The Hill Times on the oil sands


in Canada, Economics, Politics, Rants, The environment

In one of the more absurd headlines I have seen printed recently, Ottawa’s Hill Times reported that: “Canada will fail if there’s no tar sands plan, say experts.” This is both false and an insult to Canadians. It implies that the only economic value that can arise from Canada is embodied in natural resources. It ignores the fact that any kind of long-term prosperity for Canadians needs to be based on sustainable activities, and must ultimately be compatible with a stable climate. Because the oil sands are about chasing down the last few drops of yesterday’s energy source, rather than looking to the future, economic activity based upon them is necessarily ephemeral, as well as hugely environmentally destructive.

The article itself is more reasonable than the headline, but still fails to consider the possibility that the ‘boon’ to Canadians from the oil sands is illusory. When the externalities are taken into account, it is likely that the harm being done to future generations outweighs the value that frantic extraction may have for this one.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan March 10, 2009 at 6:49 pm

I still think the best response to the reality of this economic crisis, and to climate change, is that as a society we need to produce less wealth and distribute it more equitably. One major way of doing this is unionization – companies that become unionized become less profitable, but distribute their profits more equitably. If what we value is total wealth created, then unions will always appear evil. But, if we value something like a smaller divide between the rich and poor, then, they will look valuable.

Just in terms of pure utilitarianism – a more equitable distribution of wealth is almost guarenteed to produce a more efficient utility outcome because of diminishing marginal utility – an extra 100$ for a lower middle class person is a lot more valuable than an extra 100$ for someone upper middle class. So, even if the total produced wealth were to decrease, overall utility would almost certainly go up.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Unions help the middle class, at the expense of the rich and the poor. In short, they benefit their members (perhaps only in the medium term), and harm those outside them. In many ways, they are a lot like cartels and gangs.

That being said, there might be spin-off effects from boosting the middle class, assuming they play a special role in society.

. March 10, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Special report
The new middle classes in emerging markets

Burgeoning bourgeoisie

Feb 12th 2009
From The Economist print edition
For the first time in history more than half the world is middle-class—thanks to rapid growth in emerging countries. John Parker reports

Milan March 10, 2009 at 7:03 pm

In any case, I hope you agree it’s foolish to say that Canada will fail without the oil sands.

Canada’s future success isn’t dependent on a single exhaustible resource.

R.K. March 10, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Leaving comments using IE is producing a strange error, which just started today. It doesn’t seem to come up in Firefox or Safari.

R.K. March 10, 2009 at 7:18 pm

It says:

“Security Alert: You are about to leave a secure Internet connection. It will be possible for others to view information you send. Do you want to continue?”

R.K. March 10, 2009 at 7:19 pm

What an odd warning. It’s a comment. I want other people to see it!

Milan March 10, 2009 at 7:23 pm

Here’s the situation:

I wanted to bolster the security of my WordPress installation. Specifically, I wanted to make the administrative back-end encrypted using SSL.

The scripts that handle comments are part of the back-end.

As a result, every comment you submit gets the same kind of encryption used when you send your credit card number to

The warning pops up because you are moving from something secured (the PHP script that adds the comment to the database) to something unsecured (the normal page). By default, only some versions of IE complain about this.

As you rightly point out, all this is nothing to worry about. You might be able to avoid the error by viewing any entry you wish to comment on with https:// at the beginning, rather than http://

Milan March 10, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Incidentally, why would anyone use IE?

oleh March 10, 2009 at 8:55 pm

I think unions had an important place in securing fair working conditions and wages. However, I do not see increased unioinization as helpful in the short-term or long-term for Canadians at this time.

The difficulties between management and unions led to decreased productivity of so many citizens of Ottawa when the transit strike arose. York University students were impeded in their pursuit of education with the labour strife involving TA’s. The collapse of the automakers arises in part because of the unionization of its industry.

Problems with unions include :
1. a premium on seniority over merit
2. some union leadership that may take a us versus them attitude to relations with management and the employer
3. lack of willingness to change with the times.

I think we need more creative, co-operative and forward thinking approaches that can be difficult for unions to have.

However, I do agree with Tristan that a more equitable distribution of wealth is beneficial. Currently our tax system is probably the leading way in which that occurs as more taxes are paid by the wealthy and then the services are distributed more universally.

Tristan March 10, 2009 at 9:20 pm


I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think these criticisms hold much water.

First of all, seniority is a form of merit. If you are hired by York university on one year contracts for ten consecutive years, when at any point they could have hired someone else, this demonstrates a degree of merit.

Second, the union represents workers that have interests that actually are always in contradiction with the interests of their employers. It’s always better to pay your employees a little less, and it’s always better for them to be paid a little more – this is a real, objective contradiction of interests.

The idea that a Union causes a strike already presumes that management is “in the right” and the Union is “in the wrong” in their demands. Government legislation to end a strike arbitrarily sides with the employer over the union, under the veil of neutrally ending damage being done to a third party. The seeming neutrality of legislation, and the illusion that the Union causes a strike – rather than a strike being caused by a real disagreement between two interested parties, where gains by one side mean losses by the other, and therefore the dogma that arbitration is neutral, all seems to me part of an extensive campaign of mis-information.

But regardless, my point was not essentially about unions – but rather that we’d be better off with less total wealth if it were more equitably distributed. We’d be richer if we were poorer, in other words. The upside to this is that less wealth might mean less energy usage.

Milan March 10, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Is there any chance this could be a discussion about the oil sands, rather than unions?

Magictofu March 10, 2009 at 11:05 pm

I’ll help you Milan!

While I agree that the language used in this article can be perceived as completely wrong for the reasons you mentioned, I think the main idea of the article is that if regional politics continue to dominate what should otherwise be a national debate, it means that our confederation is failing.

If we don’t have a plan to deal with the tar sand, it means that our institution are failing to address a major problem but it also indicate our institutional limits to address such issues and that means that Canada is failing to achieve its dream of confederal unity.

I feel that the tone of the article and some of the quotes are overly nationalistic and politically oriented to be taken seriously. What the article is failing to recognize is that the Tar Sand is not only national issue but also a global issue.

By the way, the article can be found at the following url:

Tristan March 11, 2009 at 12:45 am

I just don’t find the oil sands interesting at all. They were only profitable in the first place because the firms aren’t paying anything like the real cost of destroying land. In other words, illicit cooperation between a farce of a state and big coorperations.

Even without global warming, the oil sands are a complete joke. No serious, moral person, would consider permitting these operations for a second.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 9:18 am

If you thought climate change wasn’t happening, wasn’t serious, or wasn’t caused by greenhouse gasses and deforestation, that would eliminate a major strike against the oil sands.

If, in addition, you didn’t really care about boreal forests, did expect oil prices to return to high levels and stay there, cared a lot about energy security, and saw a lot of opportunities in being a major oil exporter to the US, then the oil sands might look pretty good.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 9:18 am

Incidentally, if one does think the oil sands are a big mistake, it is wrong not to take action on them because they seem ‘uninteresting.’

Tristan March 11, 2009 at 10:25 am

Have you been to the oil sands? Cause if you had, you probably wouldn’t use phrases like “the oil sands might look pretty good”. They only look good to people looking at energy forecasts and investment balance sheets – not to humans with eyes and noses. Sure, such massive destruction can be profitable. But no one who acquiesces to such massive territorial devestation is still human.

Milan March 11, 2009 at 10:43 am

They are hardly unique in this respect. If we are going to automatically reject anything that is ugly and hazardous, most mining and all factory farming of meat will also need to be eliminated.

Given the biological hazards involved, pig farms may well be more dangerous per square metre than oil sands operations. For instance, we quite possibly got MRSA from intensive pig farming.

Also, what we are doing in the ocean – for instance, by bottom trawling – is at least equally abominable.

. March 12, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Destroying the Environment to Get Our Oil Fix

By Jonathon Booth, Blogger

Continuing in my series of columns about things that are destroying the Earth, I thought I’d discuss a terrible oil mining project going on north of the border in Alberta. The Athabasca Oil Sands is one of the largest deposits of oil in North America, but the oil is very difficult to extract because it is inside rocks, which are mixed up with a lot of non-oil rocks. This project is so terrible that Environmental Defense– a particularly corporate environmental group– labeled it “The Most Destructive Project on Earth.”

Milan March 13, 2009 at 4:38 pm

The New York Times has an article on industrial pig farming and MRSA.

. March 18, 2009 at 11:01 am

Over the course of a decade, 340,000 people moved from Canada’s Atlantic provinces to Alberta to work in the development, 14 percent of the maritime provinces’ population.

. April 9, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Shell Breaks Global Warming Promise for Oil Sands Projects
April 8, 2009

Royal Dutch Shell has abandoned its written agreements to significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution at its Jackpine Mine and Muskeg River Mine Expansion oil sands projects. The commitments, made to the Oil Sands Environmental Coalition (OSEC), helped inform the decision by the governments of Alberta and Canada to grant regulatory approval for the projects in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

“We have a long track record of actively working with oil sands companies, government and other stakeholders to address the environmental impacts of oil sands development,” said Marlo Raynolds, Executive Director of the Pembina Institute. “Shell’s decision to break these binding agreements calls into question its claims of environmental leadership. Shell seems to believe it can break promises to Canadians with impunity.”

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