Canadian tar sands: Is our neighbor to the north becoming a jingoistic petro-state?

Is Canada Becoming a Jingoistic Petro-State?

Is Canada Becoming a Jingoistic Petro-State?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 20 2012 6:46 PM

Saudi Arabia. Nigeria. Venezuela. Canada?

Is our neighbor to the north becoming a jingoistic petro-state?

Canadian flag.
A flag of protest against the Canadian tar-sands oil industry

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images.

It’s well known that America’s dependence on foreign oil forces us to partner with some pretty unsavory regimes. Take, for instance, the country that provides by far the largest share of our petroleum imports. Its regime, in thrall to big oil interests, has grown increasingly bellicose, labeling environmental activists “radicals” and “terrorists” and is considering a crackdown on nonprofits that oppose its policies. It blames political dissent on the influence of “foreigners,” while steamrolling domestic opposition to oil projects bankrolled entirely by overseas investors. Meanwhile, its skyrocketing oil exports have sent the value of its currency soaring, enriching energy industry barons but crippling other sectors of its economy.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at or follow him on Twitter.

Yes, Canada is becoming a jingoistic petro-state.

OK, so our friendly northern neighbor isn’t exactly Saudi Arabia or Venezuela. But neither is it the verdant progressive utopia once viewed as a haven by American liberals fed up with George W. Bush. These days Canada has a Dubya of its own. And judging by a flurry of negative press from around the world—the latest: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other African leaders are taking out newspaper ads accusing Canada of contributing to famine and drought on the continent—it seems anti-Canadianism could be the new anti-Americanism.


Stephen Harper, the son of an oil-company accountant, built his political career in Alberta, a province whose right-wing tendencies and booming energy sector make it Canada’s equivalent of Texas. Harper took over the Conservative Party in 2004 and became prime minister two years later on a platform that evoked Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” In 2009, he quelled a Bush-esque Afghan-detainee abuse scandal by sending the parliament home to forestall further investigation. The Canadian economy weathered the financial crisis unusually well, thanks to strong banking regulations and booming oil sales to China, and in May 2011 Harper’s party won a majority for the first time. It has celebrated by veering rightward and doubling down on its oil bets.

Already in possession of the world’s second-largest oil reserves behind Saudi Arabia, Canada under Harper is aiming to more than double its output by 2035. Most of the new crude will come from the tar sands of northern Alberta, which are lousy with oil-rich bitumen. But extracting and refining that bitumen is lousy for the environment. It requires strip and open-pit mining, and the refining process is unusually energy-intensive. Producing one barrel of oil takes two tons of tar sands and several barrels of water.

Given that the Alberta tar sands already account for more carbon emissions than 145 entire nations, one would think Canada would have a hard time meeting international environmental standards. One would be right. Under a liberal government, the country was one of the first to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol in 1998. In 2002, even as Bush was gleefully thumbing his nose at the climate treaty, Canada ratified it, promising an ambitious 6 percent reduction from 1990’s carbon levels by 2012. Instead, emissions had risen 24 percent as of 2008. And in terms of energy consumption per capita, Canada is fourth in the world, 15 percent higher than the notoriously wasteful United States.

No worries. Last month Harper made Canada the first country to formally withdraw from the treaty, leaving it free to pollute as much as it sees fit. That has raised the hackles of environmental groups and other countries. When even China, the world leader in pollution, calls your environmental policies “regrettable,” you might be doing something wrong.

Far from being chastened by the outcry, the Canadian government has responded by circling the wagons and demonizing its critics. This month, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver issued an open letter accusing “environmental and other radical groups” of delaying major pipeline projects and calling for a “quicker and more streamlined” public review process. “It is an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest,” he explained. Harper has voiced concerns that public hearings will be “hijacked” by environmental groups funded by “foreign money.” Not if Harper’s party members in the House of Commons can help it: They’re planning a “review” of environmental charities that many tar-sands opponents see as a bid to limit their ability to advocate against the oil business. And Harper’s administration is boosting spending on military jets and warships while laying off hundreds in the environmental department.