Prospecting the oil sands

QBACC and ComSoc weigh in on whether Queen’s should divest from the Canadian oil sands

Daniel Myran, ArtSci ’10
Daniel Myran, ArtSci ’10
Louis Tsilivis, Comm ’10
Louis Tsilivis, Comm ’10

Daniel Myran, ArtSci ’10

On Oct. 15, AMS Assembly voted 14 to 12 to not put the following question on the fall referendum: “That Queen’s University divest the Queen’s University endowment funds from any company financing or contracting in the Albertan Oil Sands.”

Those who support the oil sands, known less formally as the tar sands, claim they create jobs, boost the economy and give beneficial returns to investors. The same was said about investing in apartheid South Africa and big tobacco companies. Where Queen’s decides to invest its money represents its collective moral approval.

Queen’s has a history of favouring short-term economic profit in the face of humanitarian issues.

During apartheid in 1987, Queen’s made a historic stand and completely withdrew its investments from any company operating in South Africa. Financing mining companies was lucrative, but in the face of pervasive human rights abuses, Queen’s demonstrated morality was more important than return on investment.

Canada has surpassed Saudi Arabia as the United States’ largest oil-supplier. This oil is coming from the Albertan tar sands—the world’s largest industrial project—and it’s incurring enormous cost to Canada’s environment and reputation.

Extracting and burning a barrel of tar sands oil releases triple the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of conventional oil and consumes three barrels of fresh water in the process.

The tar sands alone currently emit more GHGs than the majority of European countries and their emissions are expected to triple by 2015.

Developed on indigenous land without permission or compensation, the tar sands have left the region comprised of inhospitable landscapes, while cancer rates for local communities have reached hundreds of times higher than the national average.

The tar sands can’t be sustainable. Their development makes it impossible for Canada, and possibly the world, to avoid catastrophic climate change.

On June 6, Minister of the Environment Jim Prentice said no known technology will ever reduce GHG emissions from the tar sands. He said if the tar sands continue to develop, Canada won’t be able to meet international commitments to a 20 per cent reduction in GHGs by 2020.

This unreachable 2020 target is far below the 60 per cent reduction climate scientists are now saying is necessary for a chance at preventing climate change.

Developing the tar sands means an area the size of Florida will be deforested, strip-mined, drained of clean water and doused with toxins in order to meet about one per cent of global oil demand for two decades.

Oil is on the way out—we achieve nothing by seeking out the last, dirtiest drops on the planet. Queen’s students should move towards new energy sectors and new ways of thinking or be left behind.

The tar sands is a question of leadership and vision. Is Queen’s willing to take the lead in Canada, move beyond environmental degradation—and business as usual—and start solving the problems of our future?

Queen’s will strengthen its reputation by taking on the responsibility it owes its students and alumni. Addressing climate change is our generation’s duty and it starts at home by divesting from the Canadian tar sands.

Daniel Myran, ArtSci ’10, is co-director of Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change.

Louis Tsilivis, Comm ’10

The vast majority of Canadians would agree we should live in a society with clean air, clean water and pursue sensible environmental policy.

That’s why municipalities are pushing for greater public transit and people are buying fuel-efficient vehicles in droves.

That’s why Alberta and the federal government just committed $779 million to carbon-capture funding.

That’s why on Oct. 15, AMS Assembly voted to support Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change’s (QBACC) first plebiscite question to take action on climate change and focus on science-based reductions to carbon emissions.

However, the AMS rejected a second plebiscite motion from QBACC to divest from companies who invest in or have ties to the “Albertan Tar Sands.” If one considers the inevitable consequences, it’s evident QBACC’s proposal either lacked judgment or disregarded students’ best interests.

The companies that would be affected by a plebiscite on divestment include energy, gas, and mining companies, design firms, insurance companies, the five Chartered Canadian Banks and virtually every other financial institution in this country.

To allow this plebiscite would irreparably damage our university’s image to these companies, huge numbers of which directly recruit students from Queen’s. It would severely hampering recruitment prospects and risking student jobs in a bad economic climate.

It would mean threatening sponsorship dollars, since many of the affected companies sponsor events like student-run conferences and Queen’s Model Parliament—worthwhile events with educational merit.

It would alienate Queen’s alumni at these companies and tell them their line of work is shameful and disrespectful. It would “other” many supportive Queen’s alumni, whose generosity provides us with world-class resources and financial aid for struggling students.

Whether a plebiscite vote by students would go “Yes” or “No” on the divestment issue is irrelevant—the damage would be done by simply allowing the question to go on the ballot.

A divestment plebiscite would draw negative attention from the national media, tarnish the school’s reputation and devalue our students’ degrees. To demand a plebiscite on this issue was wrong of QBACC.

AMS Assembly has a responsibility to protect students and post-graduation jobs, to respect our alumni and students from Western Canada and ensure our university’s image isn’t dragged through the mud.

We have a constitutional mandate to protect students’ interests, which is why a clear majority of democratically-elected members—including all voting members from Commerce, Arts and Science and several representatives from the Engineering Society—voted to prevent this reckless question from being put to plebiscite.

The University administration would never divest from companies with ties to the oil sands in Alberta, for the painfully obvious reasons stated above. A “Yes” vote would have led to nothing. QBACC knew this too. In the spirit of divisiveness, they intended to elicit shock and strong reactions.

Their plebiscite question was 100 per cent politics, zero per cent results.

QBACC wanted to play politics. Assembly voted to defend the best interests of this school and its students. I think we made the right choice.

Louis Tsilivis, Comm ’10, is Vice-President (Internal) of the Queen’s Commerce Society.


AMS Assembly voted 18-13 to strike the following plebiscite question from the agenda Oct. 15: "That Queen’s University divest the Queen’s University endowment funds from any company financing or contracting in the Albertan Oil Sands.”

Different wording originally appeared in this article.

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