Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

2010 Organizing and the Tar Sands: Inspiring the SPP and Helping the Olympics

2010 Organizing and the Tar Sands: Inspiring the SPP and Helping the Olympics
By Macdonald Stainsby; July 14, 2008 - Znet

For much of the last year, many of the anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian forces across Canada have started to work towards converging many of the bigger issues to take place in 2010 into a larger whole.

Some of the issues included are: The 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, the next round of Security and Prosperity Partnership [SPP] negotiations to be held within Canada -- and the G8 Summit to be held in Ontario all during that same year. On many different levels these issues interlink and have an inherent connection with one another. Some of them, more than others. Here I wish to make the case that what belongs as a major thread through all of these discussions is often absent among those of us trying to make these larger connections coherent in our organizing.

Here I will specifically focus on making a connection for the 2010 Games resistance, the SPP and the Albertan Tar Sands as another central organizing point.

When people try and establish a comprehensive vision of what the critique around the 2010 Games is from a social point, the list involves the decimation of whole working-class neighbourhoods, housing, increased security measures, trade and migration changes in a regressive direction, the further removal and/or denial of sovereignty at the local level for many first nations and the further attack on the environment in the name of ecology.

In all the cases listed above, and others not listed, there are shared results with the hyper-growth of the largest industrial project in human history. The tar sands -- under their "rebranded" name of oil sands, received an entire separate round of talks and agreements within the SPP negotiations -- "The Oil Sands Experts group". Their opening, "executive summary" makes it plain:

"President Bush, Prime Minister Martin and President Fox officially announced the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) agreement in March 2005. The energy activities of the SPP encompass a trilateral effort among Mexico, the United States and Canada, to create a sustainable energy economy for North America. The Canadian oil sands are one of the world's largest hydrocarbon resources and will be a significant contributor to energy supply and security for the continent. As such, the three countries agreed to collaborate through the SPP on the sustainable development of the oil sands resources and an ad hoc 'Oil Sands Experts Group' was formed that includes the U.S., Canadian and Alberta Government representatives.1"

The kind of strange new world that is being enunciated in these SPP negotiations even before we know what the plans include already has the Albertan government given near-state status, sitting along side the Canadian Government (then headed by Paul Martin and with current Liberal Leader Stephane Dion as Environment Minister) and that of the United States. Before the actual documents began the various explicit thank yous to certain participants in this forum of the SPP included four members of Natural Resources Canada, six named members of the US Department of Energy, two from the Energy Department of Alberta as well as the speakers of the "working groups"-- from Jacobs Engineering in Canada along with the commercial director for British Petroleum. Mexico had an observer from their energy department present. The entire session was facilitated by a consultant from Calgary.

The discussions involve the problems of delivery and energy supplies needed to create the level of production "necessary" to reach their goal set of quintupling production (to a level that would outstrip the productive capacity of both Iraq and Iran):

"The geography of North America requires integrated long distance pipelines that transport crudes and finished products. New pipelines and pipeline expansion plans are already in place to meet the certain doubling of oil sands production to two million barrels per day by 2010 to 2012 timeframe. This includes extensions of the market va a west coast port, and more deeply into the U.S. However, pursuing new markets beyond then will necessitate an expansion in delivery systems. The fivefold expansion anticipated for oil sands products in a relatively short time span will represent many challenges for the pipeline industry. New and expanded pipelines will move more volume into existing and expanding interior U.S. markets, and offer shipments to California via the Canadian West Coast.2"

Further explaining what these kinds of developments will mean, they explicate it with:

"Regulatory and permitting issues were cited as a concern on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border, as they impact the overall risk and timing of pipeline investments. In the United States, pipeline companies face an often complicated and "patchwork" collection of local, state, or federal regulations as well as potential obligations to Native American groups."


"Governments are encouraged to streamline the regulatory approval process and better manage the risk to both pipeline and energy projects. Canadian governments have already gone a long way to coordinating and streamlining the environmental and regulatory approvals, but more needs to be done."3

In other words, for a project that crosses the entire continent, the legal challenges that could be posed by local communities and indigenous nations are to be negotiated away ahead of time. Canada is already touted as having done a great deal of work eliminating these "barriers".

The extent to which labour has already been stretched beyond capacity is earmarked for discussion as well:

"The rapid pace of development in Alberta and in other parts of North America has contributed to escalating demands for in skilled trades people and professional engineers that have placed pressure on their availability as well as the cost of their services. These pressures could affect development plans and time lines for oil sands projects, pipelines, upgraders and refineries. Construction materials also face similar pressures. Several of the groups also discussed the infrastructure limitations in the fast growing region of Fort McMurray.4"

The promise of actually looking into a social impact of the proposed plans was negated only a short way into the "experts report" however:

"While important to Canada, issues related to bitumen production, internal infrastructure, societal challenges from rapid growth, and the environmental footprint were not a focus of this workshop."5

So now that any discussion of what the social or environmental impacts are has been ruled out, we can get back to the "important stuff" of the "expert's" discussions. Such as how problematic it is to ship all of the produced bitumen, "synthetic" light crude and various blends of these, given pipeline infrastructure problems. These issues -- discussed after mandating Canada in the documents with dealing with "societal challenges" and "the environmental footprint" on their own -- need resolution due to a serious need for more pipelines and refineries. The logic here is "we make the plans at this level, the Canadian government is tasked with coming up with a 'legal' sounding way to implement these plans". Not truly encouraging.

However, there is one "societal challenge" area that the SPP talks have no qualms about recommending changes towards: Labour, or more specifically (im)migration regulations.

"While not directly related to market availability issues, strained availability of trained construction personnel in Alberta, coupled with the relatively remote locations of many of the projects, have led to significant capital cost overruns in recent major projects. Low initial estimates likely also contributed to this situation. The combination of these factors was responsible for the scaling down of plans for another major project. Canadian governments are already aware of the need to review immigration rules to allow a faster influx of skilled trades and professionals from outside of Canada."6 (emphasis added)

Other analysts have written of many of the machinations by which the SPP plans to create a new, highly exploitable and disposable labour force through programs like the "Temporary Foreign Worker" program. The key to note here is the sheer volume and magnitude of these construction programs for the "Gigaproject" of the tar sands. Shortly after the above description of labour needs, the "proposed action" laid out was: "Industry and construction associations in Alberta need to pursue this issue of availability of skilled labour at both the federal and provincial levels of the Canadian government."7 To keep clear to people of what is and is not part of the SPP's "Experts" scope, three paragraphs and a little bit later we are reminded:

"The upgrading and refining working groups also discussed a number of environmental issues in bitumen recovery and upgrading, and infrastructure limitations in the fast growing region of Fort McMurray. While these challenges are important in the overall development of the resource, they are considered outside the scope of this workshop's focus on market expansion and related initiatives."8 (emphasis added)

In terms of how to construct the needed infrastructure, yet more "streamlining" is proposed by the "Experts". The highlights of pipeline discussions include:

"Ultimately, the market will determine the appropriate investment decisions. Continued communication among governments, associations, and pipeline companies and their clients is necessary. Governments can help to ensure that issues are raised and discussed, such as at the Oil Sands Experts Working Group Workshop."

"Regulatory issues were cited as a major concern on both sides of the Canada/U.S. border. This applies not only to new construction but also to expansion or reversal of existing pipelines. [....]

In November 2005, as part of the SPP, the NEB and the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration signed an MOU that set the stage for increased compliance data sharing as well as staff exchanges and joint training opportunities.

Canadian governments have already gone a long way to coordinating and streamlining the environmental and regulatory approvals, but more needs to be done. [....]

Governments need to streamline regulatory approval and better manage the risk to both pipeline and energy projects. Providing process mapping and a one-stop-shop for proponents would help to ease the complexity, facilitate coordination and reduce the time required for regulatory approval and permitting. Expanding the planning horizon and including all stakeholders such as government, producers, NGO's, First Nations, and private landowners, could help to identify and resolve the environmental and accommodation concerns in a more timely manner. [....]

Governments can help to ensure that information about projects is collected and disseminated, and that issues are raised and discussed, such as at the workshop. With respect to infrastructure and workforce issues, government needs to take the lead with policy issues dealing with immigration and infrastructure while greater industry transparency would aid with long-term planning."

To help understand this perspective, a single long distance pipeline can take upwards of five-figures worth of workers. In order to meet the goals being set by the SPP's "experts", the continuation of the trend begun in 2006 -- with more "temporary foreign workers" coming into Alberta than landed immigrants-- must not only continue, but be ramped up by astronomical numbers. Such is by far the greatest need that the North American energy grid has, if it is to construct many dozens of pipelines, refineries, upgraders, open pit mines and in-situ operations themselves. The complete wholesale creation of a super exploitable underclass of worker across all of Canada must be established, akin to the TFW employees building the "Canada" line in Vancouver timed for the beginning of the Olympics -- but on a scale of many multiple times larger.

In our organizing and understanding we correctly identify the wholesale changes being planned for the continent through the changes to many different regulations, from labour, to "citizenship" through to environmental. These analyses are all correct, but they are not holistic. There are specific plans underway for these negotiations, and the impacts and outgrowths of all of them are staking out the heart of the social changes for human beings under the continuation of the SPP. Twinned with agreements like the Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, or TILMA, the local levers of resistance are being quietly negotiated away. This is happening at a time when, for a multiplicity of reasons, there is seemingly no turning back from $120-plus a barrel of oil.

As a means to secure the price of oil stays high enough for the second largest reserves of oil on the planet, the same people who have brought us a war on Iraq will manipulate the costs of oil high enough to make a major play for construction of access to the second largest deposit of oil on the planet. Soon enough, geology takes over as old oil wells run dry the world over, and these high-energy cost reserves remain the only way left to "preserve the [North] American way of life."

When we organize to confront the Security and Prosperity Partnership continually up until and through the SPP negotiations in 2010, when we speak against the wholesale wiping out of neighbourhoods in Vancouver and multiple unceded [native] nations in the west, we are speaking against many of the same issues -- except on a larger scale -- being brought about by the latest play of a dying global petroleum based economy. In the year 2010, as a part of the mass convergences on the Olympics and on the SPP (and the G8 among many), we need to educate our own ranks and speak forcefully to understand the central role that high oil has in all of these plans. A fight against the kinds of mass exploitation of people and nations being visited upon us all by the tar sands is being negotiated through the SPP and is being given full-flight through the militarization of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver.

For us to have a chance to defeat the monoliths being proposed through agreements like the SPP, we need to look where often we do not -- the disappearing forests and expanding moonscapes in northern Alberta: Ground Zero for the largest industrial project in human history, and the progenitor of the vast de-regulation of how human and ecological resources are weighed against corporate power and militarized states that seek energy and profit. The 2010 Convergences, to have a lasting impact, need to make an analysis of the tar sands an integral part of the work to be done over the next less-than-two years. Maybe we haven't got the answers -- if so, we must become skilled at learning.


Macdonald Stainsby is a writer, social justice activist and professional hitchhiker who is looking for a ride to the better world. He is also the co-ordinator of http://oilsandstruth.org

He can be reached at: macdonald@oilsandstruth.org

Oilsandstruth.org is not associated with any other web site or organization. Please contact us regarding the use of any materials on this site.

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