UNCOMMON SENSE: Neil Young hits nerve on Big Oil

Adrian MacNair - File photo
Adrian MacNair
— image credit: File photo

You knew that when the Prime Minister’s Office put out a press release in response to Neil Young’s anti-oil sands tour that he’d struck a nerve with the Big Oil lobbyists cozying up to Ottawa’s politburo. A lot of nasty things have been said about one of Canada’s most beloved singers in the past week, most of them hurled by Albertans who enjoy the zero per cent sales tax that a productive oil sands affords them.

If you haven’t heard, Neil Young has been donating the proceeds from several benefit concerts to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation who are fighting against expansion of the oil sands in Northern Alberta.

For abiding by his conscience, he’s been called naive, dishonest, hypocritical, and some have even taken to the tried, tested, and true Michael Ignatieff smear campaign tactic of questioning his nationality. Is he just visiting? Where does this jerk live, anyway?

Speaking of Michael Ignatieff, I attended one of his lectures when he visited UBC in 2010 during his pan-Canada tour of academia. In the middle of his question and answer period he was accosted by some  environmental activists who hectored him on his oil sands stance.

“I’m not going to establish [my credibility] by running against an industry that employs thousands of Canadians and contributes $6 billion to the federal treasury,” he said, to mixed applause.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? How does one criticize the environmental damage of the oil sands without also implicitly threatening the livelihood of Canadians?

After all, that $6 billion also helps pay for environmental agencies and initiatives undertaken by the federal government. Tax revenues generated from environmentally destructive bitumen extraction in Northern Alberta will help to pay for the environmental assessment of Roberts Bank Terminal 2.

But that doesn’t mean people like Neil Young don’t have valid criticisms to make about the oil sands. Even if it doesn’t put out more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than all the automobiles in Canada, doesn’t look like the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, and isn’t an open pit mine the size of England, there are still some disturbing facts about all three.

According to Big Oil itself (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers) the oil sands emit five per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions, a number that will grow in size as the industrial footprint increases to 140,000 square kilometres. For reference, our entire province emitted 59.1 million tonnes of GHG in 2011, a number which is only marginally higher than the 55 million tonnes emitted by the oil sands alone.

And to think we’re the ones paying a carbon tax.

But perhaps the biggest issue lost in the in the whole debate is why Young is doing this in the first place.

“Our issue is not whether the natural resource sector is a fundamental part of the country,” Young said last week. “Our issue is with the government breaking treaties with the First Nation and plundering the natural resources the First Nation has rights to under the treaties.”

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