It turns out we have yet to reach peak oil, after all. And in this topsy-turvy world where the U.S. now produces more oil than it needs to import, it may be Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s power that has peaked instead. Why? Because in his quest to build an “energy superpower,” Harper tied his political fate to the price of Canadian crude.

Harper won his long-coveted majority in May 2011, with a simple promise to energy producers: he would do whatever necessary to get their wares to market. Higher export prices would unlock deeper, more marginal reserves. And for the Tories, the resulting spurt of growth could pay for tax cuts, helping to paper over voters’ concerns about environmental tradeoffs. But Harper’s plan, like a runaway oil train, is going off the rails.

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Stephen Harper arrives at the Al Husseinieh Palace in Jordan. Via . All rights reserved.

This is a story about maple syrup, a patriotic and delicious liquid that everyone loves.

Maple Syrup Lines, Wyebridge, Ontario

Photo by nouspique, via Flickr

Let me take you to a distant, dystopian future, where most of Canada’s maple syrup reserves are locked away in big, gnarly old half-rotten trees. I know, it’s a horrible situation to contemplate.

Now imagine: Just to get the syrup out, lumberjacks have to hack a big scar in the side of the trunk with their axes. Then the burly, flannel-clad men scrape out the sap, along with a bunch of wood chips and grubs and bark.

They boil it and strain it and boil it down, and eventually what goes in the bottle is a dark, thick, sticky substance, scarcely recognizable as maple syrup. People in Canada won’t even eat it. Most of the country imports Aunt Jemima’s instead.

Luckily, American waffle-eaters don’t know the difference. They drained their maple trees long ago and have been trying to use stuff like corn syrup, out of pure desperation. They’re grateful for our genuine Canadian maple syrup, and we’re proud to sell it to them.

Then one day some ingenious American syrup entrepreneur drills a bunch of holes in the trunk of a local maple tree. The grizzled old syrup prospectors with their wooden buckets and hand-tapped spigots all laugh at her, because they know the tree has run out of sap. Then she stuffs dynamite in the holes and blows up the tree.

Lo and behold, there’s sap a-raining down on the snow. Light, sweet, clear sap, easy to scoop up and boil down into top-quality syrup. Sure, the tree is in rough shape, but the amount of sap it releases is phenomenal. The dynamite method spreads and soon the syrup market in the USA is flooded.

What happens to our Canadian syrup exports? Well, the price drops. Once American waffle-eaters taste the difference, they want the light, sweet, made-in-the-USA syrup. Not the dark, sour, Canadian syrup.

Things look bad for the Canadian lumberjacks. They know if they can’t get at least $8 a can for their syrup, it’s not even worth their time to scrape out the sap. But who will pay those kinds of prices?

One day Canada’s Emperor-for-life gets an idea. “You know who’s eating a lot of pancakes these days? The Chinese! Those poor suckers won’t even know the difference,” he says, “and there’s a billion of them. We need to build a syrup pipeline to the Pacific, pronto.”

The Emperor’s advisors say: “Your Excellency, this Chinese pancake craze won’t last forever. Shouldn’t we get ready for the next breakfast-food trend?”

And: “Your Grace, those old maple trees won’t last forever. Shouldn’t we spend some effort developing other kinds of sweetener?”

And: “Your Worship, in the meantime how about using some of the syrup here at home, so we don’t have to import Aunt Jemima’s?”

And: “Dude, all this pancake-eating is creating a global epidemic of diabetes. We’re going to lose customers if we don’t get out of the syrup business soon.”

But the Emperor-for-life is having none of it. “They’ll buy our syrup, at the prices I tell them to,” he shouts. “Our syrup is the best in the world! We’ll put labels on the cans that say Ethical Maple Syrup, because Canada is a wonderful place, full of human rights!”

His advisors say: “Mr. Emperor, human rights are kind of a foreign concept in China. We’re pretty sure Chinese pancake eaters mostly just want low prices. If the USA starts exporting its surplus syrup, we’re not sure we can compete.”

The Emperor shouts “We’re a global syrup superpower! If you dare suggest otherwise, I’ll throw you in the dungeon with the other traitors.” His advisors slink out of the throne room.

“Well, I guess we’d better build that pipeline,” one says, kicking the snow on the palace lawn.

“Yup,” says another.

“Hey guys,” says a third, “did anyone else find it weird that he was naked?”


(This is definitely a made-up story about maple syrup. But if you happen to be interested in oil prices and pipeline economics, I’ve got an article here that you might find interesting.)