Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Is Canada the latest emerging petro-tyranny?

Copyright 2007 The Globe and Mail
June 11, 2007 Monday
Calgary journalist and columnist for Canadian Business magazine
Is Canada the latest emerging petro-tyranny?

Every day, the First Law of Petropolitics quietly insinuates its way
into the nation's political blood like a rogue parasite. The law,
first coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, posits that
the price of oil and the quality of freedom invariably travel in
opposite directions.

As the price of crude oil goes higher in an oil-dominated kingdom,
the average citizen will experience, over time, less free speech,
fewer free papers and a steady erosion of the rule of law. The
reason, argues Mr. Friedman, is simple: Oil and gas regimes don't
need to tax their citizens to survive because they can simply tax
another tar sands project, so they really don't have to listen to
their people either.

According to Mr. Friedman, the First Law astutely explains the
emerging petro-tyrannies of Venezuela, Iran, Nigeria and Russia. But
should Alberta and Canada be added to the list?

By any conservative definition Alberta is already a poster child for
the First Law. The government now derives approximately 40 per cent
of its income from oil and gas revenue and has been ruled as a one-
party state for 36 years. It's no accident that Kevin Taft, the
leader of Alberta's fledging Liberal Party, has just written a book
about Canada's oil-soaked kingdom called Democracy Derailed. The
derailing has seemingly erased distinctions between business and
civic affairs. Within six months of quitting his job as Alberta's No.
1 honcho, Ralph Klein (a.k.a. King Ralph) became a paid, senior
business adviser in the oil patch for Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.
Meanwhile, his former chief of staff, Peter Elzinga, leapt from the
employ of oil-sands giant Suncor only to serve as the executive
director of Alberta's Conservative Party months later.

Given their one-sidedness, oil regimes fear transparency. This
explains why Alberta operates one of the most secretive governments
in Canada. Just last year Alberta's Conservative government made it
legal for its petro-tyrants to lock away internal audits for 15 years
and for government ministers to keep their briefing binders out of
public view for five years.

Making propaganda is also one of oil's many antidemocratic
characteristics. The Alberta government currently spends $14-million
a year and employs 117 full-time staff in its Public Affairs Bureau
to tell Albertans what to think. Not even President George W. Bush
employs a propaganda arm this large in the White House.

The tone of government has also become increasingly authoritarian.
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, for instance, declares that he can't
even touch "the brakes" on rapid development in the tar sands any
more than his counterparts in Venezuela or Russia can, say, touch the
brakes on aggressive nationalization. Alberta has also sacrificed the
rule of law. It seems whenever open public debate threatens to
challenge another government-sanctioned energy project, the Energy
and Utilities Board (EUB), a de facto rubber stamp for disorderly
development, shuts down public participation citing "security"
reasons. You never know what a disenfranchised 80-year-old citizen
might say before regulators beholden to hydrocarbons.

Elected bodies no longer pull much weight in Alberta either. Three
times last year the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, a
democratically elected body representing the hardworking citizens of
Fort McMurray, presented compelling arguments for a slowdown of tar
sands development in order to preserve some sense of community. The
EUB, an appointed body, overruled the democrats every time with the
same authoritarian élan championed by Hugo Chavez or Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile the democratic gap between rulers and ruled grows wider
every day. Polls show that Albertans overwhelming favour absolute
reductions for carbon emissions, yet their government champions
calculated inaction. Rural Albertans have asked for tough groundwater
protection but get more oil and gas drilling in their backyards instead.

Exercising freedom of expression in Alberta can be risky too. When
David Swann, the medical officer of health for the Palliser Health
Authority, endorsed the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, for medical reasons
no less, he got fired with a Venezuelan-like promptness. When Dr.
John O'Connor, asked for a proper health study for first nations
living downstream from the oil sands, Health Canada and Alberta
Health, complained to the College of Physicians and Surgeons that he
was "agitating the local population."

Alberta's politics mirror a global phenomenon. In a recent study of
105 oil-rich states between 1971 and 1997, political scientist
Michael Ross consistently found that reliance on oil exports made a
country less democratic regardless of its size, location or ideology.
Oil corrupts and corrupts absolutely. Given that Canada is now ruled
by Albertans and claims to be an "emerging energy superpower" as well
as a "secure source of almost limitless energy resources" for North
America, can Canada defy the axiom of our age?

Politicians serve those first who deliver the most revenue.

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