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Andreas Souvaliotis

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Is Canada's Head Too Far in the Oil Sands?

Posted: 02/18/2013 11:30 am

I am a capitalist. In recent years I've been called a "green capitalist" and that's an accurate label, but I still absolutely believe that business and profits are core ingredients of our success as a nation and pillars of stability for our society.

I know how to count jobs and tax revenues and I understand exactly how good the oil sands have been for my country -- and specifically for me, as a "shareholder" in Canada. This beautiful windfall helped us weather the deepest global recession in our lifetime better than any other rich nation and helped us pay down a very significant chunk of our national debt over the past 15 years while also allowing us to reduce all sorts of taxes from coast to coast.

Canada has been riding this awesome wave for quite some time now -- and we've actually become really good at it: We learned how to make the most of our new-found prosperity; how to spread it and share it almost evenly across the land; how to retool and adjust our entire economy around our much stronger petro-dollar; and how to move our skilled workers to where all the action is, in order to maximize our productivity and our profits. We showed the world that we're a nation of nimble, sharp, hungry capitalists and we got a lot of respect (and envy) for that!

But while we're so good and efficient at squeezing every available drop of profit out of our opportunities, we seem to have missed the most important lesson they teach in the School of Capitalism: strategic planning. We focused all our energy on feeding and protecting and milking our beautiful cow but forgot to plan for the day when her milk might run out or the day when people may not like that kind of milk anymore. When friends and neighbours asked us questions about the future, we got very defensive and we told them we were confident nothing would ever change -- the world will always need and like our milk.

And suddenly, after so many fat cow years, our customers' tastes started to change -- and, in record fast time, we started look and behave like the world's least sophisticated capitalists.

Suddenly it's panic season in Ottawa and in Edmonton: Will Obama approve the pipeline? Will it take us too long to get the stuff to the Chinese? Will the Europeans label our oil "dirty"? Will the world start taxing carbon?

Our Finance Ministers started revising budgets, we started talking about (god forbid!) sales taxes even in our country's petro-province and, of course, the blame game is now in full swing. If those tree-huggers weren't so emboldened and so well-financed by our nation's enemies, we would have plowed our pipelines right through the Rockies by now and we would have started feeding China's endless thirst for oil, instead of praying for a miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue.

We may have been the envy of the world but we were actually amateurs all through the fat cow years and now we're starting to pay for it. We ignored every hint of a warning and became really good at only believing ourselves.

When the rest of the planet was already contemplating or even calculating carbon taxes, we were still in total denial about the whole climate change thing -- and not only were we wasting time by not planning for a different future, we were also wasting goodwill by not playing nice with all our wealthy partners (aka: customers).

By ignoring or even de-railing all the global conversations on carbon, we were humiliating their scientists, ridiculing their policies and frustrating their leaders -- instead of reminding ourselves, as all good capitalists do, that the customer is always right. We convinced ourselves that we had become an "energy superpower" and that they needed us more than we needed them.

So now what? Do we still have an oil future? How do we navigate through this energy revolution that seems to be blossoming everywhere around us?

Thankfully, for our petro-dollar addicted wallets at least, the world's thirst for oil is still immense -- and it will stay that way for a while. We may not have the best or nicest oil on the planet but we still have something the world needs, so the money will continue to flow our way for quite some time.

I am hopeful, however, that our intense national panic attack of these past few months will finally inspire us to pull our heads out of the oil sands and figure out how we will stay rich after the oil stops flowing.

Hopefully it will inspire us to invest our windfall a bit more wisely and strategically, instead of putting all our chips on that same number all the time. Maybe we will start dreaming and leading the world a little more again, because we used to be so good at it -- and maybe we will also go back to always being respectful and sensitive, the way we used to be known for so many generations, instead of being arrogant one day and then desperately subordinate a day later.

Our cow is still fat and her milk is still good and relatively popular but we've had a real scare and I hope we learned plenty from it. We can still get richer from what we have, but we need to get serious about figuring out our future. And as good capitalists know so well, the best time to retool and invest is when the times are good.

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  • 'Ethical oil'

    The term "ethical oil" has become the centrepiece of a new application for a classic marketing strategy. After being added to the Conservative political lexicon, the slogan is slowly beginning to creep into the public discourse. And like other attempts by industry and advocacy groups to use value judgements to alter public opinion, it has the potential to change the way we think about Canadian oil.

  • Ethical Oil vs Conflict Oil

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  • Ethical Oil

    An ad from <a href="http://www.ethicaloil.org/" target="_hplink">ethicaloil.org</a>, a new site trying to rebrand Alberta's oil sands.

  • Ethical Oil

    An ad from <a href="http://www.ethicaloil.org/" target="_hplink">ethicaloil.org</a>, a new site trying to rebrand Alberta's oil sands.

  • 'Pork. The other white meat'

    In 1987, pork producers in the United States were steadily losing ground to chicken and turkey, which prompted the National Pork Producers Council to take a different tack. To counter the still-widespread belief that pork was a red meat, The New York Times reports that the council set out to appeal to health-conscious consumers by reminding them that pork was in fact <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/1987/01/15/business/advertising-dressing-pork-for-success.html" target="_hplink">considered a white meat</a>. The series of print and TV ads that followed featured pork prepared in ways that had been traditionally been reserved for poultry, such as cordon bleu and cacciatore a l'orange, as well as a new slogan: "Pork. The other white meat." (After nearly 25 years, the council recently changed its well-known catch phrase to "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/04/pork-be-inspired-slogan-other-white-meat_n_831331.html" target="_hplink">Pork: Be inspired</a>.") (AP File Photo)

  • Pork Commercial

    Pork, the other white meat.

  • 'Fair trade coffee'

    Though tracing the precise history of the fair trade movement is difficult, most observers agree that the concept was popularized by its application to the coffee industry. The <a href="http://www.maxhavelaar.nl/faq/how-did-it-start?destination=english&backtitle=FAQ's" target="_hplink">first official fair trade label</a> was launched by a Dutch NGO, which imported the pioneering fair trade product -- coffee from Mexico -- to the Netherlands in 1988. Billed as an effort to secure better prices for producers, and guarantee certain environmental and labour standards, the demand for fair trade coffee quickly spread. But it's still a niche item that carries a premium: as The Toronto Star pointed out in 2007, only a small percentage of the java bought by coffee-giant Starbucks is <a href="http://www.thestar.com/living/article/250730" target="_hplink">fairly traded</a>. (Photo: Getty Images)

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  • 'Clean coal'

    The notion of coal as a clean source of energy was thrust into the spotlight in the United States in 2008, when a $40-million industry-sponsored campaign helped make it a talking point during the presidential race. An attempt to counter the public perception of coal as an acid rain-causing, environmental scourge, Businessweek observed that the <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_26/b4090055452749.htm" target="_hplink">"clean coal" campaign</a> tugged at the heartstrings with emotional TV ads featuring teachers and farmers -- and won the endorsement of both presidential candidates. (AP Photo)

  • Clean Coal Ad


  • 'Blood diamond'

    The recognition in the late 1990s that diamonds were being used to fuel bloody conflicts in African countries like Angola and Sierra Leone prompted the United Nations Security Council to find some way to track the movement of the precious stones. The resulting identification scheme, dubbed the <a href="http://www.globalwitness.org/campaigns/conflict/conflict-diamonds/kimberley-process" target="_hplink">Kimberley Process</a>, was put in place in 2003 to separate so-called blood or conflict diamonds from those used to fund legitimate governments. Though the process remains imperfect, the terminology was cemented in the minds of the general public, and soon found its way into popular culture: Edward Zwick's 2006 film Blood Diamond grossed more than US$171 million. (AP Photo)

  • Blood Diamond - Trailer

    Trailer for the movie 'Blood Diamond'

  • 'Dolphin-safe tuna'

    Dolphins tend to stick close to the surface, making them easy to spot, and easy prey for fisherman angling to catch tuna, which often swim alongside the large mammals. Despite several attempts by the United States government to limit the killing of dolphins by U.S. fishing boats, by 1990 the practice of purposefully ensnaring <a href="http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aer793/aer793f.pdf" target="_hplink">dolphins in tuna nets</a> became so widespread -- and so highly publicized -- that it had prompted a public boycott of canned tuna. In response, Congress instituted a consumer labelling program, and canneries that bought from fisherman that steered clear of dolphins started identifying their product as "Dolphin safe." Though the designation initially carried a premium, the program soon spread throughout the industry, making the additional cost worthwhile. (AP Photo)