The Ottawa Citizen has published edited versions of opening statements by the participants in the Oct. 24 Great Canadian Debate at the War Museum. Author and journalist Andrew Nikiforuk argued against the resolution: "President Obama should welcome Canada's ethical oil." For Ted Morton's counterargument, click here. For more on the debates, click here.
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BY ANDREW NIKIFORUK, OTTAWA CITIZEN OCTOBER 28, 2013 12:00 PM

Every Canadian should be disturbed by the government's Soviet-like advocacy for pipelines in order to get landlocked bitumen to U.S. ports or Chinese refineries.

A petro state can't earn a social licence let alone gain ethical approval by wilfully undermining its environmental legislation, defending environmental research or accumulating carbon liabilities on a grand scale with no plan.

Now let's dispense with the dubious notion of "ethical oil" first.

The simple-minded argument goes like this: Canadians are an ethical people: therefore they mine only ethical oil.

But Canadians are a hard rock mining people and reluctant greens at that. We have not only created big mining messes in Peru and Guatemala but also abandoned 10,000 mine sites at home. Such unethical decisions have left Canadian taxpayers with a series of multi-billion-dollar cleanup bills.

Given that the world's wealthiest companies are currently required to only set aside $1-billion in bonds to clean up at least a $15-billion pile of mining waste in the tarsands, the Royal Society of Canada fears that we are about to repeat history and leave citizens with "major financial risks." So let's be honest: extractive economies have never kept company with Mother Teresa.

Oil, the world's most volatile and lucrative commodity, has always been about the money. It can turn any Dr. Jekyll into a nasty Mr. Hyde.

With bitumen, Canada has cultivated more ethical challenges than Sodom and Gomorrah. Bitumen exports now account for nearly a third of the nation's export revenue. Itching to reap where it has not sowed, the federal government wants to double if not triple this currency changing dependency.

According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute the federal government will rake in 41 per cent of $126 billion worth of revenues from bitumen production (the lion's share) between 2000 and 2020.

But Canada has yet to have a serious conversation about this finite inheritance let alone perils of such resource wealth. Contrary to all prudent economic advice, the Conservative government has saved nothing for future generations. But it has used that money to fund a right-wing political revolution exactly the same way Margaret Thatcher employed revenue from North Sea oil.

Next come the moral carbon liabilities. Canadian leaders can brazenly deny the difficult nature of bitumen, a junk crude, but the global scientific community cannot.

The very best science says that the energy-sucking resource owns a 17-per-cent larger carbon footprint than light oil. As a consequence Keystone XL will pour more climate warming pollution into the atmosphere (900,000 million tonnes worth) than light conventional oil over a 50 year period. Yet we don't have a climate action plan let alone a carbon tax, other than lying like hell.

Nor has the country acknowledged that 80 per cent of the world's fossil fuels reserves are really "unburnable assets." But the HSBC bank has. It even warns that, "Capital-intensive, high-cost projects, such as heavy oil and oilsands, are most at risk." Tellingly, Germany's Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research pulled out of oilsands research last year largely due to Canada's poor record on carbon action.

Smart oil exporting nations such as Norway have addressed some of these liabilities. It strengthened its environmental laws and introduced a national carbon tax.

Canada, however, has done the opposite. In two anti-democratic omnibus bills the Conservative government trashed the Fisheries Act, rewrote the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and downgraded the Navigable Waters Protection Act. It did so to accelerate bitumen mining and resource extraction.

Like a good Middle Eastern petro propagandist, the government has tried to disguise its support of private gain at the public expense with a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign. The word "responsible" almost hits the airwaves as frequently as oil train wrecks and Enbridge pipeline spills.

Although Canada may aspire to be an energy superpower, it has abandoned environmental science and infrastructure. We have an office of religious freedom but no chief science adviser. The government eliminated the 25-year-old National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy for the heresy of advocating a national carbon tax. Harper cancelled an ocean pollution research program as well as the Experimental Lakes Area just as this science gem was poised to study bitumen water pollution. Our best oil spill expert saw the writing on the wall and took a job in Australia.

We also have a fossil fuel innovation crisis in the tarsands. Half of all production now comes from steam plants that burn natural gas to heat water to melt bitumen.

These inefficient operations create three times more carbon emissions than the mines, disturb twice as much land and threaten vast stretches of groundwater. Incredibly, they deliver energy returns that are as poor as corn ethanol. Moreover, the amount of steam needed to produce a barrel of oil keeps on growing.

As University of Calgary bitumen experts Ian Gates and Steve Larter noted in a recent public presentation "revolutionary technologies that lead to major downward shifts of the invested energy (steam) and emissions versus oil produced have not yet appeared." And yet the federal government wants to build more pipelines to waste more resources and energy producing raw bitumen.

So if President Barack Obama says no to Keystone XL, he'll do Canadians a big moral favour.

A resolute no might invite some national reflection on the pace and scale of this Goliath project or lead us to the sage advice of Peter Lougheed. He offered a profoundly different resource model than Harper's "strip it and ship it" game.

It brimmed with integrity and restraint: Behave like an owner. Collect your fair share. Save for the rainy day. Go slow. Approve only one project at a time. Clean up the mess. Add value to the resource.

And that's the ethical course Canada has wilfully avoided to date.

Andrew Nikiforuk is a contributing editor to The Tyee and author of the national bestseller, Tarsands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. Thursday evening at the War Museum, in a debate hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and moderated by the Hon. Peter Milliken, former speaker of the House of Commons, journalist and author Andrew Nikiforuk and former Alberta energy minister Ted Morton debated the resolution: "President Obama should welcome Canada's ethical oil." Reprinted here are their opening statements.

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