Canada
The Once Green Oil Machine

Long regarded as a green nation due to its environmental stewardship, recently Canada’s commitment to the environment has waned.

As we’ve marched into 2013, this country has become the first nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Baring witness to this, one can only wonder where the nation’s values have gone.

A landmark treaty, Kyoto commits member nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels.

By withdrawing from the treaty Canada is not only failing in its commitment to the environment, but is failing in its commitment to the world as a whole.

Backing out of Kyoto further sends a message to nations that climate change is no longer a pressing issue.

If other countries follow suit, what began with Canada could spell disaster for the Treaty and mean massive setbacks to climate change mitigation. 

Charred by Dirty Fossil Fuel

Beyond the Protocol, Canada’s green image has been charred by dirty fossil fuel which has taken priority over its environmental regulations.

Alas, this is the case in Northern Alberta where major industrial processes have transformed an area the size of Washington D.C. into open pools of toxic waste.

Contaminating ground water and streams alike, these toxic pools are in direct violation of the Nation’s own federal Fisheries Act. That said, the Canadian government has remained complacent on the issue. 

The Tar Sands of Alberta

Perhaps more disturbing is the force unquestionably driving the country's new found neglect for the environment, that is, Canadian tar-sand.

Among the largest fossil fuel reserves in the world next to Saudi Arabia, tar-sand deposits represent a goldmine for the Canadian government and industry.

Unfortunately, however, in a time when issues of pollution and climate change have taken center stage, tar-sand also represents catastrophe for future generations.

Not only is tar-sand dirty, even by fossil fuel standards, but isolating tar from sand is a process requiring immense energy and water.

Producing crude oil from this resource is therefore not only expensive, but also generates tremendous amounts of air and water pollution, and up to 20% more greenhouse gas emissions compared to other forms of crude.

Consequently, the country's reserves have historically been disregarded as a sensible source of energy. It has only been in recent years with conventional oil production nearing its peak that tar-sand has begun to turn the neck of industry.

Conflict of Interests

Thrilled by such attention and its translation to great revenue, the Canadian government has willingly turned a blind eye on the need to replace dirty energy with clean technologies and instead joined alongside special interest groups such as Shell, British Petroleum, and other oil, chemical, and car companies in an enormous lobby campaign to secure international markets for tar-sand oil.

Fortunately, in the interest of public health and the environment, the European Union has maintained its sanity and thus far opposed the importation of this commodity.

The United States too demonstrated opposition to tar-sand when President Barack Obama rejected an initial proposal to construct the Keystone XL pipeline, which would have delivered tar-sand oil from Alberta to the U.S.

A Moral Decision

If Canada’s steadfast efforts to develop tar-sand reserves are to ultimately be overcome, action by citizens and non-governmental organizations in pressuring local representatives will undoubtedly remain important.

As it stands, there’s no telling on which side the coin will land. One thing is certain, however, if the world begins to tap into Canadian tar-sand in a major way, efforts by nations to mitigate climate change will be futile at best and the environment and public health will suffer considerably.

It is therefore imperative that Canada make a decision, the responsible decision, and abandon this myopic pursuit of short-term wealth.

And instead restore its position as a progressive leader and champion for the environment. The necessity for such change has never been of greater importance.

By: Shahir Masri
Shahirmasri@mail.harvard.edu

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