01/20/2012 11:37 EST | Updated 03/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Dear Tar Sands: It's Not Me, It's You


In the wake of the latest Keystone XL setback, you have to wonder whether it's starting to sink in, whether the tar sands industry and its political apologists are getting anywhere close to that feeling of "Really, it's me, not you."

For decades this industry has developed a culture of always getting its way. When confronted with opposition inside its native Alberta, it could always bully or buy its way free, knowing that the provincial government in Edmonton was another of its wholly owned subsidiaries.

Then, as Ottawa was taken over by the Calgary oil crowd in the form of the Harper government, it knew it could also rely on shameless cheerleading from the likes of Jason Kenney, Joe Oliver, and the rest of the "ethical oil" team, and also from federal Environment Minister Peter Kent, who still, after all these years, is simply reading the lines given to him.

The danger with this kind of cozy domination is that you come to believe in your own absolute rectitude, that in the face of ongoing opposition you continue to truly think that dissenters must be either confused or part of some nefarious conspiracy.

"It's not me, it's you," you say to yourself. So, your response is to provide ever more "information" (which of course is never "rhetoric") and go on the attack against your opponents themselves (avoiding their actual criticisms).

But reality has a funny way of biting back, as George W. Bush found out after trying to supersede it.

The tar sands industry now faces legal challenges from First Nations, low carbon fuel initiatives in California and the EU, opposition to its pipelines in the U.S., in British Columbia, and in Eastern provinces and states. It faces water pollution concerns from the North, acid rain concerns from Saskatchewan, and jobs concerns in Eastern Canada due to Dutch Disease. It faces calls to reverse its exploding greenhouse pollution from Nobel Laureates, and from Canadians concerned that the industry is unfairly blowing Canada's carbon budget.

Are all these people crazy? Is it still you, not me? Is all the mounting evidence simply wrong?

As it stands, the industry has massive expansion plans, and despite what its political apologists say, they have intentionally refused to put in place any regulatory limits that would get in the way of this expansion -- Canada's environmental laws just tinker ineffectually around the edges.

So we remain on a collision course between an industry and reality, between a culture of deafness and a world on fire.

To get off this pathway, industry cannot avoid forever the question of how big it needs to be and for how long. Mindless expansion is something that cancer does, not thinking human beings. The environment does not care how efficient you are, it only cares about your overall impact, which must come down, not go up.

Hello, is anybody there ready to listen yet?