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A Canadian pipe-dream?

Canada’s prime minister is on his way to Beijing to stoke interest in the country’s oil sands, but China would be wise to keep a safe distance, writes Angela Merriam.

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Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, arrives in Beijing tomorrow with a very specific goal: to secure a market for the further exploitation of Canada’s oil sands, a project that he once likened to the building of the Great Wall of China, “only bigger”.

Following widespread environmental protests, the US government two weeks ago denied a permit to the would-be builders of the US$7 billion (44 billion yuan) Keystone XL pipeline: a plan to pump crude oil from Canada’s oil sands, in the south-western province of Alberta, down the length of the United States to refineries in Texas. Now, with that plan scuppered by Canada’s southern neighbour, Harper has a renewed interest in selling oil to Beijing.

Anxieties about local ecological damage and concern about global climate change have driven opposition to the exploitation of Canada’s oil sands for years. The latest development, Canada’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, would increase exports of this “dirty” oil to China by over 50 times. But the strong environmental lobby in the United States may mean that Canada is now more willing to face considerable hurdles back home to export to what it hopes to be a more tractable Chinese market.

Canada holds the second-largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia. But because the oil is trapped in a highly viscous mixture of bitumen, sand and clay, it requires an extraction process much more water and energy-intensive and harmful to local ecology than conventional oil.

Shallower oil sands deposits are harvested by open-pit mining, first cutting down forest and removing an average of four tonnes of sand and soil per barrel of oil, which disturbs the ecology of surrounding areas including bogs, rivers and boreal forest. Deposits buried deep below the surface require an even more environmentally harmful in-situ practice: heating the mixture, usually through steam and oil, until it is fluid enough to be pumped out through a well.

After removal, each barrel of oil requires several barrels of water, which is heated to separate the bitumen from the sand. Contaminated water is discharged into tailings ponds, areas where waste-water is stored to allow solid particles to separate from the liquid. During this whole process, somewhere between 1.5 and four units of water are used for every unit of oil extracted, in addition to recycled water. 

All of this is done before the refining process that is also required for conventional oil. Together, it leaves an indelible blemish, on not only the local landscape, but also the air, water and possibly even local health.

Chinese companies have been investing in Canada’s oil sands since 2005 and, according to the Houston Chronicle, have injected around US$15 billion into Alberta alone over the past 18 months. Canada currently exports only 10,000 barrels of oil per day to China. The Northern Gateway pipeline would increase capacity 525,000 barrels of oil per day.

If approved, the proposed pipeline would take oil-sands crude west from Alberta and pass through mountainous British Columbia (BC), an area recognised for its majestic natural landscapes and home to 50 of Canada’s First Nations or Aboriginal groups. In the north-west coast of BC, the oil would be put on supertankers bound for Asia.

China is considered the biggest potential buyer of this oil as the country seeks to satiate its expanding appetite for energy. The International Energy Agency predicts that Chinese energy demand will soar 75% by 2035, accounting for more than a third of the growth in global consumption.

However, even if China is a willing client, domestic politics will likely mean a slow response from Canada. As in the United States with the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada will have to first assuage environmental opposition, and it will also have to determine how to respond to land claims from many native peoples.

Members of parliament, government bodies and environmental groups, while for the most part being in favour of “responsible oil sands development”, have all been outspoken about the need to implement effective environmental management systems, in particular for land, air and water resources around the oil sands. Many also argue that this is necessary for a predictable, stable investment climate.

The cumulative effects on the area’s watersheds are unknown, but several independent, government-recognised studies (compiled here) reference the need for better water monitoring systems at both the provincial and federal level. Environmentalists also argue that there is no regional plan that sets acceptable limits on oil sands’ ecological disturbance and protects threatened species in the oil sands area.

Opposition to the Gateway pipeline has been buttressed by a December 2011 report to parliament conducted by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (the Canadian government’s primary independent auditor) that prompted serious safety concerns  over the way the government’s energy regulator manages pipelines.

Further opposition to the Gateway is found in a report by the Pembina Institute, an environmental group that advocates responsible oil sands development, which includes a recommendation to reject the proposed pipeline and institute a ban on large oil tanker traffic off British Columbia’s coast. A tanker ban was put forward in a parliamentary bill just last year, and has been publicly supported by all federal parties in Canada with the exception of the Conservative government in power. If passed, such a bill would interfere with the 225 oil supertankers expected to connect Chinese markets to the Gateway pipeline.

Public hearings on the pipeline proposal began in early January and have already attracted over 4,000 people to participate in the consultation process, which will last for 1.5 years. The main issues raised will likely include the environmental impacts of oil sands production, the risk of a pipeline spill or tanker accident at sea and the accuracy of proposed economic benefits. Many participants are members of First Nations groups, there to protect their land claims, a barrier to the proposed pipeline that the Canadian government has already recognised.

Linda Duncan, head of environment policy for Canada’s second most powerful political party, the New Democrats (NDP), told chinadialogue that “our trading partners need to be aware that there will be clear opposition” when it comes to streamlining the Northern Gateway pipeline as Harper is now interested in doing.

Harper’s Conservative party Natural Resources Minister has argued that it is primarily “environmental and other radical groups” that will provide much of the opposition to the Northern Gateway, arguing that the process is being “hijacked” by foreign interests to “undermine Canada’s economy”.

This is not the first time such arguments have been raised against environmentalists, including in China. But Duncan insists the reality is that the Canadian government is “absolutely not responsive” to the democratic demands of Canadians for environmental protection. Environmentalists also argue that, as so many environmental problems transcend national boundaries, they will require an international response.

Indeed, many in the international community are very critical of the current Canadian government’s dismal environmental record. In 2011, a coalition of environmental groups awarded the Canadian government the fifth “fossil of the year” award for its poor record on climate-change action after pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate treaty to tackle climate emissions adopted in 1997, and has been the target of repeated criticism by Canadian green groups for its poor environmental policy.

Canada is already one of the highest per-capita greenhouse-gas emitters in the world. The oil sands currently only represent 6.5% of the country’s total emissions, but the Pembina Institute estimates that future increases are expected to come “almost solely” from oil sands, and states that “efforts to constrain these emissions is out of step with Canada’s climate commitments.”

It is also clear that oil sands are more carbon intensive than conventional oil, although how much more depends on the measurement technique. Some calculate emissions disparities from extraction through to refining (“well to tank”), where oil sands oil is estimated to be three to five times more carbon intensive than conventional oil.But in a “well to wheels” calculation, which includes emissions all the way to the cars’ exhaust pipes, oil sands are only 5% to 15% dirtier, according to Cambridge Energy Research Associates,an environmental consultancy group. In other words, most of the carbon emissions still come from burning the oil, not extracting it.

But building infrastructure like oil pipelines creates a “lock-in” effect, which according to a study by the International Energy Agency, would set out a high-carbon energy growth path for decades to come. 

“Are we going to get serious about alternative energy, or are we going to go down the unconventional-oil track?” asked Simon Dyer of the Pembina Institute, cited in National Geographic. “The fact that we're willing to move four tonnes of earth for a single barrel really shows that the world is running out of easy oil.

Environmentalists argue the Gateway pipeline is a path toward further global reliance on fossil fuels. Prioritising oil over renewable energy will ultimately carry a heavy environmental price, and it is future generations that will pay.

Canada will likely remain eager to diversify its trade basket through increasing cooperation with China. But if China is interested in importing more Canadian crude oil, it must be prepared to deal with the political and environmental realities of its partner. If there’s a message to be taken from Keystone XL, it’s that trading partners may underestimate environmental voices – and do so at their own peril. 

Angela Merriam is a Canadian environmentalist and educator based in Beijing. She currently works with the local NGO Green Earth Volunteers and teaches a class on social change in China through CET Academic Programs.   

 Homepage image by Greenpeace/ Jiri Rezac

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Wishful thinking

If Canadians are willing to sacrifice their environment for oil profit, there is no reason to believe that Chinese will care more about the environment of Canada than Canadians do.
China might be wise to keep a safe distance from dirty Canadian tar sand oil. Similarly, China would be even wiser not to buy oil from Iran. But they do. Judging from what China has been conducting business, Northern Gateway pipeline is most certainly not a pipe dream.

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A fair warning

Well written - a fair warning!

How can the Canadian Tory government behave that insolently?

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Factually incorrect

This article, like so many on the topic, is not founded on facts but political beliefs. I'll just touch on a few as almost every paragraph is based on myth.

Products from the Oil Sands are Bitumen and Synthetic Crude Oil and all the products that can be refined from those. Synthetic Crude is made to order making it the sweetest oil available, if that is what is ordered.

Water is almost completely recycled, some plants draw no water from rivers, others use river water to make up for evaporation, only. An average city uses much more water.

The environmental damage is insignificant compared to the damage caused by most other industries. All projects have reclamation plans some of which have already occurred. Something we have yet to see for areas affected by urban expansion internationally.

Canada is a large country, with large lakes, oceans and many forests. Canada naturally sinks more carbon than they emit and have been sinking the worlds carbon for decades.

No oil in the world faces as many environmental and human rights restrictions as Canadian oil.

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Trade must be socially and environmentally responsible

A thoughtful article Angela, I wish the comments were as well informed. Working over the past 6 years on environment and development issues in China it is clear that the same battle between short-term economic gain and long-term health of economy, people and the environment is being fought across the world. Big business and their political advocates have lost the trust of most people. Men and women of goodwill must work together if we want a healthier future.

Our businesses and governments should use some of their economic gains to support social development, education and environmental protection, and Canadians need to realize we are enriching ourselves at the expense of the health and well-being of others and the environment.

As for our Chinese friends, the shoe is on the other foot. As Chinese enterprises go abroad China has the responsibility to make sure its behaviour respects human rights and the environment. The Tar Sands development and northern gateway project risk both and a fair and open public review process is essential to Canada’s reputation as a democratic society. This issue is and must continue to be about more than money.


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Reply to Haefen 'Factually Incorrect'

Hi Haefen,

Interesting comments. Can you give us some sources to back them up so other readers can look at the issue themselves?

On your point about Canada being a carbon sink: just because Canada happens to have natural carbon sinks doesn't mean Canada somehow has a right to emit more. If climate change was limited by national boundaries then perhaps Canada could control its emissions to keep in step with the uptake of its carbon sinks. But climate change is a global problem and every tonne of CO2 emitted, no matter where it comes from, represents a global problem that is shared by us all.

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Canada offers the solution

The oil sands and north american pipelines give those concerned about the environment and human rights a source of transitional oil that is the best compromise available.

The pipelines being built and operated elsewhere on the planet do not have the intense scrutiny those in Canada have. For example we hear little of the pipelines in Russia or those being built from Southern Sudan through Kenya.

Canadian pipelines are open to discussion and must meet standards others could not.

We need oil today to grow food to feed people, to heat homes, to make plastic. Oil is the very foundation of our ability to have 10 Billion people living on this fragile planet. Yet we need an oil that encourages better sources of energy.

Oil Sands oil is that oil. It is expensive, heavily monitored, and made in a country with modern environmental standards and most importantly is open to scrutiny.

Expensive oil, like that from the oil sands, open the markets to the many other much more sustainable energy sources. The future is not oil but today the best oil for those concerned about the future is Canadian Oil.

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我们是​加拿大不列颠哥伦比亚省菲沙河流域的土著民族,拥有自己的独立主权。这些水域将我们多个民族维系在一起。 安桥公司试图通过建立管道,从菲沙河上游抽取大量焦油砂,然后用巨型油轮承载这些石油通过极度危险的水域。一旦石油在我们的土地和河流中泄漏,我们的鱼、水,人民、生计,以及未来都会被毒害并摧毁。海岸线的石油泄漏更会使成千上万人的海鲜鱼类的来源(比如螃蟹)遭到破坏……”中外对话的读者是怎么看的呢?”

Native Canadians write an open letter to the Chinese people

They are protesting against Steven Harper's plan to build the Enbridge Northern Gateway Oil Pipeline and Tankers through their lands, territories, and watersheds. They say: "Harper plans to violate our indigenous human rights to build this 1200 kilometre oil pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific Ocean. We will not allow Harper to force this oil pipeline through our lands. Under United Nations international law, we have the right to say no to this pipeline. We will enforce our legal rights to protect our waters from this the risk of an oil spill.
We are the sovereign Indigenous nations of the Fraser River Watershed in British Columbia, Canada. We are many nations, bound together by these waters. Enbridge wants to build pipelines to pump massive amounts of tar sands crude oil through the Fraser’s headwaters, and then use giant oil tankers to carry the oil through very dangerous waters. An oil spill in our lands and rivers would destroy our fish, poison our water, and devastate our peoples, our livelihoods, and our futures. An oil spill on the coast would destroy sources of seafood and fish, like crabs, for thousands of people..." What do chinadialogue readers think??

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Reply to 'wishful thinking'

Dear 'Wishful thinking': the point of this article is not only are Canadians not "willingly to sacrifice their environment for oil profit" - quite the opposite. Perhaps the Canadian government is willing. But the current Conservative government received less than 24% support of those eligible to vote. Canadians have repeatedly expressed that they want to prioritize environment over economic growth, but the government is more interested in oil revenue. Many see it as a failure of democracy.

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Response to Haefen

I’ll assure you that many of the environmentalists cited are driven by political, or social beliefs: the belief that they want to live in a society where policy is driven by science and not by special interests, a society which respects legal process and the original land claims of peoples who were there well before those currently in power, and a society which ensures prosperity or happiness for its members (which goes far beyond money) including for future generations. These social beliefs ought to be reflected in our political system but the reality is that currently they are not. This is a political issue.

As mentioned, many of the Canadian environmentalists recognize the reality of global energy demand and advocate for responsible development of the oil sands. Hopefully they do so at the same time as discussing limits to energy consumption and more broadly, economic growth.

Your comments are exactly the same as the Canadian government’s line that Canadian oil sands are preferable because they come from a government that respects human rights, a democratic country. Harper forgets that only four years ago he didn’t attend the olympic games and has been an outspoken critic of

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我们暂时还没办法离开石油,起码在下一代之前是这样,而如果考虑到它的其他用途,这个时间也许会更长。 加拿大石油是最好的选择,因为它储量丰富,价格不菲,创造就业机会,生产过程能够得到监视和改善。



hi again

Hi CGN, Political issues should not change the facts, nor should science depend on ones political beliefs. I suspect that all sides agree on that to some extent, except those that cannot stand the light of day. Which should lead one to ask what kind of society they would be working towards.

Almost every part of the planet is claimed by someone other than the people currently controlling it. Respecting all those claims can only lead to war and bloodshed. It is a nice to think everyone can move back to the Africa they came out of but that isn't possible in the real world.

When it comes to supporting some of those claims in Canada it can also mean supporting a racial apartheid system that is every bit as immoral as that in South Africa. Which is to be expected as South Africa based their system on Canada's. Such systems, with their segregation and racial, even tribal and family discrimination should not be given support due to moral and basic human right concerns. Of course the environmental movement has shown us that their politics often trumps human rights when they conflict. That is best seen in their attack of Ethical Canadian Oil.

As pointed out, not buying Canadian oil in most cases means buying blood oil. That so many other environmentalists are fully prepared to do that, and force that choice on others, shows the level of concern they have for human rights and a society based on prosperity and happiness. .

I think most would agree that reducing energy use and being as efficient as practicable is an excellent transitional goal. The best way to reduce energy use significantly and have an increasing standard of living is to have a declining population. Something Canada has already shown the world is possible. Not only is Canada a large country with massive natural carbon sinks but the birth rate is one of the best in the world. Which is a good thing as that gives us more time to find the next best source of energy.

Meanwhile oil will be with us for at least another generation and much longer for it's many other uses. That oil should be Canadian oil because there is a lot of it, it is expensive, employs more people and it's production can be monitored and improved.

People, environmentalists, even non-Canadians will not be shot or imprisoned for helping Canadians by pointing out ways to improve the manufacture of a basic necessity. Just the opposite. They can have an important role in the process but of course only if they choose to. They can also choose to spread hate and misinformation without fear of being shot or imprisoned, something they seem to already know.

As for Harper, don't worry about him. Unlike other oil producers we can and do change our governments all the time and do so without bloodshed.