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At the Suncor oil sands plant, bitumen is heated and sent to drums where petroleum coke, the heavy bottom material, is removed. Petroleum coke, similar to coal, is used as a fuel source for the utilities plant. (SUNCOR)
At the Suncor oil sands plant, bitumen is heated and sent to drums where petroleum coke, the heavy bottom material, is removed. Petroleum coke, similar to coal, is used as a fuel source for the utilities plant. (SUNCOR)


Doug Saunders: Peak Oil? More like Peak Canada Add to ...

Good morning, students. The results from last week’s history test have been transconducted into your NeuroPads. Now, if you’ll all please disengage your BrainFeeds and start listening, I’ll be talking today about one of the most misunderstood episodes in Canadian history.

This occurred over the first decade and a half of the 21st century. It was Canada’s global moment of arrogant pride – the Great Hubris, as it’s remembered today – our country’s moment of squandered opportunity. In those heady years, Canadian leaders and citizens alike became convinced that their country was an energy superpower possessed of powers unique in the world.

Canada, for a while, went mad. We believed we were above the laws of economics and politics and energy – a country that had magically resisted the First New Depression of 2008, and had an export so desirable that we could ignore ecological warnings and well-established international partnerships and blacken the good name Canada had earned the previous century. Our leaders bossed around the world, believing everyone wanted their controversial oil and would ignore its many serious problems if they simply branded it “ethical.”

Ordinary Canadians embraced the hubris, spending far beyond their means, believing that our oil-boosted economy was permanent and invincible. In November of 2012, the peak of the Great Hubris, Canadians reported record levels of personal non-mortgage debt, piling on expensive cars and credit card bills – everyone believed theirs was a rich petro-state and it would last forever.

But Canadians were ignoring the reality outside. “The walls were closing in on us, and we were falling back down to earth,” as Prime Minister Bieber used to say. Excessive pride was leading to a harsh fall.

Those Canadians should have seen what was coming. That fateful November, just as their personal debts were red-lining, most Canadians failed to notice the annual World Energy Outlook, published by the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

It predicted what we all know now – that the U.S. would become the world’s largest petroleum producer by 2017 and a major world exporter not long afterward, exceeding Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iran and dwarfing Alberta, and that, by 2015, it would overtake Russia as the world’s largest producer of natural gas. “An energy renaissance in the United States is redrawing the global energy map, with implications for energy markets and trade,” the report concluded.

Indeed, that very month, The Washington Post accurately predicted that the U.S. natural gas boom and the resulting low energy prices and spinoff industries were fuelling an “American industrial revival.” It would be aided by a reversal of fortunes in the Great Chinese Stall, triggering the Second American Century.

But Canadian leaders were still working on the assumption that the world would want our Athabasca crude. Little did we know that Canada, along with much of the world, would soon be buying North Dakota’s far cleaner and more popular Democracy Gas.

There were victims galore. The politicians in Ottawa and Edmonton squandered a generation’s worth of political capital trying to force pipelines on national and provincial governments. A few went ahead, but, by then, the energy picture had shifted so much that it hardly seemed worth it. The Canada of the 2010s was largely remembered for having briefly underwritten Chinese authoritarianism with petroleum deals that didn’t do it any good. Our oil proved to be rather unethical.

Of course, the ecological consequences of this were horrendous. That’s why we don’t talk about that shameful era, or the politicians who turned “Canadian” into a swear word in many countries. Who’d want to be reminded of that when we’re getting our January suntans on Churchill Beach?

But the biggest victims were Canadians themselves, who never fully realized that their energy-dominance moment would be so fleeting. They spent exorbitantly but invested little. Alberta got some decent universities and hospitals, but there was never any major national program to become leaders in any sector, educational or industrial. Economists in those days told us that a dollar earned by hauling raw materials out of the ground was as good as a dollar earned by making things. But, as we learned the hard way, there was more to it than macroeconomics.

Those were days when some people talked about Peak Oil. It never worked out that way, sadly. It was perhaps better to talk about Peak Canada. Next week, we’ll learn about the trough that followed. Yes, it will be on the test, so set your RetinaReminders. Class dismissed.

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