With the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world is experiencing yet another reminder of the volatility of fossil fuels, both as an industry and as an energy source. The humanities and social sciences have long been engaged with documenting the problems of dependence on fossil fuels and the “resource curse.” Philosopher Leif Wenar has detailed many of these issues extensively in Blood Oil: Tyrants, Violence, and the Rules that Run the World, in which he describes how contemporary natural resources sectors engage with economic patterns that are not unlike the slave trade, colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. Indeed, the argument that oil is “good for the economy,” even though it clearly leads to dangerous levels of global warming and human suffering, is not unlike the arguments that were used to justify slavery throughout colonial history. Wenar has also documented how oil jurisdictions frequently experience poor democratic outcomes and a lack of economic growth. In truth, natural resources royalty revenue frequently is spent largely on large infrastructure projects. Often it is large contractors who benefit. Oil is particularly problematic in this regard. Spending on infrastructure in petrostates goes up when the price of oil is high, and citizens are left to pay for the infrastructure when the price of oil goes down. We have seen this with the ill-fated Muskrat Falls mega hydro project in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Similarly, the National Observer’s Chris Hatch has recently documented how oil is “pumping up tyrants.” We do not often think of ourselves as supporting dictators when we fill up at the gas station or buy home heating fuel. However, drawing on a chart compiled by Barry Saxifrage (above), Hatch shows how most of the world’s oil supply comes from countries with authoritarian regimes. Only Canada and Norway stand out as oil democracies. Notably, Canada has had its own issues with building a pipeline through Indigenous lands as Wet’suwet’en land defenders protested the Coastal Gas Link in Northern British Columbia, Indigenous persons and journalists have been arrested. The Liberal Government has also invested $21.4 billion of public money in the troubled TMX pipeline as the cost of the project increased by 70 percent. Canada recently experienced an uprising that is believed to have been rooted in protests against the loss of jobs in the Canadian oil sector. As fossil fuels continue to lose economic and political clout, the world will need renewable supply lines far more than it will need “ethical oil,” which in truth does not exist. China is currently dominating the move to the green economy and little consideration is being given to building green energy supply lines in Canada.
“It is increasingly clear that it is time to see Putin’s international aggression as the latest event in over a century of instability, often driven by a desire for access to fossil fuels.”
It is increasingly clear that it is time to see Putin’s international aggression as the latest event in over a century of instability, often driven by a desire for access to fossil fuels. Included on that list of events are the energy crisis of the 1970s, the Iran Hostage Crisis, the invasion of Kuwait, two wars in Iraq, invasions and bombings of Syria and Libya, and invasions in Afghanistan. Fossil fuels were part of the reasoning behind the drawing of national lines in the Middle East after the first and second world wars. They were key to prosecuting both world wars, as trains, planes, and ships became key to war efforts. In 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) embargoed oil exports to targeted nations that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Oil has also been key to funding dictators such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, the Bush dynasty, and now Vladimir Putin. The twentieth century was marked by both the use of fossil fuels as an energy source and international conflict over access to fossil fuels. At present, oil companies are profiteering off Putin’s war by inflating prices after a year of OPEC controlling supply and increasing oil prices. A study in Nature journal found that OPEC countries could quickly take control of the global oil market after the world reaches peak oil and they could drive higher cost producers like Canada out of the global industry.
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, there were calls for an embargo on the importation of Russian oil in Canada and the United States, where Russian oil represents but a small proportion of the oil imported. The real prize would be if European nations banned Russian fossil fuels because they remain far more dependent on it than North America. This move has remained contentious in Europe, and Russia continues to be dependent on Europe as a customer. Canadian Premiers Jason Kenney and Andrew Furey quickly offered their own province’s oil as a solution for Europe’s energy crisis. However, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Stephen Guilbeault responded that ‘Canadian oil isn’t the solution to Europe’s energy crisis’ and that renewable energy has to be the long term solution. In truth, Canada does not have the export capacity to meet Europe’s energy needs. Canada has since announced it could increase oil exports by up to 200,000 bpd and natural gas exports by up to 100,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day (boepd) this year.
It is unmistakable that fossil fuels have been in a period of spiralling disruptions since at least 2020. The divestiture movement has cost fossil fuel sectors $40 trillion since it started on college campuses in 2011. In 2020, a lot of investment moved to renewables as the price of oil crashed. Financial experts across the G20 recommended against recovering fossil fuels and having a green recovery instead, to shift the world’s economy trajectory towards net zero. Canada instead chose to recover fossil fuels at ten times the G20 average, while claiming to offer a green recovery. Wind and solar, combined with hydro, now represent the cheapest source of energy. All of this has led to a situation in which Europe has decided to pursue a strategy of speeding up the transition to clean energy to reduce dependence on Russia natural gas.
In the lead up to the American election in 2020, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued in Foreign Affairs that America was in for ‘a national security reckoning’ and that we should rethink how we see power in the contemporary world. She pointed to pandemic preparedness, research and development, cybersecurity, and green energy as the future of national security. Energy is not a new topic of discussion in the world of national security. However, this was one of the first times that green energy was referred to as a source of national security. In the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it has become increasingly obvious that a transition from fossil fuels to renewables is in the best interest of global security. One of the benefits of a transition to renewables will be that the world will no longer have wars over access to fossil fuels. Clinton and Dan Schwerin recently noted in The Atlantic that programs like Build Back Better would help America to compete with China and that this is fundamental for protecting the future of democracy. Yet fossil fuel companies are funding American senators who are blocking this progress as authoritarianism is rising in various locations across the globe.
“If fossil fuels were the defining industry of the twentieth century, then renewables will be the defining industry of the twenty-first century, and climate change will be the defining issue.”
If fossil fuels were the defining industry of the twentieth century, then renewables will be the defining industry of the twenty-first century, and climate change will be the defining issue. It is the one that will change the whole basis for our economy. Developing renewable energy supply lines is critical to the future of democracy, as China continues to lead on the development of green energy. The risk of China’s global economic dominance, or the risk of China partnering with Russia, is in addition to the environmental and political risks we already face from climate change. Many parts of Canada are already suffering from fires and flooding. The world is already experiencing food shortages and famine. However, this may be just a dress rehearsal for the destruction that is yet to come.
Feature Image: “Nay for fossil fuel, yea for renewable energy” by PeterThoeny is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
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