Blame Canada Part 1: The Country Has Become a Petro-State, Happily Drilling for Profits as the World Warms

Blame Canada is a four part series revealing how Canada has become a wealthy, fossil-fuelled energy superpower and an international climate pariah. Part 2 outlines Canada's climate crimes, part 3 shows how energy 'wealth' contributes to the nation's poverty and part 4 asks What is Happening to Canada?

What's happened to Canada? To the dismay of many a country with an international reputation for relatively progressive environmental policies (at least compared to the United States) is rushing headlong to dig up all the oil, gas, and coal it can. The country’s leaders can scarcely muster the effort to pretend to want to limit climate-heating carbon emissions. And the Canadian business establishment and media have largely gone along with the program. Put it all together, and you have a country that has become a full-blown “petrostate.”

People are starting to notice. Last December at the UN climate talks in Doha, Qatar, Canada beat out tough contenders like Saudi Arabia to be elected “Colossal Fossil” by environmental organizations from around the planet. Canada had the dishonor of being the most uncooperative country out of 193 nations at the climate summit. It was the sixth year in a row that international environmental groups gave Canada their 'highest' award for its persistent efforts to block any agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

What's happened to Canada is that it has experienced a steady takeover by the fossil fuel industry. Canada's is now the world's fifth largest crude oil producer and the biggest supplier of oil to the US. Canada is also the third largest producer of natural gas and one of the top ten miners of coal. This enormous boom in fossil fuel production has been underway since the late 1990s. Like Saudi Arabia, fossil energy is by far Canada's biggest export and has become the dominant economic and political focus.

The emerging energy superpower

Newly-elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper made this perfectly clear in 2006 when he proudly proclaimed Canada as “the emerging energy superpower” during a G8 meeting. Harper, the son of an oil company executive, heads the Conservative party that has pulled Canada sharply to the right. Prior to entering politics, Harper was the climate-change denying head of a right-wing lobby group. Not surprisingly, his government has done little to reduce Canada's carbon emissions, which are among the fastest growing in world. By contrast, US emissions declined in recent years.

But it’s not the only difference between the two countries. Financial support for clean energy has been a consistent priority of the Obama Administration. In Canada, the federal government has effectively ended its support for new renewable energy production and for residential energy efficiency improvements while continuing to give the oil and gas industry $1.4 billion in annual subsidies.

Even as Canadian carbon emissions rise, the Harper government is shutting down some of the country’s few remaining “green” programs. In 2012, the government cancelled a popular home energy retrofit program. The retrofit program reimbursed costs of up to $5,000 for improving energy efficiency in homes. It was unexpectedly cancelled with more than half its budget — $200 million — unspent.

Not surprisingly Canada's climate change policies rank at the very bottom, 58th out of 61 countries, beating only Kazakhstan, Iran and Saudi Arabia according the 2013 Climate Change Performance Index (pdf).

With a majority government Prime Minister Harper doesn’t have to contend with the checks and balances (and filibuster rules) that President Obama faces. If the PM wanted to put a strong climate policy package in place, he could do so tomorrow.

Instead Canada pulled out the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Under the 1997 Kyoto agreement Canada promised and was legally bound to reduce its CO2 emissions by six percent compared to 1990 levels by the end of 2012. (Note: CO2 and carbon are used here interchangeably. Burning fossil fuels are by far the largest source of Canada's emissions, i.e. +90%.)

“My early Christmas present to myself — and to Canada — was to exercise our legal right to get out of the Kyoto Protocol,” Peter Kent, Canada's Minister of the Environment, said in a speech in Calgary, Alberta.

It really wasn't a tough decision,” Kent said.

Canada's 2012 emissions were around 26 percent above 1990 levels mainly due to expansion of the tar sands. They're going to be far higher. During the two weeks following Kent's self-gifted Xmas present, Canada handed out very big presents to oil giants Exxon, France's Total, and Canada's Suncor by approved expansions of their tar sands operations. Those multi-billion-dollar expansions are expected to increase tar sands oil output by one million barrels per day in 2020. With 450 kg of climate-heating CO2 locked in every barrel, plus the additional CO2 emissions from extraction and processing the tarry bitumen, just these three projects will dump an additional 200 million tons of climate-wrecking CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

That's more than the annual emissions of sizeable economies such as Argentina or the Netherlands.

Oddly enough, 88 percent of Canadians believe their country should protect the environment even if this slows economic development according to an October 2012 survey by Environics Institute. Most Canadians are even willing to pay (pdf) higher taxes for solutions to combat climate change.

“Canada has become a 'petrostate,'” says Alberta journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, author of the award winning book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent. A petrostate is a country where much of the wealth comes from oil.

“The Canadian and Alberta governments now lobby on behalf of the oil industry and fight any restrictions on carbon emissions to combat climate change,” Nikiforuk says.

Canada's federal government collected about one billion dollars in 2011 in corporate taxes from the tar sands industry. It does not receive royalties. The province of Alberta where the tar  sands and much of the oil and gas industry is located receives about $10 billion a year in revenues from the oil and gas industry from 1999 to 2008 according to the Parkland Institute, an independent research centre at the University of Alberta. Those revenues are now estimated to be more than than one-third of Alberta's $40 billion annual budget.

Hooked on energy dollars, the Canadian and Alberta governments only make decisions that favour growth of the energy industry, Nikiforuk says.

Click here for Part 2 of Blame Canada.