For decades, the world has thought of Canada as America's friendly northern neighbor -- a responsible, earnest, if somewhat boring, land of hockey fans and single-payer health care. On the big issues, it has long played the global Boy Scout, reliably providing moral leadership on everything from ozone protection to land-mine eradication to gay rights. The late novelist Douglas Adams once quipped that if the United States often behaved like a belligerent teenage boy, Canada was an intelligent woman in her mid-30s. Basically, Canada has been the United States -- not as it is, but as it should be.
But a dark secret lurks in the northern forests. Over the last decade, Canada has not so quietly become an international mining center and a rogue petrostate. It's no longer America's better half, but a dystopian vision of the continent's energy-soaked future.
That's right: The good neighbor has banked its economy on the cursed elixir of political dysfunction -- oil. Flush with visions of becoming a global energy superpower, Canada's government has taken up with pipeline evangelists, petroleum bullies, and climate change skeptics. Turns out the Boy Scout's not just hooked on junk crude -- he's become a pusher. And that's not even the worst of it.
With oil and gas now accounting for approximately a quarter of its export revenue, Canada has lost its famous politeness. Since the Conservative Party won a majority in Parliament in 2011, the federal government has eviscerated conservationists, indigenous nations, European commissioners, and just about anyone opposing unfettered oil production as unpatriotic radicals. It has muzzled climate change scientists, killed funding for environmental science of every stripe, and in a recent pair of unprecedented omnibus bills, systematically dismantled the country's most significant long-cherished environmental laws.
The author of this transformation is Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a right-wing policy wonk and evangelical Christian with a power base in Alberta, ground zero of Canada's oil boom. Just as Margaret Thatcher funded her political makeover of Britain on revenue from North Sea oil, Harper intends to methodically rewire the entire Canadian experience with petrodollars sucked from the ground. In the process he has concentrated power in the prime minister's office and reoriented Canada's foreign priorities. Harper, who took office in 2006, increased defense spending by nearly $1 billion annually in his first four years, and he has committed $2 billion to prison expansion with a "tough on crime" policy that ignores the country's falling crime rate. Meanwhile, Canada has amassed a huge federal debt -- its highest in history at some $600 billion and counting.
Liberal critics like to say that Harper's political revolution caught many Canadians, generally a fat and apathetic people, by surprise -- a combination of self-delusion and strategic deception. That may be true, but though Canadians live in high latitudes, they're not above baser human instincts -- like greed. Harper is aggressively pushing an economic gamble on oil, the world's most volatile resource, and promising a new national wealth based on untapped riches far from where most Canadians live that will fill their pocketbooks, and those of their children, for generations. With nearly three-quarters of Canadians supporting oil sands development in a recent poll, Harper seems to be selling them on the idea.
THE RESOURCE UNDERWRITING many of these ugly behavioral changes is bitumen, a heavy, sour crude mined from oil sands. Deposits of the badly degraded asphalt-like substance lie under a forest the size of Florida in northeastern Alberta and comprise the world's third-largest petroleum reserves. Over the last decade, as oil prices increased fivefold, oil companies invested approximately $160 billion to develop bitumen in Alberta, and it has finally turned profitable. Canada is now cranking out 1.7 million barrels a day of the stuff, and scheduled production stands to fill provincial and federal government coffers with about $120 billion in rent and royalties by 2020. More than 40 percent of that haul goes directly to the federal government largely in the form of corporate taxes. And the government wants even more; it's pushing for production to hit 5 million barrels a day by 2030.
Never mind that the entire process is a messy and wasteful one. It takes copious amounts of water, capital, and energy to dig out the carbon-rich sands, let alone upgrade and process the heavy crude, which can't even move through a pipeline until it is diluted with an imported gasoline-like condensate. With brazen cheek, the government nonetheless defends the Alberta megaproject as "responsible" and "sustainable" -- "an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China's Great Wall. Only bigger." Bigger indeed: Approved bitumen mining projects could potentially excavate a forest area six times as large as New York City. Reclamation and reforestation remain an uncertain and costly proposition. To date, oil companies have already created enough toxic mining sludge (6 billion barrels) to flood the entirety of Washington, D.C.
Unsurprisingly, Ottawa has become a master at the cynical art of greenwashing. When Harper's ministers aren't attacking former NASA scientist and climate change canary James Hansen in the pages of the New York Times or lobbying against Europe's Fuel Quality Directive (which regards bitumen as much dirtier than conventional oil), his government has spent $100 million since 2009 on ads to convince Canadians that exporting this oil is "responsible resource development." Meanwhile, Canada has bent over backward to entice Beijing. Three state-owned Chinese oil companies (all with dismal records of corporate transparency and environmental sensitivity) have already spent more than $20 billion purchasing rights to oil sands in Alberta.