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Why The Fuck Aren’t We Talking About Tar Sands Expansion This Election?

Canada is trying to convince the world that tar sands expansion and a stable climate are not irreconcilable.

Hell on earth or a bunch of money, depending on how you look at it. Photo via Flickr user Howl Arts Collective.

Whether or not to increase extraction from the Alberta tar sands isn't up for debate this Canadian election. The Conservatives, NDP, and Liberals are on the same page as industry: drill baby, drill! The three main parties bicker only over who has the better plan to get the stuff out of the ground and sold.

Meanwhile, economists, First Nations, scientists, and activists look on bewildered at the lack of substantive discussion over what is often called the largest industrial project on earth, the tar sands.


Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England (formerly governor of the Bank of Canada), spoke last week in London to insurance and banking executives noting that if there is to be a planetary hope for a stable climate, then a bunch of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. The UN International Panel on Climate Change calls this a "carbon budget".

Earlier this year a couple natural resource economists published a study in the scientific journal Nature investigating which specific fossil fuels reserves would have to stay buried to adhere to this carbon budget. They looked at how carbon-emitting various fuel reserves around the globe are. According to their analysis, 85 percent of Canada's tar sands, which are 17 percent more carbon-emitting than conventional oil sources, would need to remain unburned.

In 2014 there were 166 billion proven barrels of oil in the tar sands and extraction was going at a rate of 2.3 million barrels per day.

Following that math to conclusion, the tar sands have max 30 years left. Then it's over. The planet's biggest industrial project would need to be abandoned around 2045.

But the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) estimates a very different trajectory, with extraction in Canada growing steadily to 5.3 million barrels per day by 2030.

A bunch of groups have been trying to bring this contradiction between science and industry into focus this election. Climate activists regularly interrupt campaign stops of all three parties. The Green Party, for the limited power they wield, is saying that a great deal of Alberta's tar sands will need to stay in the ground. The mid-September release of the Leap Manifesto, written by Naomi Klein's crew and signed by celebrities like Rachel McAdams and Leonard Cohen, reiterated the science and called for a transition to a fair clean energy future. Part of the Leap's vision includes respect for long-neglected Indigenous treaty rights.


"Tarsands operations are in violation of treaty," says Jesse Cardinal, a Métis from Kikino Métis Settlement northeast of Edmonton, "as they are destroying the ability to hunt, fish, and trap, which is a treaty right. [They are] also destroying navigation on the land, Indians used to roam free, it was stated in the treaty, that they could continue to do so."

But despite these conversations and efforts, the fundamental question of tar sands expansion has stayed out of the spotlight this election. And the three big parties seem totally fine with that. asked psychology professor Elizabeth Page-Gould at the University of Toronto why all the parties are avoiding the issue. She told us it's either because:

"(A) they don't think voters' opinions on the environment play out in their final voting decisions; (B) if A is not true, then they at least think that people's opinions on the environment are not as important to them as other issues that are also impacted by the tar sands, such as jobs or the strength of the economy; (C) regardless of whether A or B are true, they consider the size of the constituency that is pro-tar sands to exceed the size of the constituency that is anti-tar sands."

Prime Minister Harper continues cheerleading for pipeline projects despite strong citizen counter-mobilizations and First Nations lawsuits, like the eight groups in BC challenging the Northern Gateway pipeline.


Good luck with this. :( Photo via Flickr user tarsandsaction

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau touts a vague environmentally responsible approach to energy projects, but chastises Harper for not selling the Keystone XL pipeline well enough to President Obama, who has blocked the bitumen export project. Trudeau promises to institute better environmental assessment frameworks that would gain public confidence and get pipeline projects built, thereby expanding the arteries for western oil to flow out.

While not straying far from Trudeau's environmental responsibility rhetoric, NDP leader Tom Mulcair argues for refining more oil here in Canada. This, he says, is a departure from the "rip and-ship" export approach characterizing much of the nation's history, from cod to old-growth forests to buried minerals and fossil fuels. But fundamentally he's not opposed to digging more carbon out of the ground.

When prominent NDP candidate Linda McQuaig (Toronto Centre) mentioned the clash between climate science and tar sands expansion in August, she immediately backpedalled stating, "I didn't say I want this oil left in the ground." Since then the public has sought to understand the party's position but, as with the Liberal's stance, details are hard to pin down. "An NDP government will make policy that fits with the facts, instead of playing with the facts to fit the policy," the NDP said in an email to But the party won't say what facts they are looking at on this issue. And Mulcair stands by the industry, with the only caveat being a call for more local refining.


This local refining pitch has been fragmenting Canada's environmental movement. Some, citing climate science and violations of First Nations treaties, oppose any expansion of the tar sands and call for it to be shut down ASAP. Others concede that operations in Alberta will likely continue for some time so we might as well control the damage with strong regulations here.

Those who hoped the NDP would stand against tar sands expansion have been sorely disappointed watching the New Democrats try to play it safe, ruffling no feathers. Under Mulcair's leadership the party seems to have bought into Canada's oil nationalism like the rest of the political establishment.

When the parties call for both tar sands expansion and science-based climate policies, they are really saying Canada should be allowed to extract and sell its energy-intensive products and other nations should not do the same with their cleaner fossil fuels.

Whichever party gets elected October 19, it appears they'll lead a delegation into the Paris climate negotiations in December taking a rogue stance. While other countries like China and the US are calling for dramatic CO2 emission reductions and economic decarbonization, Canada will be trying to convince the world that tar sands expansion and a stable climate are not irreconcilable.

Those who are waiting for politicians to really discuss these issues will likely have to wait for another election. But, as seen in the many efforts to slow extraction and reduce consumption of fossil fuels, people aren't waiting for the politicians to save the day.