01/17/2012 09:06 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2012

Canada Is Making the Wrong Decision on Tar Sands Oil

The Canadian government and its vested oil interests should have realized that in a year that produced the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements, business as usual is no longer good enough. Just last month the head of the International Energy Agency, an institution renowned for its promotion of fossil fuels, said to governments in Durban:

The door to achieving our objectives is rapidly closing, and while I strongly urge an agreement on emissions, I have a simple message for the participants in these talks: Don't wait for a global deal. Act now. You can and should implement robust policies that will give your citizens affordable, reliable access to energy in a sustainable way.

Canada's tar sands could be the poster child for the kind of unsustainable high-carbon lock-in projects the IEA warned us about. The battle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline that would transport bitumen from Alberta's tar sands to the oil refineries of Texas was one of the hardest fought climate campaigns in the last year.

Opposition to the pipeline was strong and visible, particularly in Washington, D.C. and the state of Nebraska, and President Obama responded to the pressure by sending the decision back to the drawing board.

The Keystone delay should have been a wake-up call for Ottawa, but no. Without missing a beat, the Canadian government and the oil lobby have turned their sights to another proposed pipeline, known as the Northern Gateway, which would carry raw bitumen across the pristine and ecologically sensitive Great Bear Rainforest to the marine port of Kitimat in British Columbia. From there, it would be transferred to super tankers through narrow straights for transport onward to Asia.

As hearings on Northern Gateway got underway last week, an open letter from Canada's Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver showed just how tone deaf to public concern the government has become. In it he accused "environmental and other radical groups" and "jet-setting celebrities" of working at the behest of foreign special-interest groups to undermine Canada's national economic interests.

This allegation comes from the same Canadian government which last month withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol and, as was uncovered by The Guardian, soliciting the UK for assistance in stopping the EU's Fuel Quality Directive. (The directive uses scientific fact to classify fuels, and tar sands has been found to be an unconventional fuel with disproportionately high greenhouse gas emissions. This would put it at a disadvantage in the European energy market.)

For the most part, Canadian media appears to be have treated this offensive (double entendre intended) strategy as a red herring. The oil sector in Canada, like in most places, is swimming in foreign investment and record profits and is not afraid to spend those profits to ensure business as usual continues to serve its narrow self-interests -- even in the face of dire warnings coming from 'radicals' like the International Energy Agency.

My favorite rebuttal was this tongue-in-cheek response by Tabatha Southey in the Globe and Mail:

Mr. Oliver's addition of the threat of "jet-setting celebrities" is a charmingly anachronistic touch, as if the rest of us still travel by boat or biplane. Unless of course he means actual jet-setting celebrities, from the age of the jet set. They are mostly dead now. Does the minister fear that Canada's industries are under attack by Zombie Sammy Davis Jr.? ... Are we meant to believe that the environmental groups' massive outcry against the Keystone XL pipeline (which apparently led U.S. President Barack Obama to delay the project) was an elaborately staged ploy? That environmentalists defeated the Keystone pipeline that their secret masters wanted, because it would have brought oil to the United States, only so that later they would have the credibility to defeat the Gateway pipeline their secret masters oppose, because it threatens to take Canadian oil elsewhere?

The fact is Canada certainly has had no qualms about using its own "foreign influence" to try to affect the U.S. Keystone XL pipeline regulatory process. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, spent $1.5 million on lobbyists to influence Washington, even more in states bordering the pipeline route, and on an expensive advertising campaign in Washington DC to boot.

The fight over Canada's tar sands is far from over, in Canada and abroad. In Europe, the Netherlands has reportedly joined the UK in fighting to weaken the European Fuel Directive. Other countries will need to hold the line.

In the US, Congress has imposed a deadline of 21 February for the Obama Administration to decide on Keystone. The American Petroleum Institute (API) has openly threatened "electoral consequences" if the president fails to approve it and has launched an advertising campaign to show this is no empty threat. State Department officials have said a fast decision means a negative decision, and we need to hold them to their words.

In the meantime, a new study has mapped the extent of the money flowing from the oil and gas industry to members of Congress -- an extraordinary conflict of interest which can only lead to the further erosion of public trust in our elected representatives.

As for Northern Gateway, massive and growing opposition amongst the First Nations of Alberta and British Columbia (PDF) could well turn out to be the Achilles' heel in the well-oiled tar sands machine.

Sadly, when it comes to oil interests the Canadian government is not only backing the wrong horse, it will undoubtedly continue to demonize anyone (including its own citizens) who question the wisdom of its plan to take as much out of the ground wherever it is, in whatever form it is in as quickly as possible.

As we have observed over the last few years at the UN climate negotiations, Canada is a nation that acts more like a single minded petrol state than one that is constructively contributing to the challenge of preventing catastrophic climate change.

As citizens around the world increasingly take action in the face of government failure to address the threat of climate change, corporations and governments will have two choices -- continue to pour time and money into the kind of polarization tactics that alienate the public, or invest that time and money into working with all stakeholders to find solutions the scientists tell us we are running out of time to find.

At the end of the day there are no winners in a world that has warmed 3 to 4 degrees. Even the children and grandchildren of recalcitrant elected leaders and oil company executives will not escape the harsh realities of dangerous climate change.