Monday, June 25, 2007

Canada: The Pentagon's gas tank

So, I was listening to Andrew Nikiforuk on CBC this morning. Apparently, he's written a piece in the Globe and Mail about how Alberta, and increasingly Canada, are "petro-tyrannies" because of the dominance of oil in our economy. It's a bit too self-consciously "provocative" for me. Also, it suffers from the irredeemable flaw of taking Tom Friedman seriously. That said, there's something here worth discussing.

First of all, the whole "law of petropolitics" that Nikiforuk (via Friedman) is so worried about didn't seem to apply in either the UK or Norway, as just two examples. The North Sea oil boom didn't usher in a dictatorship of any kind, no matter how bad you think Maggie Thatcher was. Moreover, Nigeria has been getting more democratic as it's oil revenues have increased in the last decade. How do we square this with petrotyranny? We don't, because it's just some turd that Tom Friedman dropped on the NY Times op-ed page a while back, and doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

There is, however, a much more rigorous and complex field of political science that looks at various "resource curses" throughout the world, including gold, diamonds, and of course oil. Golda Meir once joked "Don't talk to me about Moses -- he led us to the one country in the Middle East without oil." Might be, that was the best thing Moses ever did for the Jews: looking at, oh, every major oil-producing country in the world today south of Turkey, they're all what Gwynne Dyer calls "full-spectrum failures". They've failed to deal with their economies, failed to deal with their own politics, and crucially failed to deal with the existence of Israel. If it weren't for the oil under their feet, these regimes would all have ceased to exist long ago. The wealth that oil brings manages, in some cases, to keep things liveable.

So what does this have to do with Alberta? Well, some. Oil wealth does let a government make a lot of mistakes and not have to pay for them -- Ralph Klein's debacle with energy deregulation was papered over with oil money.

(Hm. Klein's idiotic deregulation scheme cost the people of Alberta as much tax money as the problems at Human Resources Canada and the gun registry and the Sponsorship scandal, combined. Which of these issues got more air time in your eyes? Did you even know about Alberta's problems with electricity?)

But Nikiforuk seems to worry that this is a permanent state of affairs, and that Harper's ascendance is about to pave over the rest of Canadian democracy because of the impulse to develop the tar sands, so that we can be the new "Energy Superpower". I'm not as worried. The first thing is simply that we can expect Alberta's natural gas production to start dropping rapidly any day now, and when that goes it's going to take a substantial chunk of the Albertan government's income with it. Edmonton gets more money from gas ($5 billion, out of $35 billion in total provincial revenues) than it does from both forms of oil, so when production goes in to steep decline the Alberta treasury is going to have a serious shortfall to make up -- and that's assuming there aren't any knock-on effects on oil production, which of course there will be: the tar sands are powered by natural gas, after all.

One thing that I absolutely agree with Nikiforuk on is the need to actually stop and think about what we're doing in Alberta. Did we ever, as a country, vote about whether or not we want to be the gas stop for the American empire? I don't remember it, but Chretien, Martin, and Harper have all pursued this policy of supplanting Saudi Arabia as US gas stop with enthusiasm. The Americans, for their part, have no illusions about what Canada's role in the 21st century is: Cheney speaks regularly about Canada's role as "energy security" for the US.

And, once again, we need to face the obvious: Canada will never, ever, ever meet it's Kyoto obligations -- or any other climate change objectives -- so long as we're obsessed with wringing blood from a stone: the tar sands are too dirty, and require too much energy themselves, to ever be sustainable.

1 comment:

ADHR said...

It's worth noting that the unsustainability of resource economies is the flipside of the resource curse: on the one hand, abundant resources allow peoples to avoid the kind of diversification (and trade!) that creates stable economies; and, on the other hand, abundant resources are never abundant enough. Sooner or later, all resource-based economies have to change or die, because the oil/diamonds/furs/lumber/duck-billed platypuses either ran out or became too expensive to extract.

You have to wonder whether the Alberta government believes that the oil revenues will keep coming forever, or just believes that it's the "ordinary Albertan" who'll have to bear the brunt of the eventual collapse.