(This is a bit late posting, having been written a week ago, but I promise the issues haven’t fallen off the table since!)
I’m wearing a suit. This is not something I do a lot, but as it turned it out, it was probably the main reason I had the chance to call Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, Joe Oliver to account, for he and his Government’s attempt to convince LSE students that Canadian tar sands are an ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’ source of energy for the future.
The LSE – to their discredit – chose to host the Minister, after being approached by the Canadian Government as part of their declared lobbying push to undermine European climate legislation. The public university – who regularly host multiple speakers at their events – chose to let the Minister speak unopposed, on one of the most hotly-contested global environmental issues of our generation. People & Planet, as part of our Tar Sands-Free Universities campaign, see this as a major insult to the countless victims of the Alberta tar sands industry, given the Canadian Government’s track record of ignoring and discrediting the critical issues facing First Nations Canadians and the climate as a whole as a result of the industry.
So Oliver’s presence was inappropriate for a university to host as an ‘educational’ event to begin with. But from the point that we arrived (about 10 of us, from LSE People & Planet and the UK Tar Sands Network), we were greeted by a police presence at the front doors of the venue and a heavy security presence inside, which included body searches and refusal to allow any personal bags in the venue. Having been to a half-dozen LSE public lectures before, this was the first time I’d seen anything like this. Even when I saw the President of Ecuador speak at LSE last year, there had been no parallel precautions taken.
The Chair, Dr Richard Perkins, said that he was keen to have a debate after the lecture, given the contentious nature of the issue, but then prefaced questions with ‘this isn’t a chance to make a statement’…
The event started late, due to the extensive security checks, and was closed early, as too much of the crowd had become vocally critical of the misinformation coming from the Minister. Again, debate was not what the LSE appeared interested in hosting… If I hadn’t broken protocols and jumped up early on to present Oliver with an award for ‘Greenwash Propagandist of the Year’, relatively little criticism would have made it to the forefront.
And unsurprisingly, the Minister’s speech was nothing short of propaganda. Nearly every statement was untrue or misleading, and omitted even mentioning issues as significant as elevated cancer rates amongst First Nations communities, or First Nations legal challenges that tar sands expansion is hinging upon. Some highlights include:
- Oliver’s claim: ‘Canada is being unfairly discriminated against via the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive’
- The truth: Tar sands are one of several ‘unconventional fuels’ (including shale gas and liquid coal) that the European Commission has classified as high emissions fuels. The move is clearly an attempt to regulate fuel that is more harmful to the environment than crude oil. There is no basis to claim that Alberta tar sands have been ‘singled-out’.
- Oliver’s claim: ‘Tar sands aren’t as bad as other fuels the EU allows import of’
- The truth: Oliver compared Alberta tar sands to Russian, Mexican, Nigerian and Venezuelan high emissions fuels, saying that tar sands were much better than many of these. In truth, the best tar sands, are on par with or worse than, all but the very worst Venezuelan heavy crude and Nigerian flaring. The other countries fuels produce far lower emissions. Tar sands really are *that bad*!
- Oliver’s claim: ‘In situ tar sands extraction is much less destructive than mining’
- The truth: While in situ mining doesn’t use as much water, or scar the surface of the Earth in the way open caste mining does, the emissions associated with the process are on average 3x higher than that of mining tar sands, and 5x higher than drilling traditional crude. The Minister and the industry’s claim that the in situ process is more environmentally sound is at best a distortion of the facts, and at worst, an outright lie.
After the talk, a scheduled media phone-in with the Minister, was cancelled without explanation. We might be able to take a little bit of credit for that one. We also managed to get covered in newspapers and blogs across Canada, as well as in the Times of India (the largest English language newspaper in the world), hopefully throwing a bit of a wrench into the Canadian Government’s attempt to go abroad and paint the tar sands in a positive light.
While LSE may still be a few steps from calling itself a ‘Tar Sands-Free University’ (though our activists there will be pushing to make it one!), we an important question for the university, in light of its choice to host the Minister:
Given the factual inaccuracy of a range of the Minister’s comments and the highly-political agenda he was promoting, how can the LSE justify using student and public money to help a foreign government promote a single perspective, unopposed?
Speakers like Oliver are relatively rare, in terms of the ways that universities support the most destructive project on Earth. They may be banking with tar sands financiers like RBS/NatWest; they might be doing research into tar sands technologies for BP or Shell; their staff’ pensions might be invested in any of these companies… So don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to get involved in making your university or college ‘Tar Sands-Free’!