Iraq War; Five years of war in Iraq have hit home in EdmontonPosted: March 25, 2008
David Berry, March 20, 2008, Vue Weekly -- The further we get away from the actual date, the better Canada’s decision to not get involved with the US invasion of Iraq looks. Five years after the US launched its ill-conceived assault on the Middle Eastern nation, there aren’t many—except perhaps those in the highest offices of the American government—who consider the situation anything but a quagmire.
The pretext for the war was quickly revealed to be specious, smoke and mirrors designed to hide what would appear to be a more imperial motive; talk of being greeted as liberators, of spreading democracy throughout the region, was revealed to be starry-eyed optimism at best, as fervently anti-American factions sprung both in Iraq and the region as a whole. And all this comes at a terrible cost: to date, conservative estimates put the cost of the war at more than $500 billion, with some predicting it may reach as high as $1 trillion before it’s over. Though outrageous, such numbers ignore the human cost: almost 4000 American soldiers dead, nearly 30 000 wounded, to say nothing (as is frequently the case) of the almost 90 000 confirmed Iraqi civilians killed.
And yet, though Canada has managed to escape the most direct affects of the war, we don’t remain untouched. The beast beside has been twitching awfully violently lately, and we can’t help but feel its effects—and nowhere is that more true than in Edmonton. North of our city lie two areas profoundly affected by the war in Iraq: the Fort McMurray tar sands and CFB Edmonton. Though the Iraq War is an earthquake rumbling on the other side of the globe, stand in the right spot in Alberta, and you can fully feel its trembles.
Critics and cynics will often point to oil as America’s real justification for invading Iraq, so perhaps it’s no surprise that one of the biggest effects the war has had on our province is in the tar sands.
To start to understand, we first have to realize why the Athabasca tar sands have sat relatively dormant for so long. The short answer is, of course, money: as any Albertan who works up north or pays attention is aware, pulling oil from the sand is an involved, lengthy process. First, the lot of it has to be strip-mined, then the raw bitumen must be separated; even with newer refining techniques, the whole process costs in the neighbourhood of $24 - $28 (all figures Canadian) per barrel. It simply isn’t economically feasible to pull it out of the ground if oil prices are lower than that, which—with a brief exception in the late 1970s and early 1980s—they routinely were. Until recently, that is.
Since 2003, world oil prices have increased more or less steadily. There are multiple reasons for that but, as Joseph Doucette, a professor of energy policy and director of the School of Energy and the Environment at the University of Alberta explains, it’s mostly an issue of supply and demand.
“If you look at what’s happening at the supply side and on the demand side, you’ll get a big piece of the answer [to why oil prices have risen],” Doucette explains. “If you think of the textbook supply and demand curves ... the supply side a bit steeper because the cost of producing it is going up, and the demand curve is steeper, too, because we don’t have many good substitutes for most of our uses of oil.”
Of course, it’s not just a matter of supply and demand, but who’s supplying and who’s demanding. Though the energy demands of Asia—particularly China and India—are steadily rising, the United States is still far and away the world’s number one energy consumer: the US uses 24 per cent of the world’s oil supply, just under the total consumption of Europe, and almost triple its nearest competitor (China, which uses nine per cent). That demand has only increased of late, due in large part to the war in Iraq: Energy Bulletin recently reported that wartime has increased oil usage by almost 40 million barrels a year, or more than 100 000 per day. Combined with regular growth, that pushed total US consumption to over 20 589 000 barrels a day in 2006, the most recent year for which full data was available, an increase of more than 828 000 barrels from 2002 levels, the last full year before the war.
At the same time, oil is becoming increasingly hard to find, especially for the Americans. Stocks of sweet, light crude are slowly dwindling, and the majority of oil of any kind tends to be located in areas that are politically unstable or hostile towards the US. And, if America did go into Iraq for the oil, it hasn’t worked out for them: frequent sabotage and the unwillingness of US companies to invest in the oil fields has left them producing under 2 million barrels a day, according to 2006 statistics, well below both their 2000 peak (2.6 million barrels) and pre-war estimates of potential (3 million barrels or so).
Enter Canada, and specifically Alberta. The tar sands represent perhaps the largest single reserve of oil in the world (Saudi Arabia actually has more, but it’s in different places): estimates say there is likely more than 174 billion barrels of recoverable oil trapped in the ground. (The US, coincidentally, did not officially recognize these reserves until 2003.) It may be hard to get out of the ground, but it is close and, most importantly, it is safe.
“People look at prices and costs, but they adjust those based on local conditions, things like political risk, risk to workers, disruptions of productions and things like that,” explains Doucette. “Even if it had the same rate of return as a place like Nigeria, for instance, Alberta is going to be, hands down, the preferred place to invest: you’d need to get a much higher rate of return to make investment worthwhile in a riskier place.”
That’s a sentiment that’s echoed by Paul Hagel, the senior communications rep for Shell Canada’s oil sands growth team. Shell is a relatively recent comer to the tar sands, having officially opened the Albian Sands in 2003, but they’re making up for lost time: last year, they announced plans for a $27 billion expansion that, pending government approval, would eventually increase their production capacity to more than 250 000 barrels a day. According to Hagel, Shell’s reasons for putting that kind of money into the Alberta ground are simple.
“Politically stable, secure, with an abundance of natural resources: that’s Canada,” he says. “It makes us a secure place to invest, and we’re here for the very long haul.”
And though the sheer amount of oil will eventually draw other suitors, for now, what doesn’t stay between our borders—and it’s worth pointing out that Canada doesn’t currently have a pipeline from the tar sands to Eastern Canada—goes to the US. According to the US Energy Information Administration, in 2006, 99 per cent of Canada’s oil exports went to America, for a total of almost 2.4 million barrels a day, more than the entirety of the Persian gulf and almost one million more than the second highest exporter, Saudi Arabia.
What’s more, those 2.4 million barrels represent a 20 per cent increase over 2002 levels, while more traditional suppliers like the Saudis and Venezuela have seen their export numbers dip. The implication is clear: ever since invading Iraq, the US has turned increasingly to Canada. And, considering almost two-thirds of Canada’s oil comes from the tar sands, to Alberta in particular: we have become, increasingly, America’s gas tank.
And that’s not about to change any time soon. Though the US government recently announced it was going to look for less carbon-intensive oils for its own purchasing needs—that would be the military and the post office—few believe such pronouncements will have any real effect. If anything, according to Doucette, the only thing that can stop, or at least slow down, the machine that’s been started is Albertans.
“If you go back to the 1970s and the two OPEC crises and the price increases that were seen then, the US said they wanted to become less dependant on imported oil: their percentage is more or less the same now as it was back then,” Doucette explains caustically. “Policy pronouncements by politicians for things like energy dependence are well and good, but it’s a lot harder to do than might be thought.
“From here ... it will be local and domestic issues that decide how the oil sands move forward,” he adds. “At some point, I think Albertans will demand our government be more proactive on managing the issues surrounding our oil sands.”
It is one of the more unfortunate ironies of the Iraq War that, even though Canada isn’t involved, our soldiers have still been touched by it.
Canada was among the first nations to go into Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the stated goals of our government at the time being to defend our national interests, ensure leadership in world affairs and to help Afghanistan rebuild—the stated goals of the US, which led the mission, were to drive out the Taliban regime that was harbouring Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Though elite, for the first part of the war our role was limited: the majority of the mission was centered around Kabul, which had been secured since the first months of the invasion.
That was to change in Jan 2006. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, Canada took a more prominent role in the southern provinces, stationed out of the southern city of Kandahar. That increase in responsibility was linked directly to decreased US troop presence in the county, which in itself was linked directly to increased US troop presence in Iraq: the four months prior to the announcement marked the highest level of sustained presence in the country until the fall of last year.
The mission in Kandahar coincides with a massive upsurge in Canadian troop fatalities. Of the 79 Canadian soldiers killed, just eight happened pre-2006; of the 21 Edmonton casualties, 17 have perished since 2006. These are lives that have been lost, at least in part, because of reduced American activity, and the attendant upswing in Canadian action.
The effect this more prominent role—and the attendant increased danger—has had on the soldiers, though, is surprisingly mixed. According to Scott Taylor, a former professional soldier who founded and has spent the last 20 years editing Esprit de Corps, a magazine devoted to the Canadian Armed Forces, the chance to get into a combat mission is almost an affirming one for a soldier.
“As some commanders have said, it’s what they’ve always been waiting for,” he explains. “That sounds crazy: people are being killed. But, finding a purpose and having a clear-cut mission—that’s what a soldier wants.
“There was a lot of confusion in the peacekeeping generation, in the early ‘90s, because nobody was clear on the mission—it changed almost daily,” he continues. “Now, it’s, ‘We’re there; we’re in Afghanistan; we’re conducting counter-insurgency operations.’ These guys are soldiers.”
That sentiment is echoed by Major Trevor Gosselin, a tank squadron commander who recently returned from a six-month tour of Afghanistan with Lord Strathcona’s Horse. He spent the ’90s on various missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and the West Sahara, and to him, Afghanistan is preferable, even if that sense of mission comes at a cost.
“Soldiers join armies, unfortunately, for a purpose that we wish wasn’t there, but we know in the world that there are things that armies need to do,” he explains. “The threat is much more significant over there, but ... it’s certainly much easier to look at the cause of Afghanistan and know what we have to do to help this failing state. In our situation in Bosnia and Kosovo, it was really hard to tell who were the real bad guys—here there’s no question. It’s much easier to tell your soldiers, ‘This is the enemy; here’s what we do to help out in Afghanistan.’”
Though the sense of mission helps a soldier, there’s no getting around the fact that many of them will have to experience the death of a comrade. That, and the other hazards of being in a war zone, have a well-documented, profound effect on young men, something we’re already beginning to see take its toll: a recent Veteran Affairs study revealed that incidents of post-traumatic stress have tripled among veterans since Canada first deployed troops to Afghanistan—and as Taylor expects, we’ve likely only seen the beginning.
“When you lose a good friend—and I’ve had that happen—it still doesn’t hit you, and you just soldier on. That’s part of the creedo: you press on,” he explains. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because the mission is still ongoing, and you can’t fall to pieces. Once they come home, that’s when things start to happen.”
Sgt Major Jeff Bamford, who served on the same tour as Gosselin, eerily echoes that sentiment. When asked how they dealt with the recent death of Trooper Michael Yuki Hayakaze, who died on Mar 2, just before the squadron’s return, Bamford responded stoically, though also revealingly.
“You have to carry on with the mission, the mission doesn’t just stop,” he explained, sternly. “Everything carries on—everything. Once you get back out to a safer area, then you can calm down, relax, take a breath, be glad you made it, sort out your buddies, sort out your soldiers and shed a few tears. That’s how we did it.”
One can only imagine what will happen as more soldiers get a chance to take a breath and reflect on what has happened. Unlike the tar sands, the trickle-down effects of Iraq on our soldiers have yet to make themselves obvious: when they do finally rear their head, though, we’re not going to like what we see.