Canada’s Unsustainable Development

Photo credit: National Geographic

Canada has never been a leader among the developed world in environmental issues.  They have one of the worst environmental records in the OECD despite having one of the highest per capita GDPs of OECD countries.  Maybe it is unsurprising then that they continue, despite the examples set by much poorer countries (see Ecuador), to ignore the concept of sustainable development and instead insist upon building their economy around an out-dated and environmentally harmful model.

In January American environmentalists successfully forced the Obama administration to deny a permit to the Keystone XL pipeline that would have carried tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.  This decision has effectively killed the project until at least 2013.  Despite this success in America, however, the development of the tar sands continues unabated in Canada and now threatens the single largest land based carbon storage site in the world – the Northern Boreal Forests.

The Northern Boreal Forests are often overlooked in the discussions of global forest carbon in favor of the better-known tropical rainforests.  Their low stature belies their importance.  The boreal forests of Canada and Russia are the single largest site of land based carbon storage in the world, containing 22% of the world’s land based carbon.  Canadian forests alone hold an estimated 186 billion tons of carbon – more than three times as much as what is stored in the Brazilian Amazon and more than what is stored in the forests of the three largest tropical countries (Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia) combined.

The development of the tar sands poses an existential threat to the boreal forests.  Tar sands oil is not pumped out of the ground but mined in a manner similar to coal.  And like the mountaintop removal practiced by coal miners, tar sands mining requires the clear cutting of the boreal forest.  It is this double carbon hit – carbon released when the forest is clear cut and then again when the oil is burned – that helps to make tar sands oil the dirtiest of fuels.

Right now only a small percentage of the total tar sands area has been clear cut – to date around 247 sq miles – of more than 54,000 square miles of potential area.  Already this small encroachment on the forest has had big consequences, namely the development of more than 46,000 miles of seismic lines, 8,000 miles of pipeline, and 8,500 miles of roads.  This secondary development fragments habitat, damaging local wildlife populations, and eases access for other extractive industries (logging, mining, etc) that further degrade the forests.

One of the species most harmed by the fragmentation of the old growth boreal forest has been the woodland caribou.  After rapid population declines due to habitat destruction, a recent report suggests that without dramatic action to preserve the remaining habitat, the species could go extinct within twenty years.  In response to this news, the Canadian government, bafflingly, has announced that the solution is to cull the wolf population that preys on caribou.  Ignoring the clear cause of the decline in caribou – human encroachment in and destruction of their habitat – the government instead has blamed its natural predators.  It now plans to poison and hunt the wolves from aircraft to cut the population by as much as 80%.  By doing so the government claims the caribou populations can recover while development of tar sands continues unabated, despite the fact that scientists have loudly stated that killing wolves will do nothing to save the caribou unless the habitat destruction is stopped.

All of these actions are done in the name of diversifying Canada’s trade and energy mix as outlined by the minister of Natural Resources in an open letter in January.  But despite the claims of the minister, this out-dated mode of development will have little positive benefit for Canada.  The tar sands oil will not be refined in Canada (hence the need for Keystone XL) and the Asian markets will consume the final refined product.  Further, a majority of the profit from the development of the oil sands will accrue to companies based outside of Canada with little stake in protecting the Canadian environment or economy.  Finally, the massive investment required to make the development and transport of the tar sands oil feasible is money that could, instead, be used to develop a sustainable energy future for Canada that truly diversifies Canada’s energy mix.

The minister of Natural Resources also cites the necessity of considering the viewpoints of Canada’s First Nations people on these projects.  Yet, even with 100% opposition from the Gitga Nation, the Gateway pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest is being pushed forward.  This pipeline, an alternative to Keystone XL, would transport the tar sands oil to the Pacific coast where it could be shipped to Asian markets.  But, despite the jobs such a pipeline offers, it has been universally opposed by those First Nation’s people who stand to gain the most from its development due to the threat of spills in the pristine environment through which it would pass.

The Canadian government has committed itself to an outdated model of economic growth that relies on resource exploitation and ignores the desires of its people.  Despite the positive examples set by developing countries around the world, Canada insists upon developing the tar sands and dismissing the environmental costs of the project.  Their attempt to increase the caribou population by culling wolves, despite the obvious cause of the decline being habitat destruction, shows a government willfully out of touch with reality.  The environmental cost of developing the tar sands, both from a biological and carbon accounting perspective, is immense.  By allowing, and encouraging, their development, Canada has stepped up to the plate once again and is serving as a premier example of unsustainable development.