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It Doesn’t Get More Embarrassing for Politicians Than the ‘I Love Oil Sands’ Campaign

Alberta and Conservative politicians want Justin Trudeau to whisper sweet nothings about the tar sands.

These Calgary Stampeders really want you to know how much they love the oil sands. Photo via Facebook

TransCanada needs a tender hug from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

At least, that's what was implied on January 28 when Conservative MP and natural resources critic Candice Bergen introduced a motion requesting the federal government "express its support for the Energy East pipeline currently under consideration."

The proposal seemed reasonable enough: global oil prices are in the shitter and Alberta's carbon-rich goop is sold at a heavy discount because it's extracted in the middle of fucking nowhere. Plus, TransCanada—a $34-billion pipeline company—has been feeling a bit bummed ever since US President Barack Obama vetoed its Keystone XL project. (Montreal mayor Denis Coderre recently tried a similar Gandalf vs. Balrog stunt with Energy East without actually having the authority to do so.)


But if the Liberals had voted in favour of the motion, it would have implicitly undermined the National Energy Board (NEB), the independent agency that approves or rejects pipelines and which the Liberals recently committed to depoliticizing.

The Conservatives knew this, of course, because they're sly dogs who took the chance to pull out the classic straw man "you're with us or you're with the child pornographers" card. Which is exactly what happened (at one truly sublime point, MP Michelle Rempel accused a Progressive Conservative MLA from Alberta of treason for retweeting a quip about the obvious vapidness of the motion).

Yet this pathetic instance is only the latest in a long lineage of efforts to polarize the conversation about the tar sands.

To be sure, politicians have been always very involved in boosting bitumen. But Andrew Nikiforuk, journalist and author of Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, says the rhetoric has become much more extreme in recent years: "We're talking about active cheerleading in which government has forgotten its role and duty to provide sober second thought on big megaprojects."

In 2006, then-prime minister Stephen Harper (where are you lately, buddy?) excitedly prophesied that Canada was "the emerging energy superpower." Yet it wasn't until 2008, when 1,600 ducks divebombed a Syncrude tailings pond and rudely died in the age of the meme-friendly internet, that a true rhetorical shift occurred.


Patrick McCurdy, associate professor at University of Ottawa who's currently researching the evolution of tar sands advertising, says that since that flashpoint it's been a ping-pong match of sorts between environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and the oil and gas industry, one dependent on "punchy, smart retorts and memes" which "doesn't necessarily advance discussion."

The "I Love Oil Sands" branding is a prime example of this. Only a few days before Bergen introduced the expertly crafted piece of political theatre, the so-called grassroots group Oilsands Action tweeted a picture of 21 Conservative MPs boasting such shirts (for context: Cody Battershill, the over-enthused fella who founded Oilsands Action, helped lead the vapid charge against Tim Hortons during the absurd Enbridge debacle that pitted questionable oil against generic coffee in a stereotypically Canadian fashion).

Why these people chose to publically devote love to bitumen—as opposed to, say, spiced banana ice cream or Future's new album—isn't immediately apparent.

But even more confusing is the fact that Alberta NDP officials also hopped on the bandwagon: in a short window of time, the province's energy minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd and the massively bearded MLA Shaye Anderson tweeted out photos of them wearing the "I Love Oil Sands" swag, with Premier Rachel Notley's communications head Marcella Munro—who's been slammed by far-right activists for being allegedly anti-pipeline—posting a picture of her sporting a hat and gloves by a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers-funded astroturf group.


Obviously, the tar sands provide plenty of jobs and exports, which can help boost the country's dollar and keep the price of cauliflower under control. Not many people will argue against that. But the notion of "loving" bitumen is a fairly ludicrous one given the obvious not-so-amazing aspects of the business that's implicitly ignored by such rhetoric. McCurdy dubs the endorsement as "blind, unquestioning, unfaltering."

Politicians who profess their exclusive love for the tar sands are also implicitly defending the following: the leaching of oilsands tailings sludge into nearby water sources, the anticipateddoubling of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the contamination of First Nations food sources, the continued extraction of water from the Athabasca River despite low levels, extremely high rates of substance abuse in Fort McMurray, the ongoing violation of treaty rights, the spread of cancer-linked pollutants, the intense fiscal overdependence on royalties, the lack of compensation to First Nations.

Topping it all off is the fact the tar sands, while a publicly owned resource, is leased and developed by private corporations that have an exclusive mandate to create profit for its shareholders, not to serve the broader public interest. It's what Imre Szeman, co-director of the University of Alberta's Petrocultures research cluster, designates as "a protracted politics of neoliberalism, where what governments are about is about making the circumstances better and better for companies to operate and generate profits."


"It's trying to shame politicians into figuring out a way to generate new markets," says Szeman, who also serves as the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies. "If you're a politician, you're also being pressured to stand up and be the person who's finally going to reduce CO2 emissions in Canada. And they don't go together."

Nikiforuk suggests that if Alberta's government had retained more control or sharply raised royalties when it recently had the opportunity, it could have feasibly worked towards restricting exports until oil prices bounce back. But nobody seems particularly optimistic that kind of conversation will occur. Intensely pro-capitalist campaigns such as "I Love Oil Sands" and troll-y Conservative motions have worked to reposition the debate to one that's starkly black-and-white. And in the end, McCurdy suggests that such polarization ultimately benefits the status-quo.

"It's the corporations who win if we do nothing," he concludes. "If the citizen is confused or sits back and feels like, 'Well I don't want to threaten our quality of life,' inaction is action in and of itself. You can't turn energy and oil off tomorrow. You can't unplug the way things are. But you can have a discussion about what aspects in our lives we can transition."

Follow James Wilt on Twitter.