Canadian Prime Minister Harper's empty threat to ship tar sands to China

Amidst the political wrangling in Congress which may force President Obama to make a decision on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in early 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued another empty threat that he was “serious” about taking tar sands to other international markets such as China.  While Prime Minister Harper might like to talk tough, the reality is Canada doesn’t have access to Asian markets nor will they in the foreseeable future.  What American decision-makers must know is that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is an export pipeline.  Tar sands producers certainly want to access Chinese and other Asian markets but extraordinary opposition from Canadians including dozens of First Nations prevents them from accessing these markets through Canada’s west coast. Instead, the tar sands industry with the full support of the Canadian Conservative government seeks to pipe it through the United States - bringing with it a major risk of a pipeline spill - to open and export to international markets.  

 Canadian First Nations Opposition to Northern Gateway Pipeline

Photo: On December 1, 61 First Nations in Canada issued a declaraction against pipelines going to Canada's west coast.

In a Canadian television interview this week Prime Minister Harper restated a threat that they will send Canada’s tar sands to Asian markets. He said, "I am very serious about selling our oil off this continent, selling our energy products off to China."  While Harper wants U.S. politicians to think Canada can simply ship tar sands elsewhere, the reality is Canada’s only real option at this time is to export oil via a pipeline across America’s heartland.  Canada’s Queen University public policy professor Warren Mabee puts it into context calling the Harper’s argument a ‘pipe dream.’ He said, "It's the sort of things we say to the Americans when the Americans are dilly-dallying around buying our resource, that we can just sell it somewhere else."  In fact, Canada is having significant trouble moving tar sands oil through its own country and particularly to its western coast where it can access international markets.     

Less than a month after the Obama administration delayed the Keystone XL pipeline into 2013, Canadian regulators announced a one year delay for the Northern Gateway pipeline which would take tar sands to the Canadian west coast.  The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline would carry highly acidic and corrosive raw tar sands from Alberta’s tar sands through nearly 750 miles to Kitimat on British Columbia’s northern coast. A recent report by NRDC, the Pembina Institue and Living Oceans reveals there are significant risks to transporting tars ands oil across the B.C. coastal ecosystems.

The announced delay was due to extraordinary public opposition to the pipeline.  First Nations opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline will very likely create a long-term barrier to its approval.  Canada’s First Nations have constitutionally protected treaty rights and unsettled land claims enabling them to block and significantly delay the pipeline.  Even Canada’s own federal Aboriginal Affairs Department acknowledges that unsettled land claims are “one of the main obstacles for the project.” On December 1, the leaders of 61 First Nations from across British Columbia issued a Save the Fraser Declaration opposing the tar sands pipelines from Alberta to the Canadian west coast and pledging to "form an unbroken wall of opposition from the U.S. border to the Arctic Ocean," they said.

This project which would link the Tar Sands to Asia through our territories and the headwaters of this great river, and the federal process to approve it, violate our laws, traditions, values and our inherent rights as Indigenous Peoples under international law… We will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean migration routes of Fraser River salmon.

Chief Jackie Thomas of the Saik'uz First Nation issued a direct message to Prime Minister Harper, “I have news for you Mr. Harper, you're never going to achieve your dream of pushing pipelines through our rivers and lands. We will be the wall that Enbridge cannot break through.”  Robert Mark, an investor specialist, with MacDougall, MacDougall & Mactier said there are “a lot more hoops” to proceed with the Gateway pipeline than Keystone XL. 

In addition to First Nations opposition, unprecedented numbers of people from all over British Columbia have are lined up against the pipeline.  Thousands of people have signed up to speak at the regulatory hearings more than any other energy project in Canadian history.   Canada’s federal opposition parties have signaled their support for a permanent tanker ban. And dozens of businesses and the majority of British Columbians support a ban.

Robert Campbell, a Reuters market analyst, says Canada’s claim they will find other pipeline avenues is hollow. “If anything, a pipeline from Alberta across the mountainous province of British Columbia is likely to face more scrutiny from environmental groups than Keystone XL.”   Another pipeline proposal advanced by Kinder Morgan involving the expansion of one of their pipelines and an additional new pipeline will face the same public and First Nations opposition.

As one commentator for Canada’s National Post put it, “There will nothing simple about getting oil to China.”  The reality is the Canadian tar sands industry has put most of its stock into Keystone XL moving ahead.  The truth is that Keystone XL is an export pipeline that would bring tar sands from Alberta through America’s heartland to the Gulf Coast where it can be shipped overseas.  In other words, Keystone XL is not about helping America’s energy security and not in America’s best interest.

About the Authors

Danielle Droitsch

Senior Policy Analyst, Canada Project

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