Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations

12 Min Read

October 31, 2023

Daniel Macfarlane is an Associate Professor at Western Michigan University's School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability and a Senior Fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto. His latest work, Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations, is available on from McGill-Queen's University Press.

The United States now imports more than half of its oil from Canada, while almost half of Canada’s natural gas production is currently sent to the United States. Furthermore, Canada and the U.S. have the most integrated electricity market in the world, with more than three dozen sizeable transmission interconnections across the border.

How many Americans are aware of the intensity of this energy relationship? It is easy to find books on the history of U.S. oil relations with virtually every hydrocarbon-exporting nation – except for Canada. Canadian scholars, for their part, have written quite a bit on the Canada-U.S. hydrocarbon trade. But that literature mostly focuses on the period since the ramping up of the Alberta tar sands in the twenty-first century.

What if we widened the lens temporally and included other energy forms beyond just fossil fuels? It becomes clear that energy and environmental issues have always been a central, but mostly unexamined, part of Canada-U.S. relations. Such is the main conceit of my new book, Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations. In this book, I cover any form of bilateral relations dealing with natural resources, whether it involves exploitation or protection.

Starting with Canadian Confederation, I show that Canada’s earliest independent diplomatic forays focused on topics such as fish and wildlife conservation, while hydropower developments on border waters quickly became and remained a staple of bilateral relations. Environmental statecraft in the half-century after Canadian Confederation was central to a Canadian-British-American “cleaning of the slate” and creating an amicable continental relationship.

Those diplomatic efforts also demonstrated that Canada was capable of independently handling its foreign policy. The range of environmental issues addressed by diplomacy only widened during the interwar period, highlighted by the likes of the Trail Smelter Dispute, various fisheries accords, and developments in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, then exploded after the Second World War, facilitating rapid Canada-U.S. integration and prosperity.

In Natural Allies, I delve into the history of several different types of energy diplomacy, chiefly hydroelectricity, fossil fuels, and uranium. Long before Canada became a petro state, it was a “hydro state” since hydroelectricity was so disproportionately important to the political imaginary and political economy of the nation. Given that many of the earliest large hydropower developments, going back to the late nineteenth century, were situated along border waters shared with the United States, a distinct form of North American energy diplomacy emerged. Hydropower and fossil fuels together fostered a political economy of abundance, an expectation of growth that manifested itself in domestic politics and external relations.

Hydropower offered a homegrown source of energy that reduced Canada’s reliance on American coal. Indeed, until the second half of the twentieth century, the flow of fossil fuel exports, including vast amounts of coal, was largely northward. Oil and gas started to flow south across the border after the Second World War. In one of the book’s chapters, I discuss how Canada and the United States coordinated the fossil fuel trade in the early Cold War through a series of ad hoc decisions and preferences rather than permanent agreements. Canada’s experience with exporting electricity profoundly conditioned its approach to exporting fossil fuels.

Major Canada-US Environmental and Energy Diplomacy Issues and Agreements since 1900. In this chronological table, the left column indicates the date and/or time. range, and the right column lists the issue or agreement.

More entrenched hydrocarbon exchange patterns would not become the norm until later in the twentieth century, including the 1977 Pipeline Transit Treaty (now in the news because of Enbridge’s Line 5 dispute), various transborder pipelines, and free trade agreements (as well as early climate change discussions). Canadian uranium, used for nuclear power plants, also became the subject of bilateral diplomacy and exports, along with many other minerals.

The title of the book, Natural Allies, reflects the thesis that energy, resources, landscapes, and geography account for the relatively harmonious nature of the Canada-U.S. relationship. Frequent international negotiations about environmental issues fostered integration and provided ballast during times of stormy diplomacy; certain resource negotiations, such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, Columbia River Treaty, and acid rain, became punctuated controversies that dominated government-to-government relations. Underpinning my approach is the assumption that nature is a powerful historical actor with its own forms of agency; the materiality and characteristics of resources and energy forms have profound implications for human politics.

The history of bilateral ecopolitics helps explain why, despite the power imbalance, Canada often made out so well in direct negotiations with the United States government. This history also tells us a great deal about the American view of empire, formal and informal, in relation to Canada. In those Canadian energy and resource sectors where the U.S. came to dominate, Canadian policymakers and elites generally were not coerced or forced into it; rather, on many occasions, they initiated or invited American involvement, opting for increased affluence and security even if it meant reduced sovereignty.

Natural Allies shows that the Canada-U.S. energy/environmental relationship is historically the most consequential in the world. No other bilateral relationship has produced as many noteworthy agreements or precedents (more than fifty) and made as many signal contributions to the evolution of international environmental law and transboundary governance. Canada and the United States have likely exchanged more resources than any other two adjoining nations.

But the negative consequences of this bilateral relationship and the voracious consumption of resources it spawned are equally significant. Canada and the United States have probably modified their shared ecosystems on a larger spatial scale than any two other countries in the world and are arguably more responsible, per capita, for our current planetary ecological crises.

As Natural Allies demonstrates, we cannot properly understand the history of Canada-U.S. relations without foregrounding environmental and energy factors. Furthermore, we cannot properly comprehend our contemporary ecological predicaments without understanding this history. Natural Allies suggests that the concept of national security should be widened to include “natural security”: a commitment to public, national, and international safety from environmental harms, especially those caused by human actions.

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