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Our Tar-Sands Man in Washington

Our Tar-Sands Man in Washington

Gary Doer was hailed as one of Canada's greenest leaders. Then he became ambassador to the US—and started shilling for Alberta oil.

Illustration by Anthony Tremmaglia.

In early October 2009, Manitoba premier Gary Doer flew to Los Angeles and wound up talking about polar bears. He was attending the Governor’s Global Climate Summit, an environmental forum hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger and other American politicians, where, at one point, a group of young activists approached him for a video interview about global warming. Doer, dressed in a pinstriped suit and looking uncomfortable in the California heat, told them about Churchill, Manitoba, where polar bears are so common that authorities prevent the animals from romping through town by capturing them in a compound—“a polar bear jail,” Doer called it, with evident amusement. But because of climate change, he said, it’s now “so warm in the summer, we’re putting air-conditioning in for the polar bears.” One of his questioners seemed astonished. “Wow,” she said. “What a prime example.”

About two weeks later, Doer left provincial politics to become Canada’s ambassador to the United States. This also made him one of the world’s most important pitchmen for Alberta oil. Since his appointment, Doer has racked up countless hours and air miles trying to convince American policymakers that the infamous tar sands—the bitumen deposits championed by the Conservative government but loathed by the environmental movement—aren’t so bad after all.

It’s an unusual task for Doer, who, as the NDP premier of Manitoba for most of the last decade, was widely seen as a doughty green crusader. In 2005, BusinessWeek named him one of the twenty most important leaders fighting climate change. Doer loudly favoured the Kyoto Accord, worked with American governors to cut tail-pipe emissions and went out of his way to protect vast swaths of Manitoba’s boreal forest. Now many environmentalists consider him a traitor, but Doer proudly calls himself a pragmatist. “I don’t live in a world where I think you kayak to England,” he told me. “I do believe we can improve on efficiencies on oil consumption. But I’ll still drive to the lake on the weekends. We don’t live in a world of absolutes, and I don’t either.”

The Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue is a sleek, white Arthur Erickson building; it looks like a Norwegian furniture designer’s idea of a DC power hub. From his sixth-floor office, Doer has a postcard view of the United States Capitol building, and Congress is close enough for politicians to dine with the Canadian ambassador before returning to the floor for a vote. This proximity is just one weapon in a lobbying arsenal that puts Doer’s team in touch with hundreds of senators, house members and White House staffers. The embassy also deals with the US Department of State, which is currently deciding whether to approve Keystone XL, a controversial pipeline extension. Proposed by Calgary energy company TransCanada, Keystone XL would send about seven hundred thousand barrels of oil a day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

At times, Doer and the State Department get rather cozy. In December 2010, an official at the US embassy in Ottawa wrote an email to a TransCanada lobbyist about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:  “Oversaw S’s trip to Ottawa yesterday for the trilat. KXL not raised, but Doer flew back on the plane with her.” A relentless traveller, Doer has met with politicians all over the US in his two years as ambassador, and usually manages to bring Canadian oil into the conversation. In public appearances, he tends to ramble and speak off the cuff. He has round shoulders, a slight stoop and a gravelly Prairies accent, and prefers hamburgers to the amuse-bouches of the Washington schmooze circuit—a down-home image he has deliberately cultivated. “He’s the guy you want to have a beer with,” said Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Manitoba.

Doer’s lobbying for the tar sands, like his political persona, is predicated on this kind of folksy straightforwardness. “Do I think we’re perfect and we don’t have to improve? No,” he told me. “Obviously we have to move ahead on making that resource more sustainable.” In his charm offensives, he returns again and again to a handful of favourite expressions and anecdotes. He is fond of saying that environmentalists use “frozen facts” on tar-sands emissions, meaning their numbers don’t reflect improved production standards. Doer often says this is like discussing computers as if they were still rooms full of machines. “I have been surprised in Washington by some of the numbers that people are using about Alberta’s oil. When the California thermal emissions are greater than the oil sands, that’s a fact you have to point out,” he said, referring to an extraction process that involves heating wells to maximize output. “Some of the environmentalists don’t like me saying that.”

The ambassador frequently harps on one issue particularly resonant in Washington right now: energy security. Last January, slouching in a chair in the lobby of Chicago’s Fairmont Hotel, Doer spoke to an Illinois television host and recited one of his preferred quotes. “I think the governor of Montana said it best just recently,” Doer began, “when he said, ‘I don’t send my National Guard from Montana to Fort McMurray, where the oil’s coming from. Unfortunately, regrettably, they’re in the Middle East risking their lives.’” Two months later, President Barack Obama gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he argued that the US should look to its more stable allies for oil—specifically, Mexico, Brazil and Canada.

Canada is America’s largest supplier of crude oil and refined petroleum, sending nearly 2.5 million barrels south of the border every day—about 25 percent of the US’s total oil imports. Over half of that is from the tar sands alone, which export about as much oil to the US as Mexico, America’s number-two supplier, does. (Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude-oil exporter, comes in third.)

There are almost 170 billion barrels of proven oil reserves in the tar sands, eight times more than the proven reserves of the entire United States. But such big business doesn’t come easily. Bitumen, the tar-like form of petroleum found in Alberta, is more difficult to extract than conventional, free-flowing oil—which also makes the process more resource-intensive.

There are two ways to get oil out of the tar sands: mining and in-situ extraction. Mining involves using hydraulic or electric shovels to dump mounds of tarry sand into trucks that are able to carry up to 350 metric tonnes. The material is then driven to another site, where it’s pounded into slurry, before being shipped away again to have the bitumen separated from the sand using a mixture of heated water and chemicals. In-situ recovery basically consists of drilling deep into the earth and shooting steam into the wells, heating the bitumen until it flows like conventional oil. These expensive techniques have only become truly cost-effective over the last decade as oil prices have skyrocketed, prompting an explosion of tar-sands development.

Despite some improvements—like reusing water after stripping it of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide—oil production in Alberta remains dirty. According to the Pembina Institute, an environmentalist think tank, the tar sands represent the single biggest share of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions growth. Currently, the tar sands are responsible for 7 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse-gas emissions; by 2020, Environment Canada projects, that number will jump to 12 percent. Oil companies say that, since 1990, they have reduced the level of emissions per barrel by 39 percent. But total production is expected to rise to 2.2 million barrels a day by 2015, and Environment Canada estimates that overall tar-sands emissions will triple by 2020. “They’ve been squeezing out efficiency gains, but when your output is going up, your emissions are going up,” said Matt Price, a former campaign director at the non-profit Environmental Defence. “The ecosystem doesn’t care about emissions per barrel. It cares about total emissions.”

The tar sands don’t just contribute to climate change; they also harm local communities, habitats and wildlife. Somewhere between eight thousand and one hundred thousand birds—an admittedly vague estimate—die each year from landing in Alberta’s tailing ponds, according to a 2008 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an American organization. Provincial health officials have also found unusually high rates of a rare bile-duct cancer in residents of Fort Chipewyan, a small, predominantly Aboriginal town downstream from the Fort McMurray tar sands. More than two years after the initial findings, Alberta Health recently began a follow-up study of the community.

Some American politicians and activists have taken up the anti-tar-sands crusade. This summer, widely publicized protests against the Keystone XL pipeline descended on Washington. Over a thousand demonstrators were arrested, including a former Obama campaign worker and the author Bill McKibben. (Doer has made the approval of Keystone XL a primary goal of his ambassadorship, and he dismissed the protests as “noise.”) Canada’s National Energy Board has already approved Keystone XL, but, in early November, the US State Department announced that it was delaying its final decision—initially expected by the end of 2011—because the pipeline “could affect the health and safety of the American people as well as the environment.”

Last fall, California Democrat Henry Waxman, a progressive bulldog and foe of Big Oil, attended a multiple sclerosis fundraiser at the Canadian Embassy and gave staffers an earful about the tar sands. Obama, for his part, also occasionally expresses reservations about the project’s ecological impact. “These tar sands, there are some environmental questions about how destructive they are, potentially, what are the dangers there, and we’ve got to examine all those questions,” he told a town-hall gathering in Pennsylvania in April. The president’s remarks—and his use of the term “tar sands” rather than the industry’s preferred “oil sands”—prompted a concerned phone call from the Canadian Embassy.

In spring 2011, WikiLeaks released a 2008 cable from the US Embassy in Ottawa called “Stephen Harper’s Christmas Wish List,” which mockingly compiled some of the Conservative prime minister’s dream scenarios. “Scientists discover that Canada’s oil sands have a positive effect on climate change and can be efficiently extracted even at a world oil price of $10 per barrel,” reads one item. It ends, rather acidly, “And may your own wishlists have better chances of success!”

Gary Doer was born in Winnipeg on March 31, 1948, and grew up in River Heights, a wealthy Tory suburb far removed from the NDP’s Winnipeg stronghold. After attending a private, Jesuit-run Catholic high school, he enrolled at the University of Manitoba for just one year before dropping out. As Robert Wardaugh and Barry Glenn Ferguson write in Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries, he quickly started working as a youth counsellor at a jail before getting a job at the Manitoba Youth Centre, where he rose through the managerial ranks. In 1979, his interest piqued by labour issues, Doer was elected president of the Manitoba Government Employees Association (now the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union), a post he held until he entered politics in 1986. At MGEA, he acquired a reputation as a skillful negotiator for issues such as pay equity and daycare for employees’ children.

Doer eventually considered running for office. He had no party affiliation, and was courted by the Liberals, Tories and NDP alike. “When he joined the NDP, some Tories were upset because they thought they had him,” said the University of Manitoba’s Jared Wesley. But the NDP gave him an easy riding, and Doer won his first election in 1986, entering Premier Howard Pawley’s cabinet immediately.

Two years later, party dissensions brought the government down, and Pawley resigned, leaving the leadership open. Doer jumped on the opportunity, but the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals crushed the NDP in the next election. (Around this time, Doer married Ginny Devine, co-founder of the prominent polling firm Viewpoints Research. They now have two daughters.)

It took an eleven-year slog to bring the NDP back into power. Elected to a slim majority in 1999, Doer went on to become a wildly popular premier. He had high approval ratings for most of his decade-long tenure, peaking at 81 percent in March 2008. During the next two elections—in 2003 and 2007—Doer led the NDP to successively larger majorities. His victories rested on stewarding the traditionally leftist party to the political centre on issues such as small-business tax cuts and crime. Some have compared his style to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s “Third Way,” a mix of left-wing social policies and right-wing fiscal reforms. Doer rejects this. “‘Third way?’ We were doing some of these things long before we even knew the term existed,” he tells Wesley in a recent book on Prairies politics.

But outside of Manitoba, Doer was best known for his environmental efforts. In 2007, he brought Manitoba into the Western Climate Initiative, an association of American states and Canadian provinces dedicated to reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions. The press release accompanying the announcement included a catalogue of Doer’s climate-change policies: instituting greener building regulations, phasing out a sclerotic coal plant, setting stronger emissions standards for cars and buses made in Manitoba. The release also contained a barb directed at Doer’s now-boss, Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “This kind of agreement illustrates that individual state and provincial governments can take concrete actions to fight climate change in the absence of clear federal leadership.”

The ambassador is a longtime supporter of the Kyoto Accord, which mandates that developed countries cut their greenhouse-gas emissions to at least 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. As a signatory, Canada agreed to cut its levels by 6 percent, a target it has not met, in part because of the indifference of the Harper government. But in 2008, as premier, Doer passed an ambitious bill that required Manitoba to reach its own Kyoto targets. (He has since been more dismissive of the Accord, telling the Texas oil-and-gas trade magazine E&P that the less-ambitious plan discussed at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit “is a more doable proposal from our perspective than Kyoto.”)

Perhaps Doer’s most notable achievement was his persistent defence of Lake Winnipeg’s east side, which is part of the world’s largest boreal forest and home to many First Nations communities. On one of the last days of his premiership, he set aside a $10 million trust fund in support of the campaign to make 4.3 million hectares on the lake’s east side a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Over the course of his last two years in office, Doer also battled to reroute the massive Bipole III hydroelectric transmission line—set to pass through the east side of Lake Winnipeg—along the west side. That route would be more circuitous but less environmentally destructive, and is expected to cost hundreds of millions of additional dollars. (The debate, as it played out in the press, gave rise to months of vicious “east side” versus “west side” sparring, bizarrely reminiscent of territorial rap feuds.) Doer’s advocacy for the lake’s east side earned him friends in the environmental movement, whose goodwill he has occasionally harnessed during his time as ambassador.

Last March, the Canadian Embassy in Washington organized an event to cash in on Doer’s green reputation. The embassy had been taking heat over the destruction of Alberta’s boreal forest from tar-sands development, so staffers invited forestry-industry representatives and environmental activists to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to talk about the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, a commitment between companies and advocacy groups to preserve some of Canada’s woodlands. With boreal-forest preservation, Doer was on safe ground. The real purpose of the event was not so much to discuss “A New Model for Balancing Resource Use and Conservation,” its official billing, as to show off Doer’s sustainability bona fides.

As the afternoon wound down, the embassy got some help from an unexpected source. Richard Brooks, a Greenpeace campaign coordinator, interrupted another participant and took the floor. Embassy staffers were nervous: they were used to Greenpeace chastising them for promoting the tar sands. But when Brooks began to speak, they grew relieved.

“I think the ambassador was being quite humble when he was stating the developments in Manitoba during his premiership,” Brooks said. He went on to praise Doer, in detail, for establishing the $10 million Lake Winnipeg trust fund and rerouting the Bipole III line. “Pushing the hydro corridor to the west side is potentially going to be more expensive and harder to do, but he recognized that the east side of Lake Winnipeg is some of the most pristine wilderness in Canada, and worthy of keeping intact and precious,” Brooks went on. “So I wanted to thank him for his leadership on forest-conservation issues in Canada.”

Despite his praise, Brooks still bristles at Doer’s apparent contradictions. “Do I think it’s odd, given his views on climate change, that he is also promoting the use of tar-sands oil in the United States? Yeah, I think it’s odd,” Brooks told me. “Certainly, on the surface, it doesn’t seem to line up.” In 2010, Matt Price of Environmental Defence penned an op-ed for the Winnipeg Free Press titled, “What became of Gary Doer the green premier?” “It is sad to lose Gary Doer to the tarsands,” Price wrote, “and to the Harper government’s hostility to the emergence of the clean energy economy.”

In his ambassadorial role, Doer has become skilled at painting critics of his Washington agenda as extremists. In October 2010, when CTV asked him why environmentalists opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, Doer replied, “Of course, some people that are opposed to all fossil fuels, and some people that are opposed to the oil sands, are trying to use this expansion here in Washington and asking for the administration to not approve this pipeline.”

But his assessment isn’t fair to some of the pipeline’s more unlikely detractors. Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns—senators from conservative Nebraska—have been sharply critical of the initial proposed route for Keystone XL, which would have run through the Ogallala aquifer, an underground water reservoir that stretches over eight states and provides drinking water for 82 percent of the area’s population. Much of the aquifer sits under Nebraska and covers all but a few slivers of the state’s territory. The senators were concerned that the oil could leak into the Midwest’s water supply. Although the Canadian Embassy said these worries were unfounded, in November TransCanada agreed to change Keystone XL’s proposed route to avoid the Ogallala reservoir.

Johanns, in a statement on his website, took pains to distance himself from  environmentalists. “To be clear, I am not opposed to oil pipelines in Nebraska,” he writes. “In fact, several pipelines already cross our state. It is in our national interest to obtain oil from allies instead of those who may not share our values.” In any case, Nelson and Johanns are hardly as radical as Doer often depicts his opponents: Nelson is a conservative “Blue Dog” Democrat, and Johanns is a Republican.

The Canadian ambassador, however, is flatly dismissive of his detractors—especially those who accuse him of hypocrisy. “I don’t have to respond to them,” he said of environmentalists. “People should be judged by what they do, not by people putting their hand on the horn.” His public insults have sometimes alienated activists, and, evidently, the embassy is most comfortable reaching out to oil companies. Shawn Howard, a spokesman at TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, said the Canadian Embassy had consulted him for information on the pipeline, like how much it would cost and how many jobs it would create. “Sometimes there are requests for information, so we’ll provide them with facts,” Howard said. Now Doer touts the same job-creation number—twenty thousand—that TransCanada advertises. The company told the Washington Post that the number comprises thirteen thousand direct jobs and seven thousand supply-chain jobs; the State Department, on the other hand, estimates the number of direct jobs at five to six thousand.

The ambassador’s team is less interested in working with environmentalists. Danielle Droitsch, a former director of US policy at the Pembina Institute, said she has had three meetings with Doer’s staff, none of which the embassy sought out. In 2010, she visited the embassy with two First Nations representatives from northern Alberta—one from the Mikisew Cree, one from the Dene. They spoke to staffers about the air and water pollution from the tar sands, and the deleterious effect they have had on indigenous people’s health. The staffers nodded and smiled politely. “I think you could call it slightly uncomfortable,” Droitsch said mildly. “I can remember thinking, We don’t expect a lot from them.”

But even Doer’s environmental legacy—supposedly the cornerstone of his premiership—has its critics. Last February, the respected non-profit Manitoba Wildlands compiled a list of all the environment-related promises the provincial NDP had made since 1999, when Doer first became premier. The group counted 105 pledges, of which less than a third had been “fulfilled” or “partially fulfilled.” The broken promises mostly concerned water and forest preservation.

Manitoba Wildlands director Gaile Whelan Enns even criticized what is supposed to be Doer’s flagship achievement: protecting the east side of Lake Winnipeg. She thinks the much-publicized $10 million trust fund is so small as to be useless. “It looks great for him, but there’s no money,” she said. (Doer grew testy when I brought up Enns, retorting, “She would say that if it was ten times that amount.”)

Enns thinks that Doer was, in essence, a press-release premier, more concerned with flashy announcements—“things that make people smile,” as she put it—than substantive policy. Jared Wesley, who takes a broadly favourable view of Doer’s premiership, conceded that Doer “has no real policy legacy.” Eric Reder, Manitoba campaign director for the non-profit Wilderness Committee, echoed that assessment. “The entirety of his term was incremental—little decisions,” Reder said.
It’s the sort of thing you expect a professional environmentalist to say about a career politician. But Reder has a point: those familiar with Doer’s political ideals say he sees compromise as a virtue in its own right. For example, during his tenure as premier, the Manitoba government raised the minimum wage from $6 an hour in 2000 to $9 in 2009—a steady, gradual increase that managed to annoy both anti-poverty activists and the business community.

Despite his green reputation, Doer displayed the same middle-of-the-road approach to the environment when he was premier. Asked about Doer’s changed position on the Kyoto Accord, his one-time minister of conservation Stan Struthers said, “I know with Gary, it’s always about moving forward, whether it’s using the Kyoto Accord or the Copenhagen approach.” Doer, for his part, has displayed even less attachment to Kyoto than Struthers gave him credit for. When we spoke, he explained his earlier support for the Accord in brute economic terms: he wanted to use Kyoto to help promote Manitoba’s abundant hydropower as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

This approach—pragmatism as principle—was also obvious in Doer’s public campaign to reroute hydro transmission lines away from the east side of Lake Winnipeg. At the time, Doer pointed out that the state of Minnesota, which receives 10 percent of its electricity from Manitoba, has environmental requirements of some of the energy it purchases. Moving the transmission line to the west side of the lake was a way to ensure that the state kept buying Manitoban energy, he argued; the extra building costs were a one-off, and insignificant in light of the yearly windfall of Minnesota’s hydroelectric shopping spree. “The issues of customer relations, the revenue of $800 million a year, is very important to factor in, relative to the capital costs, [which are] one-time only,” he told Global TV in 2008. (Opponents retorted that many of Manitoba Hydro’s dams were too large to meet Minnesota’s environmental requirements anyway.) It was budget anxiety, rather than concerns about forests or climate change, that partially motivated Doer to take the boldest conservation step of his premiership.

That dogged practicality hasn’t always had positive side effects for the environment. Doer enthusiastically fostered Manitoba’s own burgeoning oil boom, and, during his tenure, March 2007 was the peak of the province’s oil production, with over three-quarters of a million barrels pumped out in that month alone. In 2008, his government extended the province’s Drilling Incentive Program, which gives companies that drill new wells special breaks on taxes and Crown royalties until they reach a certain production threshold. In 2010, the year after Doer left office, Manitoba exported $371 million in oil.

Manitoba is also an important conduit for Alberta’s oil exports. Between 2000 and 2010, an average of more than $424 million in oil flowed each year through Manitoba’s pipelines, primarily en route from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the US. Calgary energy company Enbridge has recently completed two new pipelines, Alberta Clipper and Southern Lights, both of which cross the southwestern corner of Manitoba, connecting the tar sands to American markets. As premier, Doer praised Alberta’s use of its enormous oil wealth, indicating that he hoped to follow that province’s model in his development of Manitoba’s hydro resources. “You either build what you’ve got as strengths, like Alberta has done with oil…or we’re going to continue to be a mediocre province,” he told an interviewer in 2007, according to Manitoba Premiers of the 19th and 20th Centuries. “Our strength is hydro and renewable resources.”

Doer never really considered himself an environmentalist at all. “You’re green, you’re not green. You’re this, you’re that,” he said to me. The idea that his advocacy of the tar sands might be at odds with his political record seems to him an elitist, even unhinged, notion. “He doesn’t like academics very much—he thinks we look at the world in theoretical ways,” Wesley said. “He doesn’t believe in the academic approach to politics. He believes in the street approach.”

In November 2010, Doer visited the Dallas Business Club to give a speech on energy security. He was his usual mix of down-to-earth and disdainful. At one point, Doer recalled a conversation he had with Texas governor Rick Perry, when Doer was still premier and before Perry became a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Perry had mentioned that, according to his own research, Manitobans were the largest per-capita consumers of Slurpees in North America. (7/11, the Slurpee distributor, is headquartered in Dallas.) Doer, fascinated by the statistic, did some research of his own. Texans, it turns out, are the largest per-capita consumers of Manitoba-made Crown Royal whiskey. As a goodwill gesture, Doer gave Perry a Texas mickey of the stuff, sealed in a diplomatic pouch.

The audience at the Dallas Business Club cracked up. But later in the speech, Doer started into his familiar defence of the tar sands—and his typical swipes at green critics. “You hear environmental concerns, and I consider myself pretty close to being in touch with the environment,” he said, before launching into one of his favourite anecdotes. “I heard a Hollywood actress that’s gorgeous, gorgeous”—he paused and balled his face up for emphasis, as the crowd snickered—“in a panel in Copenhagen say she weaned herself completely off of fossil fuels. She was on this panel and nobody challenged her, because she was, in fact, gorgeous.” The audience’s laughter grew louder. “But the reality is,” Doer finished, grinning, “that’s a long kayak ride from Hollywood to Copenhagen.”

See the rest of Issue 42 (Winter 2011).

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