Fourth in a series on oil politics and Canada’s climate change challenge.

Of all the things that oil mixes poorly with, politics might be the most difficult solution to make. Oil politics has divided Canada, blocked environmental change and for the most part has been a disaster for progressive politics.

On the edge of another federal election, oil politics continues to rise to the top of the Canadian barrel, forcing all other politics and choices into layers below. Conservatives are virtually assured of the vast majority of seats from the Western oil-producing regions. The domination of oil politics has regionalized Canada and intimidated the opposition to the point where there are virtually no concrete alternatives on the nation-defining issues that arise from our oil and bitumen economy.

The latest Nanos poll on key issues has environment dropping in relative importance, a familiar consequence of economic hard times. Consequently action on climate change will not be on the short list of ballot choices offered by any of the parties.

I am not a syndicalist, but this is a case when movements can’t wait for politics. By “movements” I mean both the environmental movement (ENGOs) and the labour movement, which have a shared purpose in coming to grips with climate change and sustainable development. At the highest levels, labour and environmentalists have been working together through the Blue Green Alliance in the U.S. and in Canada through a number of working relationships such as the Green Economy Network. The ground campaigns, however, are much less coordinated, and very divergent in emphasis and tone.

Since 2002, Canadian labour has endorsed the Kyoto protocol and has called for mandatory targets to reduce GHGs. Many unions have emphasized “green jobs” policies both to express concern over climate change and also to replace lost industrial jobs. There is little doubt, though, that labour’s campaigning on these issues has largely retreated into scattered policy workshops and ad hoc delegations to climate conferences. Certainly we are well down the road from the heady days before Harper’s election when the Canadian Labour Congress Environment Committee brought together all the major unions and ENGOs to coordinate action and strategy on Canada’s climate change policies and regulations.

In 2003, Canadian oil politics changed when the U.S. State Department declared Canada’s bitumen sands to the second largest oil reserve in the world — the official announcement for the 21st century gold rush in Northern Alberta. My union, CEP, and the Alberta Federation of Labour, responded to the massive investments by focusing on the huge pipelines proposed to make the expansion of the bitumen sands possible. Thousands of value added jobs would go down the pipelines with the raw bitumen. But the critique also focused on the way in which export capacity was driving expansion, and how the pipeline infrastructure was redrawing the energy map of North America. The huge new pipeline network from Western Canada to the U.S. bypassed any chance of linking Canada together with an energy policy and grid, leaving Eastern Canadians dependent on imported crude oil. Challenges before the National Energy Board, appeals to cabinet, and a media campaign raised awareness of the issues, but not much more.

Through much of this period ENGOs ran broad brush campaigns against “dirty oil” and campaigned for a moratorium on new development. The moratorium demand had some support in Alberta, especially from municipal officials overrun with social issues from the gold rush. But the moratorium campaign was largely what I called “all pain and no gain.” The pain resulted from the majority view that it was a demand to close down the Alberta economy. There was no gain on sustainability because existing permits would double production anyway, leaving water, land, toxics and GHG issues unresolved.

The ENGO campaigns turned a corner last year, just when those fighting the pipelines thought the game was almost lost. U.S. ENGOs, notably Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Committee, launched a campaign to block U.S. approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The U.S. ENGOs correctly identified the XL as a lynchpin project that proposed to take almost one million barrels per day of bitumen from Alberta all the way to the Texas gulf coast. There are two fronts of US opposition to XL: one, state by state where ranchers, water activists and community groups are mobilizing around local pipeline issues; the other, the national ENGO campaign because the pipeline requires the approval of U.S. President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

If there is a game changer for oil politics, it is the XL pipeline. If it can be derailed, it would force a re-examination of both bitumen exports and sustainability. It is a long shot, but as I see it, our best and perhaps last chance. However, a long shot win will will require both labour and ENGOs to change course with a re-framing of issues and language.

The onus to do something different is first on labour which has fought for jobs, while oil money was telling workers that jobs depend instead upon uncontrolled development. Labour needs more than a jobs argument; it must also challenge the logic of out-of-control expansion of the bitumen sands and return to the environmental challenge that stirred them into action in the first place.

A decade ago, Canadian unions convinced their members that climate change was ultimately the most important issue we faced. That is why we developed a “just transition” policy to ensure that the cost of change was equitably borne by the whole society, and not just those in the fossil fuel industries. To say the least, there has been no need yet for just transition in the oil patch. Our pressing need now is to find again the sense of urgency over the climate crisis.

For ENGOs, there must be a realization that their campaigns have been marginalized by the regionalization of Canadian politics. To turn that around, they will need more than a U.S. argument. They have to convince Albertans and Canadian workers generally that a new approach to environment and the bitumen sands is needed.

A large number of Alberta workers perceive the campaigns about the bitumen sands to be about its very existence. That is an absurd conclusion, given the scale and growth of an industry tripling in size before our eyes. It is a reaction to images and language, recast by oil politics. It also arises from a sense of being singled out and targeted in a way that others are not.

The posters and ads about “dirty oil” (no more accurate than Harper’s “ethical oil”) or the appeals to “stop the tar sands” are not intended to impress Alberta workers, and they do not. But asking what kind of industry, what sustainability, what safety, what jobs and what regulations must be imposed, in my experience, gets a very different response.

Nor is the singular focus of ENGOs on the bitumen sands helpful, because it creates a false notion that action on climate change is all about Alberta. To the contrary, an exaggerated focus on Alberta is a distraction from the need for regulations on all large industrial emitters, everywhere in Canada. If Canada has any hope of meeting 2020 targets, these regulations must be the priority.

Bitumen is neither oil nor tar, both of which are processed substances. It is a raw material that is unusable until value is added through the upgrading process. Bitumen, or synthetic oil made from bitumen is neither ethical nor dirty. It is a Canadian resource that will be a part of our energy mix as conventional oil is depleted and while we transition away from fossil fuels. Like coal, conventional oil and refineries, cement, transportation, pulp and paper and other big emitters, its GHGs must be regulated and cut.

Let’s reserve the value-charged labels for the politicians who decide whether Canada will face up to the climate crisis, or whether we will simply be America’s gas tank, welded into place by mega pipelines. The energy we save can be well used in a joint effort by labour and ENGOs to, at last, sink oil politics to the bottom of the barrel.

The atmosphere is unimpressed by the latest numbers from Nanos. Canada has never met a climate change goal and is headed towards another decade of abject failure. Unless there is a serious move to regulation, our greenhouse gases are poised to rise as a result of the expansion of bitumen production and exports. It’s time for those who care about this crisis to change course.



Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is the assistant to the President of Unifor.