In the Nov. 12 New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert published an article (unavailable online; abstract here) typical of her style: spare, restrained, vivid, cogent, devastating. The topic was Canada’s tar sands, now being profitably exploited by the major oil companies: Shell, Conoco-Phillips, Chevron, and ExxonMobil.

And they’ve only just begun. According to Kolbert, the oil majors intend to invest more than $75 billion over the next five years in building infrastructure to transform a little bit of Canada into fuel for our cars.

"Thanks in large part to what’s happening in the tar sands," Kolbert reports, "Canada has become America’s No. 1 source of imported oil; the country supplies the United States with more petroleum than all of the nations of the Persian Gulf combined."

Petroleum derived from tar sands emits 15 to 40 percent more total greenhouse gas per barrel than the conventional stuff. To show what extracting it does to landscapes, the New Yorker ran an aerial photo of a used-up area in Alberta, home to the tar sands. It’s as if some malign giant tried mightily to skin a vast swath of the earth with a dull blade.

Toward the end of the article, Kolbert delivers what I found to be a chilling denouement. She quotes a Canadian politician: “There is no environmental minister on earth who can stop the oil from coming out of the sand, because the money is too big.”

This, mind you, in a country that signed the Kyoto pact.

I don’t understand how a Kyoto-signing nation can allow such insanity. And if Kyoto can’t stop such a clear environmental calamity, what good is it? Maybe someone with more knowledge of global climate politics can solve these riddles for me.

But the quote reminds me of something I heard recently from a political-ecology scholar who studies Brazil. We were talking about the bad business around biofuels now underway in that nation: the ripping into rainforest and savanna, often on indigenous lands, to plant soy for industrial biodiesel production; the near-slave working conditions that prevail in the nation’s booming — and expanding — monocropped sugarcane fields.

I asked him how President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, the former labor organizer and darling of the left, could tolerate such chicanery in the name of environmentalism.

"Lula doesn’t understand agriculture, really," the professor told me." And besides, no politician could stop the biofuel push. There’s just too much money at stake."