geography 442 – a student-directed seminar

Posts from — October 2010

Peak Oil and a Return to the Streetcar City

The world is largely dependent on finite resources to meet current energy demands. In North America and across the globe, petroleum accounts for a large percentage of total energy consumption. And to a large extent, this is due to the personal automobile. In the context of transportation, suburbanization has made oil dependency a reality, especially in North America. In this response, I will reinforce major points raised by UBC Geography Ph.D. Candidate Andrew Jackson from his presentation, “The End of Oil,” and I will explore the necessity to return to the streetcar city in preparation for a post-carbon future.

An increasing number of people are familiar with peak oil. M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil Company geologist, formulated the concept in the late 1950s. He estimated world production would peak in 2000. This prediction was nearly accurate, as “regular[,] [global] oil production peaked in 2005” (Murphy 5). This means the most easily accessibly oil, with the highest energy return on investment (EROI), has been extracted, leaving oil to be extracted through processes that are expensive and yield a lower EROI. Many argue that the tar sands is a compelling example of this and speaks to the reality of peak oil. Oh, and by the way, climate change and the melting of the Arctic will not solve our growing oil needs. The United States Geological Survey’s liberal estimate puts undiscovered, recoverable oil in the Arctic at 90 billion barrels. Currently, the world consumes around 30 billion barrels per year. (Nelder)

Peak oil poses serious implications – it fundamentally puts most aspects of the modern capitalist economic structure into question. In BC, refined petroleum accounts for 44% of the market share of energy consumption (Statistics Canada). Although efforts have been made to reduce our dependency, most people live in oil-dependent cities, suburbs, and regions. Oil shocks are inevitable. We must invest in streetcar systems, rail networks, and adapt our cities and suburbs with this reality in mind. The era of cheap oil and the personal automobile is coming to an end.

Patrick Condon, UBC Professor of Landscape Architecture, outlines the steps that must be taken immediately to prepare for a post-carbon future. As it is beyond the scope of this response to write in detail on all seven of Condon’s rules, I will focus on his central argument: restore the streetcar city. Vancouver was once a streetcar city with an extensive network, and at its peak, connected the city of Vancouver to towns in the Fraser Valley. Streetcars are already commonplace in many European cities – and these cities and countries have much lower per capita energy consumption. Streetcars encourage density (if it does not already exist), mixed-used developments, and walking districts. Streetcars also discourage driving. Andrew Jackson and other planners note the importance of reducing space dedicated to the personal automobile. Disincentives must exist for people to change behaviours. Less space for cars means fewer cars on the road.

Portland has demonstrated great potential for the modern streetcar city in North America. The streetcar network connects downtown with several neighbourhoods, and there are plans to extend service throughout the city and even to the nearby suburb of Lake Oswego. The streetcar system has encouraged density and smarter development with the creation of 10,000 residential units and over $3.5 billion in property investments within two blocks of the line (Driehaus). The Portland Streetcar connects to the main downtown transit mall, providing bus and suburban light rail connections. Portland’s suburbs resemble many other North American suburbs, but they stand apart in transit accessibility. The light rail network connects many suburbs to Portland and has encouraged higher density suburban development along the line. This does not mean suburban development should continue, but we must quickly find ways to remake suburban landscapes for a post-carbon future. Suburbs must be connected to cities – and light rail and streetcar systems are necessary.

Peak oil is very real. Until we start having frank discussions about the implications of peak oil, we will not be prepared to tackle the many challenges ahead of us. We are facing unprecedented challenges, but also incredible opportunities. In this space of great possibility, we have the choice to recreate our urban and suburban landscapes and re-imagine our cities for people and community. Right now we have the choice to make these transitions, but if we fail to act soon, we will have much less control. The possibility for radical transformation is in front of us, but we need to get moving. Will you join me?

Works Cited

Condon, Patrick. “Why A Streetcar Is Something To Be Desired.” The Tyee 16 Sep. 2010. 31 Oct. 2010. .

Driehaus, Bob. “Downtowns Across the U.S. See Streetcars in Their Future.” The New York Times 13 Aug. 2008. 31 Oct. 2010 .

Ménard, Marinka. Statistics Canada. “Canada, A Big Energy Consumer: A Regional Perspective.” Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2005. .

Murphy, Pat. “Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change.” Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2008.

Nelder, Chris. “How Much Oil Is In the Arctic?” Business Insider 13 June 2009. 31 Oct. 2010 .

October 31, 2010   1 Comment

Excess, meet Scarcity. Critical Response #1

Zizek writes that “Power generates its own excess which it then has to annihilate in an operation that imitates what it fights” (27). I think this paradoxical logic offers an interesting point of departure in a discursive discussion of the economic concept of “scarcity.” In “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism,” James O’Connor constructs a poignant critique around the central notion that capital “is its own barrier because of its self-destructive forms of…power… appropriation [and the] capitalization of external nature…” (159). O’Connor advances this notion by suggesting that so-called “natural barriers” are in fact capitalistically produced. In a capitalistic context, the notion of “scarcity” is conveniently translated into economic jargon, where ‘Limits to Growth’ are cast as a necessary evil, over which capital/ism must exercise brute force and declare its anthems of ‘progress,’ ‘efficiency’ and ‘expansion.’

The capitalist obsession with identifying “limits” and “barriers” to growth is, I think, an internal function of capitalism, where “barriers assume the form of economic crisis” – a mess in need of cleaning up. Seen in this way, it is tempting to suggest that the so-called “barriers” of capitalism are in fact that which structures capitalist excess. Put another way, “scarcity” is the phantom-limb of excess, which capital/power/excess is compelled to see as the Other of itself, something which must necessarily be annihilated.

What becomes dangerously problematic here is the failure to recognize “scarcity” as that which resists our immersion in daily reality. More simply stated, we fail to identify ourselves, our excesses, and our greed with the production of “scarcity.” From this perspective, it is not difficult to recognize the extent to which capitalism – as something caught up in this schizoid, annihilative pattern – is inherently crisis-ridden and crisis-dependent. What I find troubling is the potential for a supposed ‘crisis of scarcity’ to be expounded as a scientific absolute, an assertion which effectively disarms the capacity for open discussion and prevents important questions from being asked about destructive patterns of consumption.

Here, I think it is useful and compelling to reference Ivan Illich’s “The Social Construction of Energy,” where he casts the concept of scarcity into the dynamic folds of technologic and discursive history. Illich is interested in the role of words as “verbal symbols,” and focuses largely on the co-dependence and interconnected effects (and affect) of these “verbal symbols” to construct social reality. The significance of historical context in Illich’s argument is essential. The reason for this, Illich contends, is largely because he “discover[ed] in the emergence of this verbal symbol (“energy”) the means by which nature has been interpreted as a domain governed by the assumption of scarcity… Once the universe itself is placed under the regime of scarcity,” Illich continues, “homo is no longer born under the stars but under the axioms of economics” (13). By making a pointed reference to the mid-1800’s “message of spiritual awakening to a cosmos defined by the assumptions of scarcity” (16), I think Illich makes a strong case for recognizing scarcity as inherently economistic and capitalistically constructed. (It is no small coincidence that this “spiritual awakening” coincided with groundbreaking technological advances in the industrial revolution, including the steam engine, the dynamo and and the electric motor, each of which had profound effects on the division of labour and the conceptualization of “energy.”)

For O’Connor, the importance of understanding scarcity as both a political and economic conceptual instrument is advanced in the question: “where does the extra commodity demand that is required to buy the product of surplus labour originate?” Here, O’Connor cleverly and intentionally complicates the notion of “scarcity.” By reversing the base status-quo relationship between supply and demand – where human consumers are defined as “nature’s ever needy clients” (Illich 13) – O’Connor subtly undermines the faulty justifications for capitalistic excess. Simply by asking – where does surplus need come from – O’Connor makes a rhetorical jab at the entire normalized architecture of capitalistic greed and patterns of consumption. Within these patterns of greed and consumption, real needs are supplanted by desire, and the Nature of economics (see Jane Jacobs) as replaced by a libidinally driven economy.

What I have attempted to do in this brief reflection is offer a critical, alternative conceptualization of “scarcity” as the dispossessed product/ion of capitalistic excess. Though there are many important voices and implications missing from this discussion, I think it is important to exercise situating the assumed threat of the ‘crisis of scarcity’ within a larger philosophical and moral framework. In so doing, I aim to open a space in which important interrogations of capitalist consumer excess can be made.


Jacobs, Jane. “The Nature of Economics.” Vintage Canada, 2001.

Illich, Ivan. “The Social Construction of Energy. ” New Geographies (vol 2).

O’Connor, James. “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism.” Natural Causes, New York and London: Guilford Press, 1998.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real.” New York: Verso, 2002.

October 28, 2010   2 Comments

Hey Guys,

My faculty sent out an invitation to the 2010 Clean Energy Conference, happening October 8th and 9th. The student rate is $100, which is major steep, but I think it would be great to attend. I’ve attached the file and it looks like there will be some really interesting discussions.

2010 Clean Energy Conference


October 27, 2010   No Comments

Reclamation or Masturbation? Critical Response #2.

When considering the impacts of a wide-scale land disturbance, it’s important to weigh the political, economic, and social elements that are or will be affected. This article will attempt to further examine the long-term ecological and landscape impact of fossil fuel extraction by examining the reclamation standards determined by the Alberta provincial government. Using the Alberta oil sands as a case study, I will look at open pit mining rather than Steam Assisted Gravity Drained (SAGD) operations as this type of extraction involves the largest landscape impact of the development. I propose that due to the substantial environmental impact in this region, the current reclamation standards fail to encompass the grand scale of the oil sand development.

According to the Alberta Oilsands Vegetation Reclamation Committee, any user of public land whether it be a private timber licensee or a multinational energy corporation, must “achieve maintenance-free, self-sustaining ecosystems with capabilities equivalent to or better than pre-disturbance conditions” (OSVRC, 1998). For many industries such as forestry, this is a complex but very attainable task, and in many cases the outcome does actually benefit the ecosystem (such as salvage harvesting Mountain Pine Beetle stands). For other resource sectors following the governmental guidelines, the task is completely moot. The Alberta oil sand extraction, for example, is a large-scale development that involves ecosystem reconstruction at the scale of entire landscapes. “Given the large area of each mine (ca. 100 km2) eventually to be stripped and mined, this is not a restoration problem but the engineering of new ecosystems” (Johnson. 2008). For example, the largest tailings pond in the world “Mildred Lake”, resides in the Athabasca region which is owned and operated by Syncrude Canada Ltd. The Mildred Lake Settling Basin has a water surface area of 13 km2, and holds more than 400 million m3 of tailings (Fedorak et al. 2002). Further, a major problem with using tailings ponds as a disposal method is the slow rate of sedimentation of the fine tailings, which could take 125–150 years (Eckert et al. 1996), which far surpasses the reclamation timeframe.

Because of the oil sands development of the landscape, the ground and surface hydrology is rerouted wherein whole wetlands and creeks disappear or move, the soil chemistry is changed to a point that native species won’t grow without annual fertilization, and whole boreal ecosystems are removed (OSVRC. 1998). The current remediation tactics use the same reclamation standards that the forestry industry uses, requiring “80% of the plots in a standard survey to be stocked with an acceptable tree(s) to a minimum height standard” (Alberta SRD. 2008). This standard is based on the assumption that the ecosystem occupying the site after the disturbance will be the same or similar to what it was prior; but because open pit mining alters the whole landscape, the silvicultural prescription will not necessarily equate to what remains after extraction. Regarding development in peatland areas, Mark Sherrington writes “peatlands are vegetation communities established on organic soils over several thousand years and cannot be reclaimed in the 80–100 year time period considered for reclamation in the Oil Sands region” (Sherrington. 2005). This means the peatlands removed for development will, at best, be returned to marches or swamps which don’t support the biodiversity or carbon storage that the peatlands previously did. The reclamation procedure also relies on salvaging peat deposits from the excavation sites, as well as harvesting organic soils and peat from offsite locations to mix with the replaced top soil, to create a suitable growth medium. While this method is “noteworthy because native seeds and root fragments transferred with the soil became established and grew rapidly on the reclamation sites” (OSVRC. 1998), it further expands the “footprint” of the operation and relies on fragile ecosystems to provide another resource to supplement the damages driven by fossil fuel consumption, which in turn releases more carbon previously stored in the frozen organics within the peatland permafrost. This is analogous to the consumption of a cleaner energy, natural gas, (or maybe even nuclear), to produce energy deemed by President Barack Obama as “dirty, dwindling, and dangerous.”

For these reasons, it should be clear that the generic reclamation standards of the province are not sufficient when dealing with such a macro anthropogenic disturbance. Reclaiming this land involves more than a superficial cleanup with the assumption that nature will restore itself and it’s unrealistic to assume that the landscape after extraction would resemble anything close to “pre-disturbance conditions”. As filmmaker Shannon Walsh and writer Macdonald Stainsby point out: Alberta’s failed reclamation strategy is “an absurdist creation only possible at this point in market-utopian logics” (Walsh. 2010). To recreate viable whole landscapes, a strategy must be created with the end goals and design objectives clearly laid out, a bottom up approach; which would allow developers to incorporate final objectives into land-use planning. The Landscape Design Checklist proposal by the Cumulative Environmental Management Association does just this. The document recommends compiling the design objectives into a checklist for creation of landscapes, and then incorporate the checklist into the design process. “Although many of the items in the design checklist may already be incorporated into the design process by some mining operation staff and their consultants, not all items are routinely or optimally followed, and the process is seldom systematic” (CEMA. 2005). If a design such as this were integrated into the provincial reclamation policies and guidelines, it may encourage a forward-looking approach rather than one that prioritizes short-term issues for the largest profit, and would contractually obligate the companies to reclaim land to a standard that actually supports the re-establishment of healthy ecosystems and landscapes.

Nevertheless, if reclamation standards change to incorporate ecosystem reconstruction at the scale of whole landscapes and hold the oil companies to a greater environmental accountability, this will effectively increase the costs of reclamation and therefore the overall cost of production. This would drive the cost and consequently the price of each barrel of oil from the oil sands up, which would create even greater disdain for a resource that is already marginally accepted by North American societies; (although the reduced environmental pressure does stand to reduce social pressure). If Alberta continues to allow large scale landscape reconstruction and environmental modification without fully acknowledging the long-term consequences of these actions, then I propose that the term reclamation be changed to masturbation; because it may look and feel good right now but in the long-run their only screwing themselves.

Literature Cited:

Alberta Sustainable Resource Development. 2008. Alberta Regeneration Survey Manual. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Forest Management Branch. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Effective May 1, 2008.

CEMA-RWG Landscape Design Subgroup. 2005. Landscape Design Checklist, Revised RSDS Government Regulator Version, May 2005. Cumulative Environmental Management Association. Fort McMurray, AB.  (accessed on October 22, 2010)

Eckert, W.F., Masliyah, J.H., Gray, M.R., and Fedorak, P.M. 1996. Prediction of sedimentation and consolidation of fine tails. AIChE J. 42: 960–972.

Fedorak, P.M., Coy, D.L., Salloum, M.J., Dudas, M.J. 2002. Methanogenic Potential of Tailings Samples from Oil Sands Extraction Plants. Department of Biological Sciences; Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. NRC Research Press.

Johnson, E.A., Miyanishi, K. 2008. Creating New Landscapes and Ecosystems: The Alberta Oil Sands. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Department of Geography, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

Oil Sands Vegetation Reclamation Committee, 1998. Guidelines for Reclamation to Forest Vegetation in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region. Alberta Environmental Protection. Edmonton, AB.

Walsh. Shannon; Stainsby, Macdonald.  2010. Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution. AK Press, Chapter 28, Part 7. Pages 333-344.

October 26, 2010   No Comments

Capitalism's Foul: Obstructing a Transition to Renewable Energy and Human Equity

Energy and wealth distribution are accomplished by a system of social relations and production called capitalism. However, the allocation of this wealth and energy supply has created problems; climate change, postcolonial unrest, and poverty should cause us to stop and think about the system that got us here. If we accept that all knowledge is political, that someone somewhere, created the institutions of capitalism for a purpose, we should not withhold scrutiny; especially at this critical juncture in human history where the future demands bonafide institutions which can meet the task of changing our energy system and restoring equity to our world.

I would like to discuss briefly the obstacles embedded within this capitalist system which may impede this transition.

Subtracting fossil fuel from the capitalist equation is one of these obstacles. Capitalism harnessed fossil energy during the eighteenth century to fuel its expansion. Fossil fuels enabled rapid expansion of trade and markets over the globe; augmented exponentially the amount of work human bodies can accomplish, and generated a great deal of wealth for capitalist nations and individuals.(1) Finding a substitute with these magical qualities is the first challenge we face if we want to continue with present rates of economic growth and increasing global consumption.

However even if we were to discover a new source of abundant energy to replace fossil fuels there are contradictions and political motives within capitalism which must be addressed before we speak of the mechanics of a new energy system, or social order.

The first contradiction is between production by capitalists and consumption by labour. Capitalists want to maximize profits which means paying the lowest wages possible. However, these wages must be carefully measured to ensure an adequate level of consumption by labour; because when there is not enough people, and money, to buy all the stuff we have a crisis of overproduction and underconsumption. Then, a crisis, people lose their jobs, as we saw during the Great Depression in the 1920s and the US mortgage crisis in 2009.

The second contradiction in capitalism is, the tendency of firms to shift the costs of pollution onto the health of labour and the environment; these costs are then born by individuals and the state as pollution cleanup and health care bills. However, this crafty maneuver catches up with capitalists because in the long run pollution hinders the productivity of labour and land which lowers the profit rate, not to mention making people quite irate!(1) These two contradictions will cripple solutions to our energy and poverty crisis if left untouched.

Another obstacle is the possibility that the present capitalist system requires an uneven geography of energy use and wealth.  If this is true, than any future attempt to level out the use of energy and wealth will necessarily fail unless this systemic flaw is corrected. The present arrangement of global capitalism is enabled by ample cheap labour; two billion souls living outside the formal economy are feeding the industrial cities of the global south with cheap and plentiful labour for free, i.e. it does not require wages paid by capitalists to reproduce itself; instead, renewable energy from biomass, like dung and wood, is used to nourish this population instead of money wages. Their day-to-day existence is provided by the toils of their labour and that of their animals.(2) For many reasons these people living hand to mouth leave their rural subsistence lifestyles for the promising light of the city and the wages available there which are needed to survive in a global cash economy. Herein lies the problem; if this population of two billion peasants are brought in to the formal economy and their standard of living raised, as we are told will happen as the “rising tide” of economic growth “floats all boats”(4), who will form the army of cheap labour necessary to achieve a ‘sustainable’ profit rate?(3) We have seen rapid deindustrialization in the developed industrial nations over the last 40 years as firms moved production away from organized and high cost labour towards these cheap labour supplies to boost profit rates. However high profit rates depend on keeping wages low and keeping the commodities used to sustain the labour force cheap. Without cheap labour, profit rates fall, and commodities rise in price forcing up wages even more.

The implication of a necessary underclass of flexible, cheap labour is that it is opposed to the goal of transitioning to renewable energy and human development. Constructing a new energy system and reducing poverty and inequality under the current capitalist system means increasing wages and transitioning to renewable energy sources. If wages rise too much in these traditionally poor industrial areas, profit rates fall. Renewable energy must provide energy at the same price as fossil fuels to maintain profit rates. If renewable energy is more expensive, this too will strangle profits.

So challenges exist beyond the technical task of rewiring our society with windmills and solar panels. First, fossil fuels are the darling of capitalism. They enable the explosive nature of capitalist development fueling innovation, transportation and production at breakneck speed. Breaking this habit will be tough given the good times it has provided. In addition, the contradictions inherent in capitalism are being constantly managed with each consecutive crisis. Capital is always seeking the cheapest labour and the lowest wages while simultaneously seeking to raise consumption levels. This only works when there is wide range of income levels. When everyone gets paid what they are worth there is no margin left for profits. The other contradiction is that cheap goods and services depend on offloading the costs of producing these goods onto some peripheral environment and population. If everyone starts speaking up there will be no backyards left to dump the refuse of production. The final problem is more specifically political and stems from these contradiction: Our species of capitalism rests on inequality; inequality which allows fabulous wealth to be created at reckless speed but only for the lucky few. What to do? Well, that’s up to me and you.


(1) Huber, T. “Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of production.” Geoforum 40, (2008): 105-115.

(2) Abramsky Koyla. “Chapter 5: Energy, Work, and social reproduction in the world-economy” in Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution. Edited by Koyla Abramsky, AK Press, Oakland, CA, 2010. pp. 98-99.

(3) O’Connor, James. “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?” in Natural Causes. Guilford Press: New York, NY, 1998.

(4) This is the status quo strategy to improve the well being of the global poor. As economic growth increases global production of goods and services, and thus global prosperity, so too will the poor prosper by induction into the formal capitalist economy.

October 25, 2010   No Comments

Oil Sands Effort Turns on a Fight Over a Road – The New York Times

I thought this was an interesting article about how the Alberta tar sands are shaping landscapes far beyond spaces of extraction. It is interesting because it is a debate centred around the issues of space and movement –– using a small Idaho highway to move large equipment destined for the tar sands.

Some excerpts:

… international oil companies see this meandering, backcountry route as a road to riches. They are angling to use U.S. 12 to ship gargantuan loads of equipment from Vancouver, Wash., to Montana and the tar sands of Alberta in Canada. The companies say the route would save time and money and provide a vital economic boost to Montana and Idaho.


The proposed route could shave thousands of miles of transportation costs for such shipments, which might otherwise be forced to travel through the Panama Canal to overland routes accessed through Houston or New Orleans. Interstates and other wide highways are typically not an option, in part because overpasses are too low.

October 21, 2010   No Comments

CiTR News – Oil tankers in Burrard Inlet, food security in Vancouver, and more

I help produce the twice-weekly newshour at CiTR 101.9 FM – the UBC radio station. We did a show on Monday focusing on oil tanker traffic in BC’s coastal waters and food security in Vancouver. Both issues, obviously, relate to energy, specifically oil. I have the complete audio from the panel discussion on food security, if you would like me to post it. The panel discussion was part of the Food and Beers series, hosted by The Tyee editor David Beers, at the Museum of Vancouver. The series continues for a few more weeks.

Have a listen if you get a chance – I’d love to hear your feedback. Or let me know if you have any story ideas.

Here is the link to the MP3:
CiTR News for Monday, October 18

Also, if you really want to support independent, community-based, volunteer-driven media (When I make it sound that good, how can you resist?), you can subscribe to the podcast here and join the Facebook page here.

October 20, 2010   No Comments

Chevron's New Image

I came across this Chevron ad on a website and thought you all should check it out. I think it’s interesting how they’re trying to brand themselves as a corporation fully supporting, caring about, part of the communities they operate in. Also, their tagline is interesting: “Chevron. Human Energy.”

What are your thoughts?

October 19, 2010   1 Comment

The Geopolitics of Alberta’s Tar Sands in an Age of Neoliberalism

Are the tar sands a source of Canada’s geopolitical power? Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff thinks so – and he’s not alone (1). Industry and neoliberal politicians argue Canada has increased its geopolitical power because of Alberta’s tar sands. In the process, they have ingeniously tapped into a powerful form of patriotism – petro-patriotism. While extraction equals power and profit, the real power is not centred in Fort McMurray and the region –- for the most part, not even in Alberta. These spaces of extraction in northern Alberta are not spaces of empowerment for local peoples. To the contrary, power is centred in executive boardrooms of multinational corporations, generally lacking deep ties to communities and spaces of extraction. Although industry and petro-politicans speak of Alberta, and more generally, Canada, as holding key geopolitical power, the paltry royalties collected by government, the foreign investment, and deep North American integration have eliminated the possibility for any real geopolitical power. These issues merit an in-depth discussion, but the aim of this response is to briefly connect these three issues within the context of geopolitics in an age of neoliberalism.

Commentators, academics, activists, and some politicians warn of the diminishing control Canada has over its own energy resources, specifically in tar sands. Hugh McCullum of The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives characterizes Canada as an “energy satellite” of the United States, while others describe Canada as an “energy colony” (2,3). The provincial government has squandered an incredible opportunity to establish a rainy day fund to prepare for the inevitable post-petroleum future. For every $100 barrel of oil, Alberta only receives $26, while even Alaska receives $42 (4). Alberta makes less on its oil than Norway, Alaska, New Mexico or Louisiana (5). Oil companies are seeing huge profits. And yes, thousands are employed in northern Alberta, but the province nor the country are valuing this finite resource at a level consistent with the social and ecological costs associated with tar sands development.

The province’s inadequate royalty scheme has partly fuelled the incredible foreign investment. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s 2006 report, Fuelling Fortress America, noted that “American investment controls 40% to 50% of Alberta’s oil” (6). While the United States views the tar sands as an answer to its energy insecurity, China, too, is investing. In 2009, PetroChina announced its plans to buy a 60% stake in the privately-owned Athabasca Oil Sands Corporation. PetroChina now has a large stake in a company whose assets include five-billion barrels of bitumen (7). To put it bluntly, Alberta’s tar sands are up for sale, yet the provincial and federal governments have raised few concerns. Even more worrisome, many argue, is the division which no longer exists between industry and government. Both are quietly working towards deep North American energy and military integration.

North American economic union became clear through the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Specifically in terms of energy, this agreement “guarantees an increasing export of a finite resource,” even though Canada has not reserved any energy for itself (8). NAFTA paved the way for the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, the federal Conservative government, and the US federal government eagerly advocated, although Parliament never voted on it. The SPP allows for deeper military and energy integration. A “streamlined regulatory process,” deregulation of cross-border oil pipelines, and the privatization of energy industries are central to this backroom agreement, which has generated little attention in the mainstream press (9). The Civil Assistance Plan, signed by both countries, allows US and Canadian soldiers to enter either country to curb civil unrest or defend oil facilities (10). Recently US Senator Lindsey Graham said he did not believe Alberta crude to be “foreign” oil, appearing to suggest that Canada’s resources are merely an extension of the United States (11). Senator Graham is not alone in this view. Any geopolitical power Canada did have is rapidly disappearing.

We can no longer see today’s neoliberal politicians and oil corporations distinct from each other. We are witnessing the emergence of corporatist states, where sovereignty is increasingly irrelevant as decision-making is conducted with government and industry in the same room –- or government simply consisting of industry. Petro-politics and petro-politicians have ensured disproportionate returns for industry, while those in regions of extraction pay the environmental and social costs. Foreign investment and deep security and energy integration, advocated by industry, are further centralizing power in the hands of a small elite. Geopolitical power cannot exist when government forfeits total control of resource development to multinational corporations and fails to properly regulate. Is geopolitical power even relevant in this age of global corporate dominance?


1. Andrew Chung, “Ignatieff touts Alberta tar sands,” The Toronto Star, January 22, 2009,

2. Hugh McCullum, “Fuelling Fortress America: A Report on the Athabasca Tar Sands and US Demands for Canada’s Energy” (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2006), 23.

3. Shannon Walsh and Macdonald Stainsby, “The Smell of Money,” in Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution, ed. Kolya Abramsky, 341 (Oakland: AK Press, 2010).

4. Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008), 149.

5. Nikiforuk, Tar Sands, 140.

6. McCullum, “Fuelling Fortress America,” 23.

7. Nathan Vanderklippe, “PetroChina buys 60% stake in oil sands project,” The Globe and Mail, August 31, 2009,

8. Walsh and Stainsby, “The Smell of Money,” 340.

9. Walsh and Stainsby, “The Smell of Money,” 341.

10. Nikiforuk, 164.

11. Jane Taber, “US Senator sold on the oil sands,” The Globe and Mail, September 17, 2010,

October 17, 2010   No Comments

R.I.P. Hermann Scheer: Author of Energy Autonomy

Long-term German politician and renewable energy advocate, Hermann Scheer, passed away last Thursday. He was one of the primary voices featured in the movie Energy Autonomy, and indeed, wrote a book by the same name, envisioning a transition to distributed, decentralized energy production.

Some of the main ideas I took away from the movie:

There has been a worldwide decoupling of energy production from energy consumption. The idea of energy autonomy is to re-localize energy production with networked systems of wind, solar, and bio-gas. This can be a strong poverty-reduction strategy in rural areas, and developing countries as a whole, especially when the costs of importing energy into a country is proportionately high to its overall GDP.

From Hermann Scheer’s perspective, the transition to renewable energy cannot be delegated to the traditional energy sector, whose main priority is maintaining the status quo of their previously built infrastructure. For Scheer, Carbon-Capture and Storage (CCS) is a “bad investment” and is characteristic of the clinging, death grip that the traditional energy sector has on fossil fuels. The energy transition must instead be advanced by a mass movement of people who start integrating renewables and smart design into the way they use transit, build their homes, and power their appliances.

A few criticisms of the movie:

Overwhelming emphasis on technological innovations and entrepreneurs, with little to no mention at all of capitalism (its need for growth/mass consumption)

There was no hint of “overshoot”, or our collective footprint exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth, and thus, the requirement of reducing consumption and material throughput.

Problematic endorsement of electric (sport)cars.

And lastly, the idea of autonomy could have been taken a bit further as there was no connections made to the political possibilities of a world where citizens have direct control of their energy supplies.

Otherwise, an uplifting movie, perhaps one of the first about energy to paint an optimistic vision of the future! (that is, if you aren’t counting this: YouTube Preview Image

October 16, 2010   No Comments