angering the Crown Prince.
The Saudis have also been involved in a ruinous war with Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen since 2015. The Houthis are supported by Iran. Recently a drone attack hit two important Saudi oil sites, disrupting world markets and increasing fears of an escalating conflict across the Middle East. As a result, the Trump administration is sending U.S. troops and military hardware to the Saudis, including air defence equipment to help deal with possible future attacks. The U.S. has also tightened sanctions on Iran, which has already seen its economy savaged by previous financial measures.
Does anyone recall the word “quagmire?” The United States has spent much of the past 60 years extracting itself from military entanglements just like the one it appears to be sliding into again. Generations of people protested against Vietnam, and opposed activities in Iraq and the prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan. If those conflicts proved anything, it’s that, once in, it’s very difficult to get out. U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan for 18 years. Donald Trump came this close to pulling them out recently, but backtracked at the last second when a peace deal fell through.
It stretches credulity to believe the same won’t happen in Saudi Arabia. As long as Iran remains a threat, which means as long as it is run by the current regime, Washington will feel the need to protect its interests. This puts the U.S. in the position of acting as protector to a country that rigidly enforces practices that are antithetical to everything Canadians believe in. Should conflict between Iran and the Saudis escalate, is there any doubt the U.S. would be sucked into it?
So, here we are, determined to keep importing oil from a country whose attitudes and repressive actions we despise. A country over whose environmental practises we have no control, and which is becoming more deeply entangled with a U.S. administration headed by a president Canadian climate activists can safely be said to revile. We’d rather do this than deal with the difficulties that would be involved in ridding ourself of foreign supply. We can’t bring ourselves to face the political troubles that would arise from trying to connect oil from the West to consumers in the East. Tens of thousands support a “global climate strike” but balk at pursuing an effective means of bringing all the oil we use under our own control. “Turning off the taps” is not a realistic plan. Sorry, it just isn’t. Some day it might be, but not yet, unless students want to live in unheated dorms while studying in darkened libraries.
Neither of the two largest parties has climate plans that will achieve what they promise. The Conservatives won’t even set a target for emissions reductions. The Liberals have targets but won’t meet them, just as they have never managed to do so in the past. The Greens and New Democrats have more aggressive but hugely impractical plans, which couldn’t be implemented without massive disruption to the livelihoods of tens of millions of Canadians. See how long support for such measures lasts when families across the country no longer have jobs. Could Jagmeet Singh and Elizabeth May be promising free tuition because they know jobless parents wouldn’t be able to pay?
Current indications from the federal election suggest a minority government is a real possibility. Should it be a Liberal minority, odds are it will seek support from the NDP and Greens. Both parties will certainly want concessions in return, and environmental issues will be at the forefront. As Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid has noted, both May and Singh would demand an end to the Trans Mountain pipeline.
Trudeau’s Liberals bought Trans Mountain, and he’s vowed to build it. Would he betray that promise for the sake of holding power? Is he willing to fuel a backlash across Western Canada that could only escalate the dangerous resentment now percolating ominously in Alberta? Considering the number of other principles he’s tossed overboard in the past four years, there can’t be much doubt that the answer to both questions is “of course.”
The climate debate is failing in Canada because it isn’t realistic. We’re a big country shackled by small thinking. We lack leadership, judgment and nerve. All sides cling to fantasies, bromides and prejudices. We won’t get anywhere until that ends.