top of page

Canadian Left split over Alberta oilsands

Thomas Walkom

Toronto Star

January 10, 2014



The left is split over Alberta’s oilsands. So far, the division is expressing itself online and at the local level. But if it deepens, it could — could — affect the fortunes of Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats.


At base the split is over whether bitumen production in the tarsands should be reformed or eliminated entirely.


Those arguing for reform, including the NDP, say production from the oilsands should be regulated in a manner that better protects the environment while providing more industrial spin-offs.


Those calling for elimination of the tarsands industry say heavy-oil production, because of its contribution to climate change, is simply too dangerous.


Among the eliminators is economist Mel Watkins, a former candidate for the federal NDP who at 81 remains an influential figure within the Canadian left.


In a lengthy, online blog posted last month for the Progressive Economics Forum, Watkins called bitumen “the worst of staples,” comparing Canada’s addiction to heavy oil with the New World’s 19th century focus on sugar and cotton.


Sugar and cotton production encouraged the evil of slavery, he noted. Bitumen production is helping to foster the evil of extreme climate change.


Canada, he said, has a moral obligation to stop heavy oil production as soon as possible, even though doing so will involve “wrenching change” and heavy economic costs.


For Watkins, the tone is unusually apocalyptic. He has long been a critic of Canada’s overreliance on resources. But it’s rare for him to argue that a particular resource should be abandoned entirely.


Oddly enough, this blog was part of a series designed to honour a seminal article he wrote 50 years ago that explained how Canada could use raw material, or staple, production to encourage other kinds of economic activity.


The progressive economics website is a leftish one. No contributor to this 50th anniversary series lauded the federal Conservative government’s handling of tarsands bitumen.


But typically, critics such as Unifor economist Jim Stanford or York University political scientist Daniel Drache called not for elimination of heavy oil production but for government action to encourage industrial spin-offs.


The other contributor to take Watkins’ hard line against heavy oil was political economist Gordon Laxer, founding director (now retired) of the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute.


Laxer explained that he used to argue for more spinoffs from heavy oil. But now, he said, he realizes that this would only create a bigger political constituency for the tarsands, thus allowing heavy-oil production to continue unabated.


That, he said “would bury us in carbon and climate-change chaos.”


So far, this is a debate among left academics. If it remains that way, it won’t much matter. But such debates have a habit of percolating into wider public consciousness.


As a tour through Toronto neighbourhoods would show, the anti-pipeline movement is already here. Those “Stop Line 9”posters that pop up from time to time refer to a proposal that would reverse and expand the flow in an existing Montreal to Sarnia oil pipeline so as to bring more tarsands bitumen eastward.


Why do people care which direction oil flows in an already existing pipeline? The answer, as Line 9 opponent Herman Rosenfeld told me, has to do in part with aboriginal opposition to the scheme and in part with fear of heavy-oil spills.


But for him, the very production of tarsands oil is the main issue. “My take is that it should be phased out,” he said.


I asked Watkins whether, given that all three major federal parties support heavy oil production, he thinks it’s politically possible to terminate it.


His answer: difficult but possible. The key, he said, is to stop or delay any pipeline aimed at transporting heavy crude from Alberta.


The New Democrats? I’m not sure how much their careful, middle-of-the-road position on the tarsands will hurt them among Ontario and British Columbia voters worried by climate change. Watkins says he still thinks the NDP is the best of the three main parties.


But even NDP supporters, he said, should fight pipelines. “There is still some time for us to come to our senses.”

bottom of page