Ever seen a movie where a scrawny quiet kid, after years of being bullied, finally comes of age and punches some punk in the head, and the theatre is filled with a sense of euphoric release?
In those terms, Canada is currently the scrawny quiet kid, but there’s been no sign it’s ready to stand its ground. It’s time to change that.
To say that we need our very own Trump would be a bit much, but we do need a few pages from his play book. Part of Trump’s appeal is that he took back the messaging, took over the conversation that the US was a spent force, and simply smashed that notion. There is no need to point out his blunders, his various appalling attitudes, his astoundingly thin skin, and countless other foibles. But he is serving a necessary purpose – that of an outsider who’s rewiring the machine, a job only an outsider could do. The strange part is that the tactic is a bit smoke and mirrors – the US debt situation is unbelievably unstable – but it is also true that he has cleared out a lot of cobwebs and refocused debates. You can comment all you want about the evils of Trump, and I’d agree with a good number of them, but the fact is that he severely shook up an establishment that was way too cozy and comfortable.
In Canada, we’ve accepted our lot in life as a punching bag. We stand meekly by while goons steal our lunches and then lecture us because there’s too much mayonnaise, and it’s unhealthy. I am referring, of course, to resource development – where the world takes what it needs, but demands it be done without impact.
We are on our heels, constantly struggling to justify our environmental record, while we feed the world with grain, heat it with natural gas, and allow it to move with our oil. We enable the manufacture of everything from sneakers to lipstick with our petrochemical output, we export electricity from vast hydroelectric projects, we create global houses with our wood, and we provide the metals and minerals that help make almost everything else. The very act of producing more than you use means that the environmental footprint has to be larger than if we only produced for our own needs. That’s not hard to understand, but why is it never said?
We do this while natural resource hypocrites hurl insults at us because of relatively inconsequential things like emissions levels of the oil sands. They condemn Canada as an environmental pariah for carefully extracting these resources, but are oddly quiet about the benefit they personally get from them.
Time to put things in perspective, head on and in an open manner. Consider for example the much-vilified oilsands tailings ponds. These waste sites now cover 220 square kilometers, and are indeed a challenge to reclaim. Now that that’s on the table, consider that the oil sands themselves cover 142,000 square kilometers, that Canada covers 9,985,000 square kilometers, and that oil sands companies are aggressively spending on new technologies to get rid of the problem – two companies alone recently established $2.5 billion worth of new technologies that are successfully reclaiming the tailings ponds and accelerating the process. Through new technology, Suncor expects to reduce reclamation time by a third.
Meanwhile, back at the renewable energy ranch, China mines most of the rare earth metals necessary for high-tech life including batteries for phones and electric vehicles and material for wind turbines. This industry also leaves behind massive tailings ponds that can be seen from space as well, like oilsands opponents like to point out about Alberta’s, but there is a crucial difference. In Canada, it is crystal clear to anyone who is interested just how large Alberta’s tailings ponds are, what they contain, and what the plan is for them; we even know when a few unfortunate ducks land in them. In China, the problem became so bad in the chemical wasteland city of Baotou that the government moved the industry to the Bayan Obo complex in the Gobi desert, and no one seems to know how big these ponds are or what they’ve actually contaminated. There is much speculation that ponds have leaked into groundwater and impacted thousands of people, which the Chinese government vaguely confirms also. What is known, thanks to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, is that China produces well over a hundred thousand tonnes of rare earth metals per year, and each tonne produced creates 10,000 cubic metres of toxic waste gas along with 75 cubic metres of acidic wastewater and a ton of radioactive waste. All into the tailings ponds, and no we won’t be answering any other questions thanks.
Never heard of that stuff, have you? You’ve also never heard of the outrageous lengths pipeline companies go to to keep pipelines safe, and it’s hard to get the details from them because publicity is not their friend. You never think that every day probably 10 million barrels of oil or petroleum products move down a pipeline in Canada without incident, though one minor, easily remediated spill makes international headlines.
You never hear about the extensive, laborious, and not-quick consultation processes required to build, hmmm, anything. Some random Canadian samples: a new highway in Nova Scotia takes 5-10 years to build, due to consultations, proper environmental analysis, etc. A natural gas power plant – a relatively simple, single site beast – takes a minimum of 3 years. Here are the stages a new wind farm has to go through on it’s way to saving the world: municipal consultations, wind assessment, wind farm design, environmental study, land acquisition, permitting and public consultation, manufacturing, site preparation, and finally construction. The environmental, permitting and public consultation phases can take years alone. To build a new pipeline takes, hmm, well, they really can’t be built anymore.
Of course bureaucracy isn’t new, and any infrastructure takes a lot of planning. But Canada’s standards are as stringent as any in the world. Nothing is perfect, and if perfection is required we would never build anything.
Given that Canadian standards are very high and that the whole world benefits so much from our resources, why on earth is Canada on its back foot so badly in these climate debates? Why do we allow the world free access to our resources, freer than most nations, and then apologize profusely because they choose to use them? Why do we accept for one second that Canada is a major part of the problem? The people who use the resources are the problem, and they keep on doing so, and as long as we produce things to the best of our abilities, there is nothing to apologize for.
A few fundamentals need to be understood. Free economies with abundant natural resources are the lifeblood of the global economy, and the backbone of the movement to greener technologies. There are not many in that camp. Take Russia, for example – another huge country with vast natural resources, but one that had no problem shutting off natural gas to eastern European countries in the dead of winter over some economic issue. China produces highest percentage of total greenhouse gas emissions, by a considerable margin, yet is seen as some sort of environmental leader because it is hastening a switch to electric vehicles.
Canada has apologized itself into a corner, where it has trouble even exporting its own products. It is becoming a captive country, where the only markets for its energy – a cornerstone of the Canadian economy, by any standard – are in the US, and the US will only accept on its terms. Canada is becoming nothing more than a US energy reserve site, available for future generations if they need it.
In 2018, Canada should begin become active with regards to its destiny, starting with the messaging. We are making enormous strides in becoming greener, which we should be very proud of, and we should pay no mind to the paid hecklers in the climate audience. Our regions should recognize the strength of the whole, where the varied strengths of various locales should make a composite structure as strong as any in the world. We should steward our natural resources to keep our free and open markets healthy and our economy strong. And we should stop apologizing for our gigantic natural resource pantry that the world raids whenever it feels like it.