Sometimes people speaking out on behalf of corporate interests get carried away. For instance, I loved the bit where David Emerson, who’s in deep with the oil companies, invoked John Cabot. “The age of sailing exploration may be far behind us,” he wrote in an essay published in the October 2010 issue of Policy Options magazine, “but the spirit that drove those entrepreneurial adventurers lives on in Canada’s Pacific Gateway Strategy.” Apparently nothing much separates the brave pioneers who set off across unknown seas five centuries ago and the sedentary suits pushing pipelines across the Rockies today. A spirit of magnificent adventure drives them all!
Or perhaps not.
Emerson, you will recall, was the Liberal who crossed the floor to join the Conservatives when things got tough for the Liberals. Prime Minister Harper bestowed upon him the international-trade portfolio (and later, foreign affairs) plus a brand-new one. He became minister for the Pacific Gateway. It used to be that lobbyists for commercial interests sought an audience with ministers. Now the lobbyist was the minister, and vice versa. In 2008, Emerson stood down from politics, but kept on speaking up for the oil-and-gas industry. When he wrote the article for Policy Options, he identified himself as chair of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada, a lobby group funded by the corporations that stand to benefit from the Northern Gateway pipeline. Emerson may have moved offices but seemingly his self-assigned task stayed the same.
The significance of the Options article is that it forms, if not the template, then a wonderfully explicit iteration of the text that now is being repeated by his former colleagues. Mostly, when Stephen Harper and, recently, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver speak out for the pipeline project, they dispense with rhetorical flourishes involving long-dead Italian sailors. But his other themes form a recurring motif. These include the following:
The potential energy yield from the tar sands is huge. Emerson: “At 170 billion barrels, the oil sands of the Athabasca Region in northern Alberta are the second-largest proven reserves of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia’s.” Joe Oliver on CBC’s “The Current” this morning: “The oil sands, some 170 billion barrels of proven reserves, are the third largest proven reserves in the entire world.” Second- or third-largest? Whatever. They’re really, really big.
Global, and especially Asian, demand for energy is rising fast. According to Emerson: “Global demand for energy is forecast to grow by 35 percent over the next two decades” largely driven by metastasizing economies in the Far East, especially China’s, which “has now taken Japan’s place as the world’s second-largest economy and is on track to become the largest … within the next three or four decades.” According to Oliver, in his recent letter complaining about environmental opposition to the project: “…the booming Asia-Pacific economies have shown great interest in our oil, gas, metals and minerals…. We must expand our trade with the fast growing Asian economies.”
Canada needs to reduce its reliance on the United States as a market for its energy resources. Emerson: “Diversification of Canada’s trade relationships beyond North America is a healthy and desirable objective. The point was driven home by last year’s global recession and slump in US demand for Canadian exports, on top of an established pattern of American protectionist initiatives in recent years.” Oliver on “The Current”: “We sell virtually all our energy resources to the United States. We have one customer, a very good customer, but we need to attract higher prices and we need to be cognizant of the fact that … our resources, frankly, are bigger than the United States is able and prepared to purchase.”
Thousands and thousands of jobs and billions and billions of dollars in revenue are at stake. The numbers come from the industry but their spokesmen’s eyes get big when they recite them. Emerson: “Pipeline and terminal construction at Kitimat would create 5,500 person-years of onsite employment and an additional 57,200 person-years throughout the Canadian economy. Governments would earn about $85 million per year in tax revenue—dollars that can be invested in research and technology, and that can build schools, hospitals and community centres.” Oliver on “The Current”: “If we are successful in building the pipelines we need, they can generate some 3.3 trillion dollars in economic activity, over 700 thousand jobs a year in Canada, from coast to coast, and well over 100 billion dollars in revenue for governments.” Eighty-five million dollars or $100 billion? Whatever. We’ll be up to our whatsits in lolly.
Some of these claims may be true, though it would be nice to have independent verification and, hey! maybe an examination of the underlying assumptions about what’s good for Canada. What’s really disturbing is the way government ministers read uncritically from the industry’s script while implying that environmental and other critics represent alien “special interests.”