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Prime Minister By Day, Oil Exec By Night

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One of the most startling assertions contained in Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver's controversial open letter, which was released on the eve of public hearings into Enbridge's tanker and pipeline proposal to B.C.'s West Coast, concerns how he equates shipping oil to Asia as unquestionably being in the "national interest."

There are at least five key reasons why he's wrong.

1) Protecting B.C.'s coast is about protecting B.C. jobs. According to a B.C. government report, more than 45,000 people are permanently employed by B.C.'s coastal seafood and ocean recreation industries. We're not just talking the fishing fleet, but also processors, anglers, and tour operators. Enbridge's pipeline and tankers project will create 560 long-term jobs in B.C., but an oil spill could wipe out 45,000 jobs -- in other words, B.C. would be risking 80 jobs for every one it stands to gain.

2) Canada's already got a bad case of Dutch Disease. When a currency becomes tied to the price of a single commodity, such as oil, due to a rapid surge in exports, it frequently causes job losses in the manufacturing sector. A recent University of Ottawa study found that Dutch Disease was responsible for 42 per cent of currency-related job losses in Canada between 2002 and 2007. That works out to about 140,000 jobs lost in the manufacturing sector because of the rapid expansion of the oil sands.

3) Exporting raw bitumen exports Canadian jobs. A recent public opinion survey by ThinkHQ shows 84 per cent of Albertans would prefer to see oil sands bitumen refined in their province. Further to that, 81 per cent of Albertans think the government should be taking steps to increase the amount of oil sands upgrading and refining provincially.

Even the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 29 unions and 145,000 workers, has spoken out against Enbridge's tankers and pipeline proposal because it would export unrefined bitumen -- and 50,000 high-quality jobs -- to China. Dogwood Initiative is not prescriptive about whether new refineries should be built or where (because we believe local people should make those decisions), but one thing is certain: it never makes sense to sell the wood and buy back the chair.

4) Half of Canada is reliant on foreign oil. Most of eastern Canada is currently dependent on foreign oil from declining or volatile reserves in the North Sea and the Middle East. If our government really cared about the best interests of Canadians, they'd be at least considering Canadian domestic energy security. Instead, they are selling off our oil to foreign oil companies and pushing to have it shipped to Asia on supertankers through an ocean environment that Environment Canada rates as the fourth most dangerous body of water in the world (which also just so happens to be one of the last remaining pristine places on the planet).

As former senior federal government geologist David Hughes writes in his 30-page report submitted to the joint review panel: "The proclivity to liquidate these resources as fast as possible in the name of economic growth is a very short-sighted policy practised by the Alberta and federal governments at the expense of the long-term energy security of Canadians."

5) What's the hurry? It is former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed who says that we should go slower on oil sands/pipeline expansion and use the oil we have left in the ground wisely. And one of Canada's top investors, the 85-year-old Stephen Jarislowsky, has said: "Long term, I think oil in the ground is a good asset."

Enbridge's pipeline and tanker scheme is predicated on the assumption that oil sands production could (and should) be tripled in less than 25 years -- that calculation goes beyond even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers' predictions. Without that expansion, there is no oil to fill West Coast pipelines.

Given the plethora of unaddressed environmental and social concerns related to oil sands developments (as pointed out by six independent reports in 2010 and 2011), Canadians should be thinking long and hard before embarking on further rapid expansion. After all, this is a valuable non-renewable resource that we only get to dig up and use once. Let's use it in the best interests of Canadians, not for the short-term gain of multinational oil companies.

Every time you hear the federal government say "national interest," insert "corporate interest" and you'll see a clearer picture. The prime minister is abdicating his responsibility to serve in the best interests of Canadians -- and Canadians, such as University of Alberta political economy professor Gordon Laxer, are right to be asking: when will Harper stop thinking as an oil CEO and start acting like he is Prime Minister of Canada?

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