Nebraska rancher Randy Thompson says he has big issues with Canada, or to be precise with TransCanada. The Calgary-based corporation, which bills itself as a "leading energy infrastructure company," wants to build a $7 billion pipeline to transport ultraheavy bitumen from the Alberta oil sands across the Great Plains. The controversial 36-inch Keystone XL pipeline would not only cross the largest freshwater aquifer in North America (the Ogallala) but slice through Nebraska’s unique Sand Hills and cut across 80 acres of Thompsons’s land by the Platte River. "I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere, who would want an oil pipeline of this magnitude running directly through their water supply," the rancher says.
Having previously thought of "our neighbors to the north" as a friendly and fair-minded bunch, Thompson was stunned by the company’s arrogance. When he said that it wasn’t welcome on his land, TransCanada, which still doesn’t have a federal building permit, sent him two letters threatening to impose eminent domain if he didn’t agree to a deal. "They make you know from the git-go that they are in charge and that if you say no, they’ll bring in the big lawyers and courts and condemn your property," Thompson says. "They violated my constitutional rights." After he told the company to stay off his land, on the very day his mother died last June, TransCanada had the gall to send a bunch of flowers to the funeral signed "Keystone Pipeline." Thompson told the mortician to throw them in the garbage.
Before the pipeline came calling, Jane Kleeb, director of Bold Nebraska, a local activist group, also had a benign view of Canada as a forested country with funky rock bands such as the Barenaked Ladies. But then she watched TransCanada lobby against Nebraska pipeline regulations, allegedly make illegal donations to political candidates (the state’s governor and attorney general had to give the money back), and shower hundreds of thousands of dollars on the state fair and community groups. "I no longer see Canada as an environmentally friendly place," Kleeb says. Nor, today, does much of the world.
Although Canada pretends to be a jolly green giant, it is actually a resource-exploiting Jekyll and Hyde. Whenever global demand for metals and minerals booms, Canada takes on a sinister personality. And whenever export markets shrivel, the country temporarily retreats into a kindly figure with no memory of the misdeeds of his alter ego. But for most of Canada’s history, the nasty Mr. Hyde has dominated the nation’s economic life as a hewer of wood, a netter of fish, a dammer of rivers, and a miner of metals. The world’s second-largest country (after Russia) even traces its origins to a British business monopoly: the Hudson Bay Company, which set up the dismal pattern that persists today by emptying the nation’s forests and rivers of furs to feed Europe’s luxury hat market. Next came dried and salted cod, which cheaply fed slave plantations in the Caribbean and the American South. Then came trees. At one point Canada pulped 90 percent of the world’s newsprint (and polluted most of the nation’s major waterways in the process). It also dug up the uranium employed in the world’s first atomic bombs. Now it’s bitumen.
David Schindler of the University of Alberta, a Minnesota-born farm boy and now one of Canada’s foremost water scientists, traces Canada’s brief metamorphosis from unabashed natural resource developer to green icon solely to a series of political reforms in the 1970s and 1980s. That’s when Canada led the world in fish and water science and acted boldly on acid rain, phosphate pollution in lakes, and protection of the ozone layer. A few United Nations peacekeeping missions combined with a reputation for politeness created the illusion that Canada was something more than a clear-cut logger or asbestos miner.
But many of the most successful environmental initiatives of those decades, such as the government’s Freshwater Institute, have since been severely trimmed, ignored, or disbanded. Incredibly, Canada, home to the world’s third-largest supply of renewable freshwater, has no national water protection plan or legislation along the lines of the U.S. Clean Water Act. In 2007, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper created a council focused on economic competition, dispensing with the office of chief science officer in the process. Harper, who took office in 2006, has also restricted media access to government scientists, especially on climate change issues.
In 2007 the Harper government created an agency, the Major Project Management Office, charged with ensuring "timely" regulatory review of megaprojects in order to accelerate exports; the Keystone XL pipeline was one of the earliest projects green-lighted by the new office. The MPMO now lists 34 gold, uranium, bitumen, and nuclear projects approved or under review. (In 2010 the government also opened a northern office to provide "pathfinding guidance" for, among other things, a $4 billion iron ore mine on Baffin Island in the Arctic. This is just one of many developments planned to industrialize Canada’s thawing north.)
"The government is all about greenwashing, and about telling people how good we are," Schindler says. "It worked for a while but it’s not working anymore."
Canada’s growing disdain for environmental regulations and standards neatly coincides with the latest global commodity boom. As China, India, and the United States have demanded more minerals and oil, Canada has answered the call by digging and drilling furiously. About 75 percent of Canadian exports now go to the United States. "Saudi Canada" became America’s top oil supplier in 1999 and now accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. oil imports.
Canada also supplies the United States with large amounts of natural gas and hydroelectricity as well as one-third of the uranium used in U.S. nuclear power plants. Whenever Canada exhausts one resource, it plumbs the landscape for another marketable staple. After the spectacular collapse of Canada’s Atlantic cod fishery due to overfishing in the 1990s, many of the industry’s 35,000 workers found employment halfway across the country, digging up bitumen in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Because Newfoundlanders make up 30 percent of the boomtown’s population of 80,000, migrant workers now call the place "Newfoundland’s second-largest city."
In the 1930s the Canadian political economist Harold Innis described this peculiar and volatile pillage of resources for foreign markets the "staples theory" of development. More recently, the U.S. political scientist Terry Lynn Karl documented how governments dependent on revenue generated by a succession of staples -- whether they be oil, diamonds, or gold -- become dysfunctional. Addicted to easy resource dollars, they tend to lower taxes and, over time, to place the interests of the resource over those of their citizens. Ultimately, resource revenues undermine statecraft and democracy alike. Most people associate this "resource curse" with poor African countries, but Canada suffers from a longer-lasting version of the fever. "On the Canadian list of fundamental freedoms," says Mel Watkins, a prominent Canadian economist, "the very first is to export anything, anywhere, regardless of the consequences."
The environmental implications of such short-term thinking are predictable. The government of Canada itself reported in 2008 that there was a "lack of will" to enforce or even fund the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Moreover, annual reports by Environment Canada, the country’s subdued version of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, routinely highlight negative trends for water quality, air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions. Between 2005 and 2007, 58 percent of the nation’s 176 long-term water monitoring stations reported water quality as "fair," "poor," or "marginal." A 2008 report from the Conference Board of Canada, an independent business research group with few green credentials, ranked Canada’s environmental performance 15th out of 17 industrial nations. Canada, for example, earned a grade of D for unsustainable fishing practices, profligate water use, and grotesque levels of municipal waste. It was at the bottom of the list for emissions of hazardous volatile organic compounds. Thanks to intensive energy use, forestry, and fossil fuel production, the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions stood at 22.6 metric tons per capita, nearly double the average for the 17 nations in the study. The report concluded, "Without serious attention to environmental sustainability, Canada puts its society and its quality of life at risk."
A Shocking Endeavor
Bitumen, a black, viscous crude, is Canada’s latest Hyde-like sensation. Nobody who has seen the giant open-pit bitumen mines and surreal lakes of mining waste along the Athabasca River (which are visible from outer space) has a rational adjective for the crude venture. Nevertheless, Bruce March, the president of Imperial Oil, a Canadian subsidiary of ExxonMobil, hails the project as "the engine of the Canadian economy." The nonpartisan U.S. Council on Foreign Relations attributes the resource’s rapid development to the low taxes and royalties paid by oil firms as well as a political culture "skeptical of environmental regulation." In the past decade oil barons from around the world have spent $200 billion to achieve a production rate of nearly two million barrels a day. Just preparing the sticky and messy resource creates waste piles of seven million metric tons of petroleum coke (a coal-like waste product) per year, as well as mountains of sulfur. Processing bitumen into a synthetic crude also currently consumes one-fifth of the nation’s natural gas supply -- and all to produce a fuel whose carbon footprint is 17 percent to 23 percent larger than that of conventional light oil.
Prime Minister Harper, the son of an Imperial Oil accountant, has described the megaproject as "an enterprise of epic proportions, akin to the building of the pyramids or China’s Great Wall. Only bigger." Over the next 30 years Canada’s bitumen miners will excavate 1,850 square miles of forest, digging enough 250-foot-deep holes to swallow up the state of Delaware. The highly profitable industry has already created enough toxic sludge -- six billion barrels -- to cover New York’s Staten Island or Washington, D.C. in several feet of waste. Instead of restoring a land of low-lying boreal wetlands and peat bogs, the miners have a legal mandate to create something called "equivalent land capability." This vague term translates into an engineered landscape made up of manicured, grassy hills and fake lakes containing tons of mining waste.