Tar Sands: Canada’s Mordor

Andrew Nikiforuk
Interviewed by David Barsamian
Calgary, AB, Canada
March 2, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Andrew Nikiforuk speak for himself here.

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Canadian journalist. His articles appear in major newspapers and magazines. He is the author of Saboteurs and Empire of the Beetle. His book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent was honored with the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award.

In Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, you write:

The Alberta tar sands could make Canada the world’s second greatest oil exporter by 2050. Although growth has been tempered by the global financial crisis, U.S., Asian, and European investors are still pouring billions of dollars into the megaproject to extract the world’s ugliest, most expensive hydrocarbon. We are polluting our air, poisoning our water, destroying vast areas of boreal forest, and undermining democracy itself.

That’s quite a litany of charges. Before we get to them specifically, why don’t we place the tar sands geographically.

The tar sands are really a massive deposit of low-grade, junk crude in the northern forests of Canada that are located in northwestern Alberta very close to the border of the Northwest Territories. So this is a deposit of crude that at one time was light oil that has been badly degraded by bacteria. It’s now this really messy, clunky, heavy crude that is buried under the forest floor and that must be mined in order to bring it up to surface. Oil companies and geologists and scientists have all looked at this resource for nearly 100 years and said,

The day will come when we’re going to have to exploit a resource as extreme as bitumen.

Bitumen being?

Bitumen is the word used to describe this kind of hydrocarbon. Bitumen is really a mixture of, again, this low-grade junk crude with sand and clay. And it’s quite a process to remove the sand and clay and water from this resource in order to get heavy oil.

This has been actually known for more than a century. Going back to the 1880s, there’s a federal report, which you cite in your book, calling the tar sands

the most extensive petroleum field in America.

Fifty, sixty years later, The Saturday Evening Post, no radical U.S. magazine, declared,

Canada, so near and friendly a neighbor that her resources cannot thoughtfully be considered foreign and alien, has a vast bed of tar sands in Alberta, the largest known deposit of oil in the world.

That was in 1943.

Americans have always taken a very keen interest in this deposit.


The whole oil economy began in the U.S. The Americans were really, truly the first pioneers of petroleum. As a consequence, all the world’s major oil companies all started largely in the U.S., and then you had British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell trying to catch up. But the Americans realized that—one of the issues they always had was they kept on finding fields, depleting them, and then worrying about where they were going to get their next batch of oil from. J. Howard Pew, who was president of Sun Oil, which was a Pennsylvania-based company, the eighth wealthiest man in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, was very much kind of an American Arab sheik, if you like. He had very strong religious beliefs, many of which today people would consider extreme, but he also valued heavy oil. He recognized the Athabasca tar sands as being a critical resource. He was actually one of the first to actually plunk down a heck of a lot of money in the 1960s to figure out an economic way to exploit it.

And bitumen you say “looks like black molasses and smells like asphalt.” Not a particularly attractive quality.

No. Because it is this really junk resource in the sense that there’s lots of it but it takes so much energy to pull it out of the ground. Then you have to upgrade it because it’s of such poor quality: you’ve got to get the sand and the clay and the water out of there; then you have got something called synthetic crude, and that requires even more complex refining, because it’s full of acids and tannins and sulfur and heavy metals. So it is what it is. It’s kind of a bottom-of-the-barrel resource. It’s a signature of peak oil in the sense that we wouldn’t be in tar sands which are capital-intensive, tenergy-intensive, and dirty if we weren’t running out of the cheap stuff and light oil. And, of course, we are.

And what about the environmental impact? Does it contribute to global warming?

The big issue with bitumen is that it is really rich in carbon. This is a resource that is carbon-heavy and hydrogen-poor. So one of the things you actually have to do when you’re upgrading it into synthetic crude is you’ve got to take those carbon atoms out, and you end up with these massive petroleum coke piles, millions and millions of tons, in the northern forest. Then you’ve got to put hydrogen in. And that hydrogen is coming from natural gas that has been cracked. So all along the way the production of this resource is much more carbon-intensive, 23% more, generally, than light oil or conventional oil. So it’s got a much bigger carbon footprint.

Now, does it contribute to go global warming? Every bit is a contribution. I put it this way: It is highly significant. It now accounts for 7% of Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, and soon will surpass all emissions from transportation fuels in the country. That’s a big footprint.

What’s the political connection between Ottawa, where the federal government is located and where Stephen Harper, the prime minister sits, with these large oil corporations? This is Harper’s home turf, right, Calgary?

Alberta is his home turf. And Alberta is really kind of a Texas on steroids. It has been a petrostate for a long time in the sense that the government of Alberta is highly dependent on revenue from oil and gas. This dependence on oil and gas revenue has allowed one party to dominate politics in the province for 40 years. So the Conservatives, or the Tories, are the party that has basically run the province for 40 long years. It’s much like the Democrats in Texas. They ran Texas for 90 years on the basis of Texas’s oil wealth. So we have a similar here kind of pattern going on in Alberta.

From this power base of oil and money we now have a political party running the country, the Tories as well, that are behaving just like your typical petro-politicians, much like Rick Perry or other folks in the U.S. What’s really interesting to me is that when you look at the behavior of petrostates—and they’re very different from jurisdictions that don’t have all of this money from oil—one of the things they do is they take that oil wealth and they lower taxes. In so doing they immediately sever the very important and significant bond between representation and taxation. If you’re not being taxed, you’re not going to be represented. That’s the startling thing that happens in every petrostate. The first thing they do is say, Okay, you don’t have to worry about taxes anymore. Oil and gas revenue is going to pay for everything. It’s going to build your schools and pave your roads and run your hospitals. So you have this incredible transfer of power and accountability from duly elected political officials suddenly to an entire industry. That’s very much a force at work here in Alberta, as it is in Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana, and Alaska. The first thing all of those states did was to lower taxes and run on oil revenue.

When you do you that, who are you accountable to? At the end of the day, those jurisdictions come to represent the resource or the developers of the resource. Which is why Louisiana, Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming are such wacky states are considered so extreme and different from the rest of the U.S., just as Alberta is considered like, Wow, this is a really crazy jurisdiction in Canada. And it is, because nothing here that’s going on is normal. It’s not based on scarcity, it’s not based on any sort of prudence or resilience . It’s all based on, Man, we’ve got lots of money and we’re going to spend it and we’re going to use it to concentrate power. That’s what petrostates do.

We’re sitting in the studios of CJSW in Calgary. Just a few miles from here is a plethora of glass tower skyscrapers, kind of representing that concrete manifestation of oil power.

The world’s seven most profitable companies by revenue are all oil and gas companies, some of them privately owned, some of them state-owned.

The prime minister, Stephen Harper, who represents the Conservatives is from Calgary. He was a member of parliament. But his father—

He is also from the oil patch. He worked as a kid on the rigs. His father was an executive for Imperial Oil. He was an accountant. So Stephen Harper is as steeped in the culture of the oil and gas industry as George Bush was, coming from Texas. The same pedigree, the same religious beliefs in the sense that Stephen Harper is a Christian fundamentalist in the same way that George Bush Jr. was a Christian fundamentalist. It’s interesting that the funders of fundamentalism in the U.S. have been since the 1900s the oil patch. It was a California oil company that was the first publisher of a document called The Fundamentals, which really serves as the basis for Christian evangelical fundamentalism in the U.S.

So are you saying that the extraction of resources, in this case of oil, is almost given divine sanction, because if God didn’t want us to do that, he wouldn’t have put the oil in the ground?

It gives it a divine sanction. But there’s this very strange and odd connection between the power and the money generated by resource extraction and religious extremism. You go to Saudi Arabia, and who did oil enrich there? They, again, enriched this fundamentalist cult, the Wahhabis, that have this incredible lock on Saudi society and Saudi politics and Saudi economics. In the same way that you go to places like Louisiana, again, Texas, Oklahoma would be another good example, and Alaska—Sarah Palin would be a perfect example of this—where, again, you find defenders of rapid resource extraction, particularly oil and gas, all have this religious ideology to go along with it. Much like slaveholders did in the 19th century in the U.S. It was called divine providence, and the idea was, God has given us the right to do what we’re doing.

We see in the U.S. an urgent connection between Washington and Riyadh. That connection, because Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves, has caused Washington to overlook misogyny, homophobia, racism, sectarianism, a whole list of transgressions, all because of oil. Does that go to your comment about how democracy is undermined?

It does. It’s another example of it. Oil just really blinds politicians, period. There’s a reason why it’s called “black gold.” There’s also a reason why the Venezuelans in the 1930s and 1940s, when oil was really taking off in that country, came up with the expression that “Oil is the devil’s excrement,” because they could see how rapidly the money was beginning to erode political accountability, was beginning to enrich a very small sector of the economy, the oil producers, the oil workers, and was orienting all life in Venezuela to the production of oil at the expense of all other economic sectors and all other classes. So oil, then, is very much a hindrance to democracy.

In fact, a very important group of political scientists, led by Terry Lynn Karl at Stanford University, as well as Michael Ross at the University of California, have been looking at this whole issue for years. They started out by saying,

Why are there no democracies in the Middle East other than Israel and ostensibly Lebanon?

They said,

Neither one of those countries has oil.

And they said,

Okay, what is it about oil that prevents democracies from arising in the Middle East?

They conducted these studies, and what they found was really quite fascinating. Oil enriches whatever the culture is there at hand. And oil has never been interested in democracy. Oil has always been about money and power. One of the peculiar characteristics of petrostates is the fact that the money is falling in such great streams that it allows the governor of a particular state or a political party to really have these long, unhealthy extended rules, whether we’re talking about Huey Long and his family in Louisiana, the Bushes in Texas, or the Tories here in Alberta for 40 years. Qaddafi ruled Libya for nearly 40 years. The Shah of Iran was there for 26 years. There’s this very strong connection between long, authoritarian rule and petrostates.

Speaking of Iran, the war drums are beating loudly in Washington and Tel Aviv about a possible attack on that country, which I think it’s fair to say would have catastrophic consequences on the price of oil. Now it’s over $100 a barrel. It may go to $200-$300 if that occurs. Wouldn’t a war be against the best economic interests of Israel and the U.S.?

It would really screw up the works in many ways. But there’s a very strong lobby to keep oil prices high. The U.S. really hasn’t looked hard and long at what’s really going on in Iran. Iran is a petrostate, has been for 50-60 years. And it has all of the characteristics of a petrostate in the sense that the government is incompetent and not terribly smart about how it goes about doing business, and its primary aim seems to be to subsidize its people with cheap oil. As a consequence of that, it’s really mismanaged its oil fields, so poorly that the revenue stream from oil is dropping in Iran.

That presented the Iranian government with a huge problem. How do we address that? That’s what got them into their nuclear program in part, was to say, Okay, if we have nuclear power, that will free up more oil for exports so we can keep the money coming into our government. The Americans just saw the nuclear program as, Oh, these guys to want blow up stuff in the Middle East, which is probably not the Iranian intent. But it does serve oil companies and petrostates and the Middle East to actually start beating the war drums. That just keeps the price of oil high.

One of the really interesting guys in the U.S. who has pointed this all out is Roger Stern. He’s a geographer, at the University of Tulsa now. Stern made the point that, look, the only way to respond to this kind of market power and to petrostates is for the U.S. to consume less oil, and to do so in a very concerted fashion and to get going with energy taxes and to get going with conservation in a big way. That’s the only way to break the market power of any group. He’s been making that argument for years. And, of course, no one in the U.S. seems to be listening.

In the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was the president of the U.S., his secretary of state Henry Kissinger brokered a deal with the Shah of Iran, who was telling the Americans, Look, oil is a finite resource, it’s not going to be here forever. I have to look after the long-term interests of the Iranian people and provide for a secure, clean energy source. He wanted nuclear reactors. Kissinger and Ford went along with that. They thought, Brilliant analysis there, Mr. Shah. You’re right on. However, now, when the Iranians say the same thing, it’s regarded as propaganda and is immediately dismissed.

That’s very much what has been happening. What is curious, too, is that for the U.S.—and Stern has pointed that out—the cost of keeping navy carriers in the Persian Gulf in response to the so-called threat of an oil blockade has been enormous. Since the 1970s the U.S. has spent $7 trillion alone on what Stern calls “force projection.” That’s simply keeping a navy there in the Middle East to keep a watch on things just in case the oil gets strangled. In addition to that is the $3 trillion the U.S. has spent on buying oil from the Middle East. When you start adding up those figures, it’s no wonder that the U.S. today is now bankrupt.

You have to ask, Who benefits from had this sort of policy? Petrostates benefit, oil companies benefit, military hardware guys benefit. But the American people don’t benefit from this kind of policy at all. We are strengthening extreme regimes by pouring more fuel onto the fire rather than standing back and saying, You know what, we made this mess. It’s actually motorists in the U.S. demanding cheap oil that made this mess. The only way to address it is to begin to walk away from it and make oil less part of our lives. That’s very hard for a petrostate. And the U.S. is the world’s very first petrostate.

I don’t know how closely you follow U.S. politics, but to raise these issues, to suggest that there must be an alternative to using oil as your main energy source literally results in a cascade of abuse and derision, you’re un-American. You are questioning the American way of life. It kind of goes back to that divine sanction.

I grew up in the U.S. and I do follow American politics, and I love Americans dearly. But I think that the debate today about energy in the U.S. reminds me very much of the debate that took place in the 1840s and 1850s in the U.S. about slavery, which was essentially a debate about energy. You had the North, which was becoming highly industrialized and becoming more and more dependent on fossil fuels, in particular coal, that was challenging the South and slavery in the South and saying, What’s this all about? Why do you think this is okay?

The South being largely agricultural.

Largely agricultural and largely dependent on 4 million Negro slaves as a critical and important source of energy. Southerners used slaves the same way we use oil today. They moved their slaves around to develop different plantations, open up different areas in the wilderness to produce new crops, and on it went. So then you ended up with this very extreme debate that was really about energy that resulted in the disastrous Civil War. The debate about renewables and about oil today and the “Drill, baby, drill,” and why don’t we conserve resources is beginning to take on the same extreme tone and tenor of the conversation that really unraveled the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s.

In an article in The Tyee—am I pronouncing that correctly?

Yes, Tyee, T-y-e-e.

What is that?

It’s a salmon. The Tyee is a brilliant Internet newspaper in Canada.

And you write for it.

And I write for it.

I was interested to note, given the enormous amount of wealth in this province, that you say the government is running a deficit.


How does that track?

The Alberta model for resource development is to give lots and lots of money to the developers and very little to the owners of the resource, which happen to be the people of Alberta. We have among the lowest royalty rates and the lowest corporate taxes in North America. We charge less for our oil and gas here in the province of Alberta than Louisiana, than Texas, than Wyoming, than Alaska, than Montana even, which is why oil and gas companies and state-owned companies are all here and want to play in Alberta, because they can take home more money than they can even by investing anywhere in the U.S. That to me is just wrong.

In Canada, what we in the U.S. call Native Americans, you call First Nations. How are they being affected by the developments in northern Alberta in the tar sands area?

First Nations consist largely of the Cree and the Dene and also Métis—they’re half-breeds—in northern Alberta. They’ve all been dramatically affected by this project. Just consider for a moment that the mining portion of the project will, when it’s fully developed, excavate an area the size of Rhode Island or Delaware in the boreal forest. Of course, you can’t do that kind of thing without affecting the traditional communities that live there. So the Dene and the Cree, those that are in this industrial area now, many are now working for the mining companies. They’ve stopped fighting, they’ve just joined in, because they really don’t have any alternative. Those that live downstream are incredibly concerned about the contamination of the Athabasca River with heavy metals and other oil pollution. People living downwind in Saskatchewan are concerned about acid rain.

All of the traditional aspects of aboriginal life in northern Alberta, whether it’s trapping or hunting or going out and harvesting bush food, they’ve all been disrupted and changed by this project. Many of the communities up there are incredibly poor. Some have made small fortunes in the scheme of things on the basis of oil wealth. So there’s also a great deal of dissension and just pure political dysfunction as a result of all this money and all these corporations.

I wasn’t able to get to northern Alberta, primarily because of weather concerns this time of year. But what does the landscape look like? I kind of see a scene from Avatar: giant holes in the ground and huge tractors and trucks and people working in lots of dust and smoke.

It is similar to Avatar. It is the world’s largest engineering operation. It is also the world’s largest mining operation and the world’s largest energy project per se. More than $200 billion have been poured into this. So you have huge holes in the ground for the bitumen mine sites that you can see in NASA photographs. That’s how big they are.

From outer space.

Yes. You have lakes of mining waste that are also extreme. The mining waste alone, which is in 20 different tailings ponds, covers an area of about 170 square kilometers. You could flood Washington, D.C., with that amount of mining waste, as you could Staten Island. Both of them would just be under mining waste. This waste is toxic. It’s sand and clay and water and heavy metals and lots of oil, all mixed into it.

The community of Fort McMurray would be like Williston, North Dakota. It’s a boom town, and you have this incredible influx of workers from all over the world. You have in the bush itself 20,000 to 30,000 workers working in these temporary work camps. You’ve got a very active drug trade, prostitution, you have infrastructure deficits. Some of the most horrendous traffic jams in all of Canada take place in Fort McMurray because there’s only one highway going north and south. So if you’re caught in the rush to get to the mines in the morning or when everyone is coming home from the mines in the evening, you can end up sitting in your car for 2 or 3 hours. It’s an extraordinary boom town, all based around the rapid extraction of bitumen out of the forest.

And who are the workers?

The workers come from all over the place. Some of the workers come from eastern Canada, from some of the poorest provinces in Canada, in particular, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. A lot of workers, too, come from northern Ontario. A great many also come from Texas and various places in the U.S. We have workers from the Philippines, we have workers from Eastern Europe, we have temporary foreign workers from China, we’ve had workers from South Africa. All over the place. And you have this kind of stratified society in Fort McMurray, where you will see the Somalis are the cab drivers, the Filipinos work as nannies for the oil workers because both mom and dad are away for 12 to 14 hours a day.

That’s an average workday?

Yes. Two hours are just spent traveling to and back from the mines, and then you’ve got a 10-hour day on top of that.

Are there any worker protections in Canada?

Our labor laws are fairly good. They don’t always apply to temporary workers. We had an extraordinary case where a group of workers from China were blown off some scaffolding. Two died, three or four were injured. These workers had all been brought in by Sinopec, which is a state-owned oil company in China. The workers were never paid. After five years, 53 charges have been laid, but no one has yet been in court. Sinopec is fighting every action, saying it’s not liable or it doesn’t really have to recognize Alberta’s health and safety regulations. That’s typical of boom towns and what happens in them.

You’re writing about this. You’ve been looking into labor and work issues.

I’ve been writing about a lot of these issues for nearly 10 years. It’s interesting, in the U.S. there’s a very big literature about boom towns and what happens in boom towns: all of the divorces, the alcoholism, the petty crime that takes place, the itinerant workers who really don’t give a damn about where they are. You end up with these incredible social tensions and carelessness because the place is all about making a killing as opposed to making a living. Some really great American sociologists have written about all this, whether they’re talking about boom towns in Wyoming or boom towns in Texas or boom towns in North Dakota. And Fort McMurray is probably one of the world’s biggest boom towns.

There are 12 major oil corporations operating in Canada: BP Canada, Canadian National Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Devon, Imperial Oil, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil, Suncor Energy, Total E&P, and Teck Resources. Do they all have a piece of the action in Alberta?

Most of them have a piece of the action. If they’re not involved in the mining operations, then they’re involved in what I call the steam plants or what the engineers call in situ production, which is where you’re taking massive amounts of steam, injecting it into the ground at high pressure, and trying to melt the bitumen and then bring it up that way. Almost every major oil and gas company in the world is playing in what is called “Alberta’s magic sandbox.” Total is there, Sinopec is there, Middle Eastern companies are there. Indian oil companies want to get involved, and just about every American multinational you can think of is there.

Talk about the impact on the environment. There was an infamous case a couple of years ago, the deaths of 1600 ducks who had the misfortune of landing in one of these toxic waste pools.

That’s generally almost an annual event. These waste lakes are open in the spring because they’re quite warm and have so many salts and pollutants in them. So ducks and geese flying over them think, My God, there’s a great body of water there that I can park my butt in for a while. And then they get coated in oil and they sink to the bottom of these ponds. This has been going on for 20 or 30 years. We then had this one big event in 2008.

That’s a very small environmental concern in the scheme of things when you have a volume of toxic waste on the landscape that, if it got into the Athabasca River, would kill almost all aquatic life all the way up to the Beaufort Sea. That’s a huge, huge, huge risk and issue. We have the destruction of boreal songbird habitat throughout the boreal forest as it’s rapidly becoming industrialized. We have threats to groundwater and groundwater contamination. Some of the groundwater aquifers in that region extend all the way to Hudson Bay, so if we mess that up, we’re contaminating groundwater across three Canadian provinces. We have issues with acid rain. We have very, very serious issues with water contamination, either, again, coming from the tailings ponds or coming from air pollution. This involves rather serious levels of heavy metals and oil, equivalent to an oil spill of 13,000 barrels every year into the Athabasca River.

Talk about the Keystone XL project, which did get some attention in the U.S. In the summer of 2011, 12,000 people demonstrated outside the White House. A thousand of them were arrested for civil disobedience. There was such an uprising of popular anger with this project, which would have gone under the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, that first the State Department and then Obama have kind of put a kibosh on it. It’s not dead, but it’s been temporarily postponed, until after the presidential election in 2012. What’s going on with the Keystone XL project? And I learned from Maude Barlow of Council of Canadians that there are already existing pipelines to the Great Lakes from Alberta.

There are indeed. Right now in the U.S. Midwest about 70% of the oil that goes to Illinois and Michigan and states like that is coming from Canada, and the majority of that is coming from the tar sands. And the pipeline making those connections was built a couple years ago. But Keystone is a bit different. Keystone was proposed, really, to get around a bottleneck in Cushing, Oklahoma. There’s a huge bottleneck of oil there now, because essentially Canada has overproduced bitumen. We’ve approved too many projects, too quickly. We now have this enormous amount of bitumen, and it’s all getting bogged down in Cushing, Oklahoma. As a result, we’re getting a lower price for this oil, because it can’t be moved. So the Keystone was proposed as one way—How do we get around this Midwest market and get this oil straight to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico owned by the Koch brothers or owned by Saudi Arabia or Venezuela? And how do we get it down there as quick as possible? That’s what the TransCanada pipeline was all about.

I thought it was also the name of a construction company.

TransCanada is the Canadian company proposing this pipeline. And they behaved—Americans got to see sort of the crude side of Canadians because we do stuff like this in Canada all the time, Who the hell is going to be concerned if we propose to put this over one of North America’s most important aquifers? Well, Nebraskans were concerned. They gave a damn, and then you had this huge debate. But the oil industry and TransCanada tried to pass it off as, Well, this bitumen is all about improving American security and it’s all about lowering your dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Those arguments were pure nonsense. None of it was true. As Canadians we don’t give a damn about any of that stuff. We want to sell oil. Every petrostate wants to sell oil. We want a higher price for our oil. And all we want to do right now is we want Americans to assume the risks for this pipeline. We want to get it down to refineries in Texas, where refining this stuff will not improve the air in Houston, and then get it onto a supertanker to China or someplace else so we can get this imaginary premium we hope to make by building this pipeline. That’s what it was about.

Your book Tar Sands has a map for 2019 of North America virtually criss-crossed with these pipelines, including one from Alberta to British Columbia, and from there presumably on to energy-starved China.

Another way to look at the whole tar sands development is this way. You have to say, All right, this is the world’s most energy-intensive hydrocarbon in that it takes just extraordinary amounts of energy to get it out of the ground, upgrade it, and refine it. As a consequence, it costs loads of money. So this oil costs 10 to 20 times more than oil from the Middle East. And it comes with this huge carbon footprint and environmental footprint. So when you start running on a resource that’s this extreme,
business as usual cannot go on. But oil and gas companies are in the business of producing oil and gas, and they want business to go on as usual. They think that no one is going to notice that this product, which costs so much more in every sense of the word, can continue business as usual. But it can’t. It is a great way, though, to increase the shelf life of oil. And that’s what this project then, truly is about.

One of the saws that also accompanies military weapon spending is that it provides lots of jobs. But study after study shows that in fact it’s capital-intensive but not labor-intensive. This Keystone XL project which has been proposed and is now on the shelf apparently was going to create something like 4,000 construction jobs. That’s not much.

No. And temporary. It would all be over within two years, and then it would be probably less than 100 guys monitoring that pipeline thereafter. Pipelines are not forms of job creation. In fact, the oil and gas industry itself is probably the least labor-intensive industry in the world. I think .01% of the world’s population is engaged in oil and gas extraction, yet this industry accounts for more than 10% of the world’s GDP. So this is a very highly specialized, privileged, elite industry that is capital-intensive, that is not labor-intensive.

In The Guardian in March of 2012 there was an environmental blog by Damian Carrington. He says,

Even Canada doesn’t believe its own spin on tar sands.

In public Canada’s environment minister says tar sands are “a responsibly and sustainably developed resource.” In private the government says there is “no credible scientific information” to support this claim.

One of the big issues about the rapid development of this project has been the lack of scientific monitoring and high-quality science to go along with it. And it’s taken nearly two years and a ferocious battle led in particular by one of the world’s top water scientists, David Schindler, to force the Canadian government and the Alberta government to cobble together a proper monitoring program that would look not just at water issues and water contamination but also air pollution as well as what’s happening to wildlife in the forest.

Is Canada also engaging in deep-sea oil exploration?

We are actively looking at deep-sea oil operations in the Beaufort Sea which is just east of Alaska and right north of the Northwest Territories in the Arctic.

Also in The Guardian, George Monbiot, who writes frequently on environmental issues, says with some sarcasm that journalists writing for the corporate press are all of a sudden concerned about the poor as exemplified in such statements as, “If tar sands cannot be extracted in Canada, farmers in Africa will starve.”

I don’t see how that is possible. I think the more bitumen we actually produce, the more likely it will be that droughts associated with climate change will actually cause an awful lot of people in Africa and India and China to starve.

What are your views to the economic system in which all of this takes place, that is to say, capitalism?

Capitalism, if you look at it in energy terms, is basically a system designed to dispose of cheap energy as quickly as possible and to get people hooked on goods that can be made with this cheap energy. I look upon capitalism somewhat differently than probably a lot of other folks in the sense that it is very much the product of what happens to a civilization or society when they suddenly come across an incredible pool of high energy that they gorge on. They’re kind of like an adolescent who has just got this amazing inheritance. So how do we spend it, and how do we make other people dependent on this whole process? We look at it in a variety of different ways, but we really need to seriously look at it as a system for using energy that makes it possible for very few people to accumulate enormous amounts of rather obscene wealth.

But isn’t it dedicated to amassing that “obscene wealth” in the short-term? And what may happen to the environment 10, 15, 50 years on, that’s somebody else’s problem. If I’m the CEO of one of these energy corporations in Canada or in the U.S., I have my stockholders, who are nipping at my heels wanting to see dividends. If I can’t produce those dividends, I’m out of a job. In terms of this institutional impulse for short-term gain, doesn’t that speak to the very nature of the economic

It does. And it also speaks to the nature of energy in the sense that energy is wealth, and there is no wealth without that energy. So whenever we spend energy, we are actually spending wealth and going into debt at the same time, particularly when we’re talking about hydrocarbons and fossil fuels. We haven’t quite figured out yet the relationship of energy to wealth and wealth accumulation and how it has distorted all of our economic thinking. I think it’s really instructive and really important for most Americans to realize that, I think, 10 out of the last 11 recessions in the U.S. all happened after oil-price shocks.

You don’t need much more information there to recognize that if the oil is not flowing and the oil is not being spent, then our idea of what an economy is just doesn’t work very well.

Putting all of these cogent intellectual exercises aside and erudite opinion about how destructive tar-sands oil extraction is, etc., you come back to that salient point of this is about making money. And even if I agree with your analysis, I cannot deviate from that one overweaning goal.

Oil has always been about money and greed and power. When Daniel Yergin wrote his book The Prize, which is a rather elegant history of oil, the word ethics I don’t think appears anywhere.

I notice in your book that you quote Gandhi saying,

The earth provides enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

And oil really goes to the greed factor. It concentrates power, it allows people to accumulate an enormous amount of wealth. It changes the metabolism of everything, just as too many carbohydrates will change the metabolism of a child and make him fat and unhealthy.

Vandana Shiva, a prominent environmental activist and scientist in India, has been talking about the rights of nature and trying to cobble together some kind of code to protect the most vulnerable resources, like water, land, hills, mountains, etc.

She’s got a great line, too. She says, “Soil, not oil.” I think Vandana is very much carrying on the Gandhi tradition. People forget that Gandhi, when he started fighting British rule in the early 1900s, also pretty much declared what he wanted for India. He said small, agrarian villages were the way to go because they supported the local economy, they served as a great counter to the accumulation of wealth or power, they ran on solar energy, they respected a long tradition of good stewardship with the land. That’s the kind of world he saw. He also questioned this massive industrialization and mechanization that was happening then to farming. He said, We have hands and foot. We should be using them. And we should be very careful about what kind of machines we adopt and use.

It’s interesting to me that you have someone like Gandhi coming from India at the time, pretty much a peasant country; someone like Leo Tolstoy coming from Russia, again, a peasant country; someone like G. K. Chesterton coming from a tradition of small farmers in England, all arriving at the same conclusion and saying, Look, hydrocarbons are changing us not just materially but spiritually as a people, and this concentration of wealth and power is going to be bad for us, really bad for us.

Going back to your point about the connection between oil and democracy, you contend that oil hinders democracy, corrupts the political process through the absence of transparent fiscal reporting. That doesn’t have to be. That’s not a law of nature.

No, it doesn’t have to be, but it tends to be the general experience. One exception to that is generally Norway. The Norwegians had a conversation in the 1970s about their offshore oil wealth. Parties on the left, parties on the right, parties in between said, There’s so much money here that if we don’t do something about it and take it off the table, we will destroy ourselves as a country and we will destroy our democracy. The Norwegians actually took time out to have that conversation. That’s pretty unusual. Louisiana never had that conversation, Texas never had that conversation, Wyoming hasn’t had that conversation, North Dakota didn’t have that conversation, Alaska never had that conversation. The Norwegians did. They took the money off the table, and they now have a sovereign fund worth more than $500 billion to use the day when the oil runs out. So they’ve done things differently. Their government runs on taxes; it does not run on oil revenue. Again, Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska, they are following a totally different path that makes them totally dependent on the resource.

And you call Alberta, your home province, “a classic petrostate. It has one of the least accountable governments in Canada as well as the lowest voter turnout.” Why is voter turnout so low?

The thing about petrostates is that there’s so much money and the governments are trying to reward all kinds of different groups and special interest groups at the same time that you have this incredible apathy that develops over time. Everyone sort of concedes, The government is so powerful, it’s all bloated with this oil money. As long as they spread a little bit of this money my way, why do I need to be involved in anything? You also see, too, Look, I’m not paying taxes. If I’m not paying taxes, I’m not being represented. So why the hell should I even take part in the political process here and vote and exercise my rights as a citizen? Because petrostates don’t like citizens. They want clients or servants.


Consumers. That’s what they boil everything down to. That is why political participation in this province is extremely low, appallingly low, with the result that Alberta is purely and fundamentally a dysfunctional petrostate.

You say,

Every Canadian who drives a car is part of this political emergency, and every Canadian can be part of the solution.

What about the giant neighbor to the south?

Every American is part of it, too. We all use oil. And because we all use oil every day, and in everything that we do, whether it’s from transportation to eating—you cannot eat today without eating some oil in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, one thing or other—we’re all part of this story. And it is a rather remarkable story. It is a story about power and wealth and concentration. And fundamentally it is really now a story about servitude. We think we are free, but we are not free. We are beholden to a class of oil producers or a class of oil-producing states. We need to start questioning this servitude and begin to look different ways of living again.

You have another book coming out that kind of dovetails with Tar Sands. What is that about and what’s its title?

It’s very much about this theme. It’s called The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. It’s very much a critical examination of how oil has changed everyday life: how it changed agriculture, how it changed city making, how it changed economic thinking, how it’s changed even our attitudes towards happiness and what is happiness all about, and, fundamentally how it really changed the United States. I think Americans have forgotten that they were on a different path before they found oil in the 1850s. There was more of a Jeffersonian ideal of resilience, independence, self-sufficiency, and communities working together, fundamentally as agricultural producers. Oil changed that. It changed every part of the American character and arguably gave the U.S.A. whole new vision or dream, which is now rapidly becoming a nightmare.

In the latter part of the 20th century the U.S. went from being the world’s number one oil exporter to being the world’s number one oil importer.

That’s correct. So the tables have turned, and so have America’s economic and political fortunes.

I’d like you to read the last paragraph of Tar Sands, where you have a quote from the American social critic and writer Wendell Berry.

“The real work of transforming Canada’s fossil fueldependent economy will not be big or glamorous. It will be humbling work. Our tasks, as social critic Wendell Berry has noted,

will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”

What I really like about what Berry is saying is that all energy transitions are ultimately made by the decisions of ordinary people. And in many cases some of the most important transitions that have taken place have been a matter of people walking away from bad systems.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.) For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
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