Oil, the Environment, and the Future of Canada: A Meeting Report

by Peggy Olive

SSILast fall I moved from Vancouver to Salt Spring Island. From our house at the south end of the island, I can see the distant high-rises of the towns south of Vancouver, yet I’m living in another world now. Deer pass through the front yard, eagles and ravens circle, and the silence is wonderful. After four years volunteering with the Suzuki Elders in various capacities, I knew I would miss my Suzuki Elder friends who had shared my deep concerns for the direction we are heading and the problems that lie in store for us. But Salt Spring islanders are environmentally savvy and open to new ideas, and I soon joined the Salt Spring Forum, a speaker’s series that has hosted world-renowned environmentalists including David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, Lester Brown, and George Monbiot.

Last weekend (March 8-9, 2014), Dr. Michael Byers, a UBC political science professor and organizer of the Forum, brought ten graduate students from his seminar course to present their papers at a conference entitled “Oil, the Environment, and the Future of Canada.” This is the second year he has done so, and he plans to make this a yearly event.

Mainlanders and Salt Spring Islanders, including interested high school students and Forum members, made up the audience of about 75, and half of the time was dedicated to questions and discussion. The high quality of the presentations and enthusiastic discussions left the audience feeling uplifted by the talent, insights, and passion of these young people.

As the Conference title suggests, topics were wide-ranging and included:

  • a discussion of the problems in navigating arctic waters (don’t count on any oil spills being cleaned up, and the northwest passage may yet end up being designated “international waters”),
  • whether Canada has a national energy policy (yes, but it’s not called that, and it’s more of a plan to sell off our oil and gas as quickly as possible with little regard to environmental consequences),
  • whether there is a national security risk associated with allowing foreign acquisitions of Canadian natural resources (yes, current actions could compromise Canada’s legislative and judicial sovereignty). This problem was illustrated with regard to the FIPA trade agreement with China: Chinese investors would be able to sue the Canadian government if they feel the investor’s profit is being compromised, and minority ownership is sufficient for this purpose. Also, under FIPA, investors are subject to Canadian laws, but only those in place at the time of agreement. At the moment, Canada has no legal framework for assessing the risk of a security threat by resource acquisition.
  • whether there is a public relations problem with respect to the oil sands (yes: the government has the resources to mount an ad campaign that is largely divorced from science and meant to sell the political position that the oil sands industries provide jobs and economic benefits). The position of environmental groups is more legitimate, being rooted in scientific fact. However, getting the message out to the uninformed public is difficult. Social media were considered important in this regard.
  •  What decisions are carrying Canada towards being a petro state, and is oil wealth compatible with democracy? The radicalization of environmentalists (those with opposing opinions) and the disregard for environmental contamination (inadequate monitoring) were given as evidence of a problem. Energy represents less than 6% of Canada’s GDP questioning whether energy should be taking centre stage. Norway was compared as another “western” petro state, but unlike Canada, Norway demands much higher royalties, has state-owned oil companies (70% of the Alberta oil sands is foreign-owned), has proportional representation, and has more consultation with their indigenous people.
  • How to say no to big oil? Indigenous rights, with respect to obtaining free, prior, informed consent, were argued to best support environmental activists and the public in defeating pipeline proposals (using the example of the defeat of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline in the 70’s). Civil disobedience may need to be employed.

[Originally posted on March 17, 2014]

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