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Harper must get fired up to deal with fuel shortage

Gordon Laxer

Edmonton Journal

January 26, 2012


Smallpox is a scary disease. It kills a fifth of those infected, and scars and blinds many survivors. Canadahas been smallpox free since 1962 and the world since 1977. But, Canada has a smallpox contingency plan.So does Britain. The chances of a smallpox outbreak are remote, but I am happy to pay taxes so Canada canemploy people to fight its return. That's what governments are for.


Canada stands on guard for just about every other imaginable disaster too. Click onto Public HealthCanada's "Get Prepared," and you find detailed advice and plans on a long list of emergencies. But there isone glaring omission. Canada has no plan to deal with an international oil shortage even though one isalmost certain to hit soon.


Just think about Iran closing the strait of Hormuz after a U.S. attack - 40 per cent of ocean-bound oil shut inat one blow. Canadians, who face special conditions of long cold winters, would be immediately affected.Some could even freeze in the dark.


This country imports half its oil, and a growing portion comes from OPEC countries. We are as dependenton Middle East oil as the U.S., yet have no plan to direct domestic oil to Canadians. Canada is the onlycountry in the 27-member International Energy Agency without strategic petroleum reserves.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper's reply to Peter Mansbridge in a Jan. 16 interview reveals why Canada hasno oil plan. He doesn't believe in one. Mansbridge asked, "Does it not seem odd that we're moving oil outof Western Canada to either U.S. or new markets to Asia when a good chunk of Canada itself doesn't havedomestic oil?"


Harper replied that "on a certain level it does seem odd," but that "the fundamental basis of our energypolicy is market-driven." He added that "we're the only supplier that is secure."


Secure sure, but for whom? Canada promises the United States oil security. The U.S. has its own energysecurity and independence plan which includes giant strategic petroleum re-serves in salt caves on the Gulfcoast. If Canada is looking after U.S. oil security, and the U.S. is looking after its own oil security, who islooking after Canadians?


"We don't dictate (that) pipelines go here or there," Harper said. That's the problem. Enbridge's Line 9 usedto take western Canadian oil to Montreal. Ottawa allowed the line to be reversed in 1999 so that instead ofsupplying western Quebec with domestic oil, the pipeline now brings imported oil into Ontario.


Proposals are afoot to re-reverse Line 9 to ship domestic oil to Montreal again. It sounds good, but only asmall portion would remain in Canada. Most would flow on to Portland, Maine. to be sent anywhere.Ottawa has the power to decide that all of that oil remain in Canada. (And let me make clear: onlyCanadian conventional oil please. Alberta's oilsands release too many greenhouse gases.)


The federal government gives no directives that Newfoundland oil go first to Atlantic Canadians. Insteadmost is exported and Atlantic Canada imports more than 80 per cent of its supply. This may make sense forbig corporate oil, but doesn't make sense for Atlantic Canadians. Canada is the only International EnergyAgency country that takes a pure corporate market stance. The other 26 members treat oil as a securityissue.


"Security trumps trade" - Hillary Clinton's catchphrase after 9/11 - captures the oil issue well. Itmeans government actions take precedence over markets to ensure that oil, the lifeblood of modernsocieties, flows uninterrupted. Despite its oil abundance, Canada is the most insecure IEA member. In placeof Harper's "laissez-faire, don't-care" ideology, Canada would do well to copy the U.S. "energy securityand energy independence" plan. Put Canadians first.


The IEA was set up in the 1970s to counteract the threat of the OPEC oil cartel to the industrial countries.The Paris-based agency requires that all its members have strategic petroleum reserves to deal withinternational oil-supply crises. It exempts net oil exporters on the assumption that its few members who arenet oil exporters will supply their own people first, before exporting. Norway does this. Canada does not.Mr. Harper explained to Peter Mansbridge why.


Harper is abdicating as prime minister, and talks as if he is the CEO of an oil transnational. He says Iranscares him, but refuses to bring in a plan to protect eastern Canadians. Let the market do it. Mr. Harper'sshirking of responsibility recklessly plays with Canadians' economic and even physical security.


Ambulances, hospitals and fire trucks don't work without oil. Nor do the furnaces of people who heat theirhomes with oil, as half of Atlantic Canadians do.


CEOs of oil corporations must by law deliver profits to their shareholders. They are not charged withproviding for people during international oil shortages. That's the responsibility of prime ministers. Whenwill Stephen Harper stop thinking as an oil CEO and start acting like he is prime minister of Canada?


* The CBC interviewed me for a story ("Canada imports oil while battling over pipeline exports" Jan 25, 2012) related to this piece:

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