Canada: The Changing Shape of Energy Politics

(By Bart Mongoven) - On Feb. 14, the lower house of the Canadian Parliament passed a resolution that calls for Canada to rededicate itself to environmental commitments made under the Kyoto Protocol. On the same day, al Qaeda’s branch in Saudi Arabia issued a call for jihadists to attack energy industry assets in Canada because it is a key supplier of oil and natural gas to the United States.

Both events are important – not because the calls of either Canadian lawmakers or Islamist militants are likely to bear significant fruit (they are not), but because of the way they intersect with public sentiment and policy prospects that are likely to impact the future of the country’s energy industry.

Earlier this month, Canada’s Conservative government launched into a series of meetings with environmentalists, industry groups and local politicians on issues relating to energy development. The meetings are noteworthy because Prime Minister Stephen Harper – both in his 2006 election campaign and throughout his political career – has unwaveringly advocated rapid development of Canada’s energy potential. Harper is widely expected to call for a new election before the end of April, and, significantly, his government appears to be considering a different approach to energy development in the run-up to that election. In short, Canada’s long-term vision for its energy industry could be changing.

At the same time, the support that Canada provides to the United States on numerous fronts – most notably, military support in Afghanistan and exports of natural resources for U.S. manufacturing – is growing increasingly controversial, and moving to the forefront of Canadian political debate. Though exceedingly unlikely to have been purposely timed to coincide with the climate change debate, the al Qaeda threat that surfaced Feb. 14 will only add to the questions and public dissatisfaction over the U.S. relationship.

Taken together, the two events add another layer of complexity to the debate over how freely Canada should send natural resources to its neighbor to the south. This is a debate that is extremely important to the United States, which is looking for ways to reduce its own dependence on energy sources in the Middle East. A new energy plan proposed by President George W. Bush would require not only that Americans become more efficient in their consumption and make greater use of nonoil sources of energy, but also rests on the assumption that Canada would make up for the loss of any oil imports from the Middle East – as well as for dwindling output from domestic oil sources and Venezuela.

The Politics of Energy

To fully understand the issue in the wider context, it is important first to examine the role that Canada already plays in the U.S. story and perspectives on the growth of the Canadian energy industry.

Currently, Canada supplies more than 21 percent of the United States’ crude oil imports, far more than any other country. The 2.1 million barrels per day come primarily from traditional oil fields in the far northern and Rocky Mountain regions. The U.S. Energy Department projects that Canada will increase its total oil production by almost 50 percent in the next four years, and that U.S. imports from Canada will increase in the coming decade. As Washington considers a number of policy options to reduce imports from the Middle East, however, the percentage of U.S. imports from Canada likely will be even higher than the Energy Information Administration estimates.

Though that may be perfectly acceptable from the American viewpoint, it is a problem for the Canadians – many of whom are coming to perceive their country as a well-stocked cupboard of natural resources that is continually being raided by their neighbor to the south. The notion that Canada is continually exporting its raw material riches to the United States is a dominant theme in Canadian political dialogue: The United States is viewed as a bully and an exploiter.

At the same time, it is difficult to dismiss the fact that Canada has benefited financially from U.S. “exploitation,” and that even closer energy ties with the United States could be good for oil companies and certain energy-rich provinces. For example, in a province like Alberta, which has a sparse population and tremendous natural resources, the idea that energy exports to the United States could be further increased leads to visions of becoming something like a North American version of Kuwait.

Alberta, Harper’s home province, is an important focal point in Canada’s energy debates because it is the province where most of the country’s oil sands are located.

Canada long has recognized the significance of these oil-rich sands (sometimes referred to as “tar sands”); but until recently, this resource has been viewed as only a potential source of wealth. The process of deriving oil from the sand is expensive: Oil-laden rocks must be collected and then heated to separate the petroleum from the surrounding minerals. Though the technical costs of the process now are falling, the feasibility of developing large-scale oil-sands projects remains questionable, since they would be unprofitable if global oil prices fall below $50 per barrel. The profitability threshold for oil-sands projects could come down a bit more as Canada builds new gas pipelines and other infrastructure, but compared to most of Canada’s traditional drilling – often profitable at $6 per barrel – oil sands remain a risky venture.

The Politics of Politics

The Liberal government that was in power during the 1990s promulgated a series of laws designed to reduce the risks of oil-sands development and encourage companies to take the plunge. Among the measures passed was a 1996 tax break – essentially allowing the rapid depreciation of assets used in tar-sands development – that encouraged companies to find new ways of approaching the tar sands. It is not clear whether this and other tax breaks and subsidies were key factors that drove interest in the resource, but it can be said that industry has invested heavily during the past 11 years in technologies to exploit the tar sands.

The 1996 tax break is now at the center of a political storm in Canada.

Harper, a Conservative, was brought into office not on the strength of his political ideology, but in a voter backlash over missteps by the previous Liberal government. In order to consolidate his party’s hold on power, it is in his interest to move quickly – while he is still in something of a honeymoon period – to call new elections, since most have concluded he will. Harper, who is more conservative than the average Canadian, wants to move his party and his government toward the political center – and rescinding the 1996 tax break is one of the options he is considering to achieve this. The justification for the move is similar to that recently given in the United States by Democrats, who sought to rescind a Clinton-era “royalty relief” package: That oil companies are profiting plenty with global prices at their current levels and do not need additional tax breaks.

The easiest way to expand the Conservative Party’s base is to capture votes in the Greater Toronto Area. Therefore, Harper will have to part with many of his more conservative positions, and to some extent sever his Alberta roots, for political gain. Addressing climate change, standing up to the United States and reducing subsidies to oil companies fit well into a strategy designed to capture the political center.

The Politics of Climate Change

The Parliament resolution passed Feb. 14, calling for Canada to meet its Kyoto Protocol obligations on climate change, should be viewed in this context. The resolution also complicates the political problems associated with accelerating oil-sands development.

Many Canadians are convinced by political rhetoric that their country cannot meet the greenhouse gas emission reductions that Canada agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol largely because unrelenting U.S. demand for energy compels Canadian companies to increase oil and natural gas production. That in itself is an energy-intensive undertaking – and under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canadians are powerless to put a halt to these energy exports.

The technicalities of extracting oil from tar sands also make for an energy-intensive process, meaning that further development of tar-sands projects would further increase, rather than reduce, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. With many in the country already upset that Canada is not expected to meet its Kyoto commitments, efforts to develop tar sands as an oil resource are viewed as a way of guaranteeing the country’s Kyoto failure.

The Politics of Terrorism

Even if there were not strong domestic arguments against the oil-sands development, underlying sentiments about Canada’s trade relations with the United States should not be dismissed or understated. The Canadian public senses that the United States uses Canada as a colony to supply its demand for raw materials and energy, and the tar sands would be just another example. Because NAFTA makes it impossible for Canada to prevent companies from exporting raw materials freely across the border, and because it consigns Canada to supply natural gas to the United States in perpetuity, many Canadians have come to view the trade agreement as a strategic blunder that reduced Canada to the status of a natural resources vassal to the American overlord.

And with the call issued by al Qaeda on Feb. 14 for attacks in Canada – specifically citing its energy relations with the United States – there likely will be a growing sense that Canadians have accepted vassal status at risk to their own life and limb.

It does not automatically follow that jihadists, having issued the threat, would be able to carry out a meaningful strike against Canada’s energy industry. Al Qaeda has used Canada as a base for operations in the past, but at this time the militant presence in Canada appears to be more of the “grassroots” variety than the well-trained or battle-hardened type. That means that any attacks mounted in response to al Qaeda’s call would be more likely to involve “soft” targets – or relatively unprotected assets – rather than “hardened” facilities that are critical to core operations. Nevertheless, the threat itself (or an actual casualty-producing attack against the public on Canadian soil) has the potential to damage U.S.-Canadian relations. If al Qaeda’s goal is to weaken the United States economically, threats against one of its key energy suppliers – issued in a way or at a time that dovetails with existing public sentiment – certainly could have an effect.

In short, none of these issues can be considered in a vacuum. The United States has come to view increased oil production from Canada as a significant piece of any strategy designed to promote “energy independence.” Meanwhile, pressure is building within Canada to slow the pace and scope of the energy industry’s growth, particularly as it relates to oil sands. For the Canadians, questions about energy development place the country’s relationship with the United States front and center in the political spotlight. And for the Americans, the stakes are just as high: The Canadian debate casts a shadow of uncertainty over U.S. options for reducing reliance on Middle Eastern oil supplies.

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