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Tar sands CEO convicted of ecocide in prestigious UK test trial. Is Harper next?

What started as a miserable, terrible, horrible month for “ethical [sic] oil”, multi-nationals turned downright menacing on September 30 in a London courtroom.

The UK Supreme Court was the setting for a test trial featuring real judges, top lawyers and a by-the-book public jury. A fictional tar sands CEO, backed by a legal team, defended himself against a proposed UN law punishing “ecocide.” This high-profile exercise was the first real-world test of who would face jail time should ecocide be added to genocidecrimes against humanitycrimes of aggression and war crimes as the fifth UN crime against peace. Quite the list, eh?

As the jury filtered back in, the question hovering in the air was whether the people now leading the push to tear open Canadian boreal forests and unleash the gigantic “carbon bomb” of the tar sands would be found guilty of ecocide? Would their future corner office come with bars?  

As the Guardian newspaper reports:

Real lawyers, judges and a public jury found the CEOs of fictional fossil fuel companies guilty … as a result of their company's extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada.

Polly Higgins, the driving force behind the trial and who is working to have ecocide join genocide and three other crimes against peace in the UN, said: "For me the trial was a moment of truth. No longer is it acceptable to pursue profit without consequence. … Surely it is now the time to prosecute the true destroyers of our world."

She added: "I'm not keen to see lots of [people] in the dock. What I want to see is people making responsible decisions… [in which] the ethical imperative trumps the economic imperative"

Doesn’t sound like the “ethical oil” branding is working too well across the pond. Note to tar sand CEOs: you might want to double down on the marketing and lobbying budget, pronto.

Gettting 86’d

Just how likely is it that “ecocide” will be added as a UN crime? The Guardian article continues:

…ecocide could become an international crime by amendment of the [International Criminal Court] ICC's Statute of Rome, which would need 86 nations to back it. Are there 86 states backing the ICC who feel climate change, the crisis in the oceans and other environmental problems are trashing their "peaceful enjoyment" of the Earth's bounty? I wouldn't be surprised if there were.

In an interesting coincidence, the climate-destabilizing pollution coming out of the Alberta tar sands is now more than from the economies of -- you guessed it -- 86 nations. Combined.  Here they are:

Amazingly, being more climate damaging than 86 nations just isn’t enough for tar sand CEOs. They want even more. Lots more. Much faster.

As the inset chart above shows, they are pulling out all the stops to try to“more than double” tar sands annual climate pollution in just the next ten years. Heck, the government of Alberta even brags about it. And well they should. It takes a lot of moxie to ramp up climate pollution at that scale – technically, financially, ethically, legally and socially. Oh, and add “staying out of jail” to that list.

At the level they are gunning for  – 3.2 million barrels a day – the tar sands will produce 600 million tonnes of carbon pollution a year by 2019. That is 18 tonnes of CO2 a year per Canadian. Or 166 tonnes a year per Albertan. Talk about a world record climate obesity problem. Wow. Ick. Sounds like it might be time to stop the “ethical binging”.  

But like an alcoholic reaching for a jug of rock gut, the Big Tar CEOs have no intention of stopping there. They are shooting for 700 million tonnes of climate pollution just six years later...and over a billion tonnes of climate destabilzing emission by 2035. Must. Have. More.

In a world that is quickly realizing that Big Misery comes from Big Carbon you would think the tar sands “carbon bombers” would be a tad less reckless, aggressive and extreme in their undertakings. Seriously, when just a few individuals are directly responsible for deciding to create and market a billion tonnes of climate pollution per year, I’d say there are some heavy liability issues for them if that pollution causes problems.

But for now those few CEOs have decided it is pedal to the metal, come hell or high water. Which leaves us with the question of just how much more hell and high water will it take before 86 nations to vote for protection from ecocide?

A miserable, terrible, horrible month

If the last month is anything to go by, it won’t be very long.

  • European ban
    Alberta tar sands took another major international hit as “too dirty to burn” when the European Commission gave a critical  thumbs up in support of Europe’s policy to ban tar sand oil from their continent. Their science shows our tar sands causing 22 per cent more climate damage per litre than conventional oil. Recent polling shows Europeans becoming increasingly concerned about our destabilized climate. More citizens feel threatened by climate pollution than the financial crisis, with 20 per cent ranking the climate threat as their single biggest concern.
  • Game over. We all lose.
    The top climate scientist in the US, James Hansen of NASA, says that fully exploiting the tar sands means “game over” for our climate and that any government that allows infrastructure to be built to expand tar sands pollution “either they don't ‘get it’ or they simply do not care about the future of young people.” Note to CEOs: I don’t think you will want climate scientists for witnesses.
  • “Catastrophic economic costs”
    The Canadian government’s own National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, released a first of its kind study, “Paying the Price”, that says Canadians risk  “catastrophic economic costs” if global temperatures rise more than 2C…something climate scientists say is all but certain if tar sands are fully exploited as the Big Tar CEOs are pushing for. Did they say “catastrophic”?
  • Insurance companies won’t pay
    The Virginia Supreme Court recently ruled that an insurance company was not obligated to pay either the legal costs or damage awards for an insured client corporation that was being sued for massive climate pollution. Turns out that in Virginia at least, emitting climate pollution is not an “accident.” No “oops” defence. Oops. Does it remind you of the early days of tobacco litigation? Instead fossil foolish shareholders will have to pay out of their own profits for any and all climate law suits. Not that anyone would ever want to sue the tar sands companies for damages…from ecocide, say. I’m sure the awards will be small. Like with the tobacco companies. Only more so.
  • Hundreds arrested
    Hundreds of people have been arrested in both the USA and Canada protesting the expansion of tar sands pollution.  Organizer, Bill McKibben,told the Guardian:

“This summer, we had 1,200 people from all 50 states. They weren't radicals in any sense. Not in the sense that oil companies are radicals, whereby they are altering the composition of the atmosphere, just about the most radical action you can imagine.”

One 86-year-old arrestee wore a sign saying “World War II Vet, Handle With Care”.

  • “Disjointed, confused”
    The Canadian government’s own commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development revealed that Stephen Harper’s government’s climate change plans are “disjointed, confused, non transparent” and that their environmental monitoring of the tar sands is deficient and missing.
  • Caught hiding the dirt
    Emails released under an access to information request shows that Stephen Harper’s Environment Canada intentionally left tar sands statistics out of its required annual climate pollution report. Maybe that is because the stats showed climate pollution from our tar sands has tripled since 1990. Even more damaging, the missing data revealed that our tar sands were no longer reducing emissions per barrel. When one of the few remaining tar sands marketing points is that they are getting “cleaner” per barrel, it is a nasty blow for the government to say differently. So the Harper government hid it.
  • Nobel Peace Prize winners say “halt”
    The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu along with seven other Nobel Peace Prize winners recently called on our Prime Minister “to use your power to halt the expansion of the tar sands. Further exploitation of the tar sands will … make turning the clock back on climate change impossible.” They specifically said that curbing climate pollution is a “profoundly moral decision, one that deserves to be placed alongside any other major struggle in human history.”  
  • US tar sand pipeline protests won’t go away
    Tar sand pollution opponents call our “ethical oil” the biggest “carbon bomb” on the continent. What’s up with that? They are now shadowing President Obama, staging protests at every single public appearance he’s made since Labour Day weekend to get him to say no to Keystone XL. Major media, like the New York Times, have come out against the controversial tar sands pipeline. More than 20 US lawmakers have called the review process tainted by conflicts of interest and want it re-done. Even in the conservative red-state of Nebraska, the wildly popular college football team shut down tar sands ads in their stadium after half the stadium stood and booed them.  Ouch.

With a product as dirty, dangerous and metastasizing as the tar sands – and with the laws of physics running against them -- the CEOs responsible for cranking open the “ethical pollution” spigots just might find themselves eligible for special retirement status after all.

But what about our politicians, like Stephen Harper and Ed Stelmach?

What about Stephen Harper?

Corporate CEOs were the subject of the ecocide test trial in the UK. But traditionally politicians have often been the ones haunted, hunted or hauled into the ICC dock.

Take Dick Cheney and George Bush. Ex-White House insider, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, says Cheney "fears being tried as a war criminal." And for goodreason. Amnesty International calls for the arrest of former US President G. W. Bush whenever he lands in a nation that is a member of the International Criminal Court. Like, say…Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been leading Canada’s government for over five years now. The Harper government has total control over how much climate pollution wafts out of the Alberta tar sands operations. Air pollution is a federal jurisdiction. Everyone agrees on that, even the polluters.

The rapid growth of tar sands climate pollution under Stephen Harper’s watch is the primary reason Canada is failing to meet our Kyoto commitment, or our much weaker Harper commitment #1, or our even weaker Harper do-over commitment #2 (aka Copenhagen Accord pledge). Big Stephen has all the power he needs to slow and reverse our Big Tar climate pollution. He could do something about it.

He just hasn’t.

UVic Nobel laureate and world famous climate scientist, Andrew Weaver, recently summed up our federal government’s climate policies: “This will be quick. There aren’t any.”

Somehow, I don’t think the evidence phase of the trial would take very long.

Premier suspects?

The physical tar sands resources – those gargantuan landscapes of ancient carbon -- are totally under the control of the province of Alberta. According to the Government of Alberta: 

“The oil sands mineral rights, in approximately 97 per cent of Alberta's oil sands area, are owned by the Crown and managed by the Alberta Department of Energy. The remaining 3 per cent of the oil sands mineral rights in the province are held by the Federal Government”

It is the Alberta provincial government that decides exactly how much carbon pollution can be dug up in the first place. Future prosecutors could quickly add up the carbon pollution leased for vaporization by Premiers Ralph Klein (1992-2006) or Ed Stelmach (2006 – 2011). Alberta’s new Premier, Alison Redford, is getting a late start but could quickly pass the other two up in potential culpability given the huge push to pollute going on there right now.

The Alberta government not only decides how much gets dug up, they also decide how much pollution pricing to levy on each tonne of carbon extracted from the Crown’s resources. Right now that pollution pricing is running at zero dollars a tonne. Probably not high enough to mitigate very much of the harm being caused by it.

A carbon pollution price on extracted Crown carbon could help slow the increase in Alberta sanctioned climate pollution. It could also provide many billions of dollars a year to help Albertans build a safe and sustainable economy instead. But let the record show that neither Premier Klein nor Premier Stelmach even tried. They could have. But they didn’t. Just saying.

Now it is Premier Redford’s turn to roll the dice. My advice is that if she is going to follow the “enable massive climate damage without doing anything to mitigate it” strategy of her predecessors that she should consider lawyering up.

Hand them over

So will it be just CEOs? Or will politicians also be held liable? Or maybe the distinction is moot as they seem to morphing to a hybrid species:

A current viral internet meme is whether politicians should have to wear the logos of the corporations that fund them. This extremely popular example is from

 Regardless of who gets indicted, Canada like the UK is one of the 118 nations of the International Criminal Court. This obligates our nation to co-operate with the court, including surrendering suspects.

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