|Power Corrupts? Absolutely!
Calgary author takes on Canadas energy industry
Two things happened the day before I met Gordon Laird to discuss his new book, Power: Journeys Across an Energy Nation.
First, the temperature in Calgary peaked at 14 degrees. In February. It was mid-winter, and people were walking around in shorts, shirtsleeves and bared midriffs.
Second, Ralph Klein gate-crashed Prime Minister Jean Chretiens press conference in Moscow to announce that he and every other provincial premier bar Quebecs Bernard Landry were opposed to Ottawas plan to ratify the Kyoto Accord. This agreement, among other things, would cut Canadas energy industry emissions to below 1990 levels. "We are concerned that ratification," warned Klein, "could impact competitiveness and, in turn, employment, economic growth and investment opportunity across Canada."
Seemingly unconnected as these two events may appear, Gordon Laird would have no trouble linking them. On the one hand, evidence of global warming including unseasonably mild winters continues to pile up year after year. On the other hand, any concerted effort to address the problem continues to be thwarted by those same elected officials whom voters entrust to represent their best interests. How and why this is the case is the story of Power.
The word "power," of course, is double-edged, referring both to the product of the energy industry itself and to the question of political clout in this country. Historically, the two have always been interwined in Canada. Ever since Confederation, governments both federal and provincial have all but bent over backwards to help public and private enterprises harness, develop, market and even export Canadas power resources. In the 19th century there was timber and coal; in the 20th century, governments assisted the exploitation of oil, gas, hydro and nuclear power.
"Theres no separating power and power," Laird remarks in reference to this pattern of development.
So heres the problem. Canada currently has the worlds second most energy-intensive economy. In 2000, for example, energy exports accounted for two-thirds of Canadas trade surplus. But this dependency on power has many serious side-effects. Canada is also the worlds second largest per capita producer of greenhouse gases, and it has been estimated that emissions will increase by almost 50 per cent over the next 25 years. And if this is too abstract a concern, Laird notes that each year in Canada, 5,000 premature deaths are caused by pollution. The crux of the matter, Laird argues, is that while "power built Canadas first century," its unregulated effects may "undo the next."
Sometimes the relationship between politicians and the energy industry gets just a little too cosy. Laird offers the illustration of Tory Oil. This was the code name for a small oil company in Alberta established in 1995 by seven Conservative MLAs, including cabinet ministers Jon Havelock, Clint Dunford and Lyle Oberg. By 1997, the company had bought into five oil wells. In short, even as the provincial government slashed royalty rates for gas and oil producers in order to promote investment, members of that same government took advantage of those policies to amass private fortunes. Lairds description of this obvious ethical if not legal conflict of interest as "worrisome" seems understated, to say the least.
Yet it is by no means an isolated incident, as Laird shows time and again in Power. The Calgary-born, Toronto-based writer spent more than two years and travelled over 70,000 kilometres to research his book. Cajoling funds from various magazines, wrangling free trips whenever possible, and exhausting his own supply of Air Miles when they werent, Laird hopped back and forth across the country. His quest took him from Kemano in B.C. to Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle, to Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan and to Sable Island out in the Atlantic ocean. His aim was simple: to visit as many of the sites of Canadas energy industry as possible and to meet the people who worked and lived in these far-flung areas.
The result is a brilliant piece of reporting that assesses the broad impact and legacy of Canadas history of resource exploitation. Laird takes us with him to the offshore oil-rig Rowan Gorilla III (the size of two football fields), to the radioactive streets of Uranium City, to the vanishing icefields of northern Canada, and to his encounter with Albertas own eco-terrorist, Wiebo Ludwig, inside the Grande Cache Correctional Institute.
Lairds account of the last is particularly memorable. "Do you think the eco-terrorism made a difference?" asked Ludwig. As documented in Andrew Nikoforuks recent book Saboteurs, Ludwigs embrace of violent methods occurred only after he had (unsuccessfully) exhausted all legitimate means of protesting the flaring of sour gas on land next to his farm. Laird isnt sure how to answer Ludwigs question, but does conclude that the whole affair including the death of Karman Willis "seems like a pretty high price to pay for common sense: farms and toxins dont always mix."
While Laird is certainly critical of the energy industry, Power is no tub-thumping sermon on the subject. His treatment is even-handed and level-headed, and he is usually careful to avoid any temptation to sensationalize his findings.
"Im not an expert on the matter," he acknowledges. "There are people out there whove been writing this stuff for two, three decades. I just want to people to see there are consequences." In fact, Laird offers no easy or one-time solutions to the problem. Any answer, he says, "is likely somewhere in the fundamentals: establishing a more efficient economy, effective environmental reforms and investing in more sustainable power sources."
So were back to Klein and Kyoto. If the only solution is political (i.e. more and better legislation), but we cant expect politicians to take action against those corporations who prop up provincial and federal economies, where do we go next? Is Ludwig, in fact, the future of popular protest? And as the present trend is towards greater deregulation of the energy industry, is there any scope for optimism?
Laird pauses. "I dont believe theres really much we can do to change it," he says on the latter point. The only hope, he suggests, is that growing concern over health and the environment may yet force a real political response, as these are "basic and fundamental quality of life issues."
Concerned by the growth of air pollution in Toronto, Laird himself is in the process of bringing his family back to Calgary to live. Im sure the government will welcome the news.
"Its not the things we do know about climate change that are most alarming," Laird says, "its the things we dont know."
Thanks to Power, our ignorance is less forgivable than before.
· in the Canadian High Arctic, six of the 10 largest summer sea ice melts since 1953 occurred between 1990 and 1998
· in 1997, smog-related deaths in Canada (5,000) exceeded fatalities from breast cancer (4,946), prostate cancer (3,622) & motor vehicle accidents
· federal estimates conclude two-thirds of Canadians are exposed to harmful airborne pollutants
· estimated costs to Canada of adopting the 1997 Kyoto Accord range from $1.6 to $17 billion per year
· federal subsidies to the oil industry in 1995 totalled $1 billion
· Canadas energy exports rose from $30 billion in 1999 to $50 billion in 2001