Gary Doer on the tar sands

RDC Perspectives Series image

Gary Doer (former premier of Manitoba, current Canadian ambassador to the United States) spoke at RDC the other night, the 22nd speaker in my department’s Perspectives series.

Doer opened by noting his work with Ralph Klein in devising a “science-based” response to the BSE scare a few years ago.

As most Albertans recall, the U.S. closed the border to Canadian beef imports after a single case of BSE infection was discovered in Alberta. Arguably (even though I’m a committed vegetarian!) this was a political reaction driven by protectionist U.S. farmers. Moreover, while BSE is much more prevalent in Canada than the U.S. it is still quite rare and arguably, (though I’ll yield to countering scientific data) poses little threat to humans. The incidence of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease is about 1 in one million from all causes and only three Americans have died due to CJD.

So what was Klein’s reaction to the BSE scare? As all Albertans remember, he famously told ranchers who detected BSE in the herds to “shoot, shovel, and shut up.

It beggars the imagination to see how anyone could describe this as a “science-based” approach, since it undercut the very surveillance techniques scientists use to track and stop BSE outbreaks. Once a politician told ranchers to subvert this measure,  the U.S. had no choice but to conclude that Canadian reports of BSE prevalence or non-prevalence were unreliable and under-reporting and to close the borders to protect U.S. livestock and consumers. If I were Doer, I’m not sure I’d want this  episode on my resume.

Doer spent most of his remaining time defending tar sands development and the proposed Keystone pipeline to send those tar sands to an oil-hungry U.S. market. Over and over again, he emphasized the U.S.’s need for a secure oil supply. And, after all, our neighbours are by far the world’s largest consumer of oil, as they openly admit. And Doer boasted, 90% of the tars sands exploitation profits returned to the United States!

Doer went on to sneer at Hollywood environmentalists who opposed tar sands developments on the strength of what he  called “frozen [i.e., out of date] facts.” As Doer told it, the tars sands were squeaky clean. Plus some place in California produced oil with an even higher carbon footprint. Tu quoque, Hollywood!

Oddly, in trying to get the “truth” out, Doer never mentioned this July 2011 report which points out that by 2020, total CO2 emissions from the tar sands will have increased 62 megatonnes over 2005 levels, almost exactly negating all government measures to  reduce Co2 emissions: 65 megatonnes 2005-2020. Even if we killed the tar sands today, we would still be 100 Mt over our Kyoto commitment. I have no idea why any diplomat would want to boast about Canada’s CO2 record.

And the author of this report? Not eco-freak Darryl Hannah, but Stevie Harper’s own government. Maybe Doer never got the memo.

At times, it was difficult to remember whether Doer was shilling for Canadian or American interests. I never understood why Canada has a duty to feed the Americans’ almost insatiable appetite for oil. After all, whether or not tar sands development is environmentally defensible or not, it is we, not the Americans, who will become international pariahs in an increasingly environmentally aware world – just as we already are for selling asbestos to developing nations and for killing seals.

Doer paid only lip service to reducing oil consumption, noting that the U.S. and Canada had agreed on even more stringent truck and auto fuel efficiency standards. But this may not do much, since apparently, people just buy bigger and bigger cars as fuel efficiency rises, even if gas prices go up.


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