Thursday, August 23, 2007

Rambling Thoughts on Oil Sands

I have recently been thinking about the Alberta oil sands. I don't know much about the issue yet, but it is becoming increasingly clear to me how important it is.

For those who aren't aware, the oil sands is an absolutely immense deposit of oil in the north of the Canadian province of Alberta. This oil is not in nice, easy to extract pools close to the surface, as is found in Saudi Arabia, but instead saturates sand at and beneath the surface of an area of land about the size of Florida. This oil is very expensive and energy-intensive to extract so it is only in recent years as the price of oil has surged upwards (in a trend that is likely to stick around, and have huge consequences on our lives) that it has been profitable to extract it. As the price of oil has jumped even more in the last couple of years, Alberta has seen a frantic boom that the social and physical infrastructure of the area is unable to handle. It is also extremely dirty to extract this oil. A goal set in 1995 was to have production up to one million barrels a day by 2020. That target was met by 2004, and the new target is five million barrels a day by 2030. Greenhouse gas emissions due to oil sands production have doubled in the past 15 years and a mainstream environmental NGO says, "Not surprisingly, Alberta is now Canada's pollution capital for industrial air pollutants. And the oil sands are the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions growth in Canada."

An interesting online documentary on the subject produced by some folks from New York can be found here. It is a useful way to get a sense of what it all looks like, as well as a glimpse at the human face of the boom and its various impacts.

I'm not going to try and write a cohesive and complete post at this point, just list a few observations and reflections.

The first is the obvious point that this is really important stuff. Partly, it is important because of the centrality that greenhouse gas emissions and other aspects of environmental destruction should have in our programs for change because of the massive suffering that they are likely to cause in the coming decades. Partly, it is because this is a project that cuts right to the heart of social relations in Canada. A central function of the Canadian state within the context of global capitalism has always been to manage the extraction of the extensive natural resources in northern North America, including overseeing details like the reproduction of the workforce as well as guiding the process of creating and enforcing colonial relations with indigenous peoples so as to ensure that said resources are available to be extracted. This function was central during the initial years of Canadian state formation back in the late 19th century and this project shows how true it still is.

Second, I wonder how this is going to impact the shape of conventional domestic electoral politics. By that I mean, Alberta is the most right-wing area of the country and has been for a long time. Will this concentration of globally important resource extraction and profit-making in that province shift the balance of Canadian domestic politics at all? I don't really know. I know there has been a shift towards a neoliberal state and more right-leaning politics going on across the country for a couple of decades at least, for reasons much in harmony with what is going on in most other rich countries. That process has included victory in the long civil war within Canada's right by social conservatives, like our current government, who have their strongest of strongholds in Alberta. I don't know if these things are related. I do know there is a long history of political resentment of central Canada in the political class in Alberta, going back at least to the refusal of the Bennett and Mackenzie King governments to do much of anything about the horrendous suffering of Alberta farmers during the Depression. In other parts of the prairies, this discontent found progressive outlets, such as the provincial victory of Tommy Douglas' CCF party in Saskatchewan in 1944. However, the nominally progressive government that ruled Alberta at the start of the Depression, which was based in a party that came out of the farmers' movement, was incompetent and corrupt. From what I understand, that helped to isolate progressive forces in the province. Instead, a combination of fundamentalist protestantism and the bizarre philosophy of social credit, which made populist noises at first but became very right wing soon after winning government, seized the opportunity. At the time, Ottawa had the power to disallow provincial legislation, and the resentment of Alberta conservatives was intensified because several important proto-fascist measures by the Alberta social credit government were disallowed while proto-fascist measures by the Quebec government of Maurice Duplessis were permitted, largely because the Liberal Party depended on seats in Quebec but did not depend in the least on votes in Alberta. Interestingly, the second Alberta premier under Social Credit was Ernest Manning. His son is Preston Manning, who was the initial leader of the formation of social conservatives that now dominate the federal Conservative Party and form the government. What impact will the increasing importance of Alberta in the national economy have? I have no idea. Perhaps one hopeful aspect is implied but not examined for its political implications in the video I linked above: lots of poor and working-class people from other regions of the country that have stronger left traditions are flocking to Alberta to find work, and they are not always thrilled about what they find there.

Third, I wonder about what we should be aiming for in terms of this issue, where the content of "we" is purposefully kept vague. In general, I think the world requires of us a transformed Canadian settler state, to the extent that the words "settler" and "state" no longer apply even if "Canadian" is kept around for sentimental reasons. In that context, we would want control of a great deal of the land, including the area of northern Alberta I think, to pass back to the nations that are indigenous to it. This would mean that, ideally, I would not be a part of the collective in whose name decisions about extracting oil from the oil sands would be made. It would also mean that making and doing in this part of the world would be reorganized to make them not depend upon non-renewable, world-killing, oil-based energy sources, and to make them not depend on the suffering and deprivation of ordinary people. That's the goal, at any rate. However, at the moment, with the Canadian state existing as it does, I am part of the largely passive grouping of humanity in whose name it functions, and we will all suffer (albeit unevenly) from climate change. So it seems to me that we would want there to be no extraction whatsoever, given the huge contribution that process makes to greenhouse gas emissions and the urgency of the climate crisis, and whatever investments and programs would be necessary to address the very real needs of the working people drawn there by the chance to earn a living. A massive investment in projects based in renewable energy sources might be a good start. Anyway, from what I can tell, mainstream green demands at present include seeking a moratorium on new oil sands development and tighter regulation of extraction processes. (Two NGO's keep useful "watch" sites going, here and here.) This paragraph in particular is just thinking in print, and I am interested in developing a clearer idea of what our intermediate goals should be, so speak up if you have suggestions.

My final thought is about what it will take to achieve some of our goals. Let's leave aside some of the more world-shaking transformation that I dream of above. Let's instead imagine an intermediate goal, whereby significant barriers -- some combination of increased indigenous control and massively increased regulation by the state, perhaps? -- are put in the way of a few people making profit by destroying the largest intact forest on the planet and making lots of people sick and even more people suffer through contributing massively to climate change. What would it take to achieve that? The answer is pretty depressing. Now, I don't feel I know as much as I'd like about struggles that are specifically related to resource extraction. There is lots to be said, I think, about things like the dangers of falling into a situation in which environmentalists and workers (or the communities they are a part of) work against each other. What interests me at the moment, though, is who and what is invested in the success of the development being opposed.

See, I kind of see it as analagous to the question of comparisons between the U.S.-lead imperial war against Vietnam and the U.S.-lead imperial occupation of Iraq. Lots of people draw comparisons between the two, and often there are good reasons for doing that, but a fundamental difference has to do with exactly that question of who and what is invested in success. In Vietnam, as Chomsky has argued, the maximal goal of the U.S. was setting up a compliant client regime that would keep the rabble in line and keep the country running to the satisfaction of U.S. business needs and U.S. foreign policy goals. They failed in that, but their minimal goal was to counter what is known as the "threat of the good example" and let other peoples in the world know the consequences of trying to pursue an independent path to development. In this, for all that they were driven out of Vietnam, they won -- they killed two or three million people, reduced several countries to rubble, sprayed great amount of poison upon people and nature alike, and showed exactly what would happen to subordinated peoples who got uppity. This is much different than the situation in Iraq, where the strategic imperative to control its oil resources -- not have access to, but control the taps so as to exert power over industrial rivals who depend on that oil -- is foremost. Just blowing stuff up and pulling out to leave the devastated people of the nation to figure things out for themselves is not an option. Pulling out completely and genuinely is much, much more contrary to U.S. interests in Iraq than it was in Vietnam. I think much of the anti-war movement misunderstands this point.

So in trying to understand exactly what popular movements might face in dealing with the oil sands project, it is important not to depend too simplistically on comparisons to other resource-based struggles. Stopping the logging of old growth forest in Temagami, say, or supporting the struggles of the Lubicon Nation for self-determination and respect from settler governments and logging companies have both proven to be long, hard fights. But as hard as those are, that is nothing compared to the kind of opposition that would be mounted when the resource in question is massive amounts of oil, given the relationship oil has both to the current functioning of capitalist relations of production and to the interests of the trigger-happy U.S. state. Given that, what will be necessary to win even modest reforms that would limit the currently unfettered access to the oil sands? I think an uprising of greater scale than anything that seems to be on the immediate horizon in Canada would be necessary for even those sorts of modest reforms, let alone the kinds of changes that the world really needs. Which is kind of a depressing thought.

So there you go. If anyone who happens by knows of useful resources on this particular issue, let me know because I'd be interested in seeing them.

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