Canada’s oil minister, unmuzzled
The last time your friendly scribe sought an interview with Joe Oliver, Canada’s minister of natural resources, he was turned down flat.
It was February last year. Oliver had made a series of impolitic remarks about the efforts to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which, if it’s ever built, would import oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries along the Gulf Coast — and which Canadians believe that the United States would be nuts to reject.
“I referred to the fact that some U.S. environmental groups were sending money to Canada to advance their anti-pipeline, anti-hydrocarbon agenda, and I just felt that that effort was working against Canada’s national interest,” is how he puts it now.
But shortly after Oliver began speaking out, Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, told his Cabinet to refrain from making any remarks that might be construed as commenting on the upcoming presidential election. Hence, no interviews with American columnists.
Which is not to say that Oliver — and Harper — didn’t have other means to send a message. After President Barack Obama, looking to shore up his base, temporarily delayed the Keystone pipeline — an action that stunned Canada — the Canadian leaders jetted to China for a series of meetings with Chinese officials. Thanks to the Alberta sands, Canada is sitting on the third largest oil reserves in the world after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.
“That oil will be sold,” says Oliver, “if not to you, then to somebody else. That is not meant as a threat. It is just a fact.”
As you can tell by now, Oliver is talking again. With the election over; with a presidential decision on Keystone imminent; with the pipeline rerouted to mollify the concerns of Nebraskans; with the State Department having issued a recent report saying there are no environmental impediments — with all of that as the backdrop, Oliver came to New York and Washington earlier this week to preach Canada’s energy message.
In part because of enormous new natural gas finds, made possible thanks to hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking), and in part because of the oil sands, energy independence is finally within reach for North America. As recently as five years ago, this goal would have been “inconceivable,” Oliver said Monday, at a Bloomberg energy conference. Canada, he added, “has the resources to meet all of America’s future needs for imported oil.”
When I spoke to him before his speech, Oliver pointed out that Venezuela, which currently supplies the United States around 1 million barrels a day, has more than once threatened to cut us off. “That would never happen with Canada,” he said. “We honor our contractual obligations.” As a longtime supporter of Keystone, I could only nod my head in agreement.
Perhaps a quick refresher on the benefits of Keystone are in order. First, notwithstanding the development of alternative energy sources, the world is going to continue to need oil; Oliver, quoting the International Energy Agency, says that global energy demand is expected to grow by at least 35 percent over the next 20 years. The notion, pushed by environmentalists, that blocking the oil sands will spur green energy is delusion.
Second, energy independence is a long-sought national goal. We would no longer need OPEC, a cartel of countries with values, in many cases, antithetical to ours. Third, that oil is coming here anyway — by rail and boat, where spills are common, and via pipelines that are older, and hence less safe, than Keystone would be.
And one other thing: Oil mined from the sands is simply not as environmentally disastrous as opponents like to claim. Extraction technology has improved to the point where there is almost no difference, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, between sands oil and old-fashioned oil drilling.
The government has insisted that the companies extracting the oil return the land to its original state when the mining is completed. Indeed, for all the hysteria over the environmental consequences of the oil sands, there is oil in California that is actually dirtier than the oil from the sands.
Even now, nothing gets under Oliver’s skin more than the accusation that Canada’s oil sands will be ruinous to the environment. “That statement that the Keystone pipeline would mean ‘game over’ for the environment is absurd,” he said. He was referring, of course, to the line first used by James Hansen, the recently retired leader of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who is one of the most prominent critics of the oil sands and the Keystone pipeline.
I couldn’t help myself: I asked Oliver what he thought of Hansen’s willingness to chain himself to the White House fence to protest the pipeline.
He couldn’t help himself either. Given the dirty oil in California, he replied, “he should be chaining himself to a mannequin in Rodeo Drive.”
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.