Premiers prioritize pipelines over climate change in recent summit

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Photo: flickr/ Danielle Scott

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The very worst was feared well before the Canadian Energy Strategy summit even kicked off.

On the Monday July 13, prior to the premiers meeting in St John's, The Globe and Mail reporter Adrian Morrow published details about the then-confidential document that would guide proceedings -- the draft featured lots of talk about pipelines and plenty of vagaries about climate change.

On Friday (the second and final day of the negotiations), Morrow tweeted: "Final version of the Canadian Energy Strategy is weaker on climate change than the draft I saw." The commitment to reducing emissions by an "absolute" amount -- as opposed to by per-capita intensity -- was scrapped. The plan was essentially gutted.

"The premiers had a real chance to set Canada on a clean energy path," says Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Canada. "I feel like they really failed. Instead of providing clear direction that we need to start transitioning to renewables, they went with an 'anything goes' approach that's not going to get Canada where it needs to be."

The concept of an all-province strategy was introduced by former Alberta premier Alison Redford in 2012 in attempt to offload the province's copious quantities of bitumen; the Keystone XL pipeline was under fire and the federal government was refusing to compromise on its all-or-nothing approach to energy exports.

Last week's two-day meeting was intended to get premiers on the same page. Unfortunately, almost every province had a distinct priority, with Ontario and Quebec pushing for greater environmental regulations while Saskatchewan (and to a lesser degree, Alberta) emphasized rapidly expanded oil production. 

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall stuck to his guns on the latter point, publicly sparring with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley after the NDP leader accused him of "showboating." Given the two prairie provinces are close allies in the push for market access for oil, it can be safely assumed that disagreements were far more aggressive behind the scenes (especially from provinces the proposed Energy East pipeline will cross on its path to New Brunswick).

But such back-and-forth should have been expected says Clean Energy Canada policy director Dan Woynillowicz, noting the country's geographic size and diverse economic considerations inevitably led to disagreements.

"I think it's pretty challenging to end up with a consensus document without having a certain amount of watering down," Woynillowicz says. "That said, I think it's also a reflection of the scope being so broad. Energy is an incredibly broad category. Perhaps there could have been more progress on specific areas if it was approached as a series of specific strategies that maybe bundled together could form a Canadian Energy Strategy." 

The federal government failed to send a representative to the meeting. Dale Marshall, national energy program manager for Environmental Defence, says the federal government has been absent on the file for a long time despite the urgent need for national leadership (efforts to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy and economic diversification can be somewhat accomplished at the provincial level but are far more effective if mandated from Ottawa).

Andrew Coyne of the National Post pointed out that provinces actually have very little say over issues such as inter-provincial pipelines and effective climate change strategies. However, Coyne noted the document's chapter on climate change housed some potential for teaming up but the group dropped the ball.

Sadly, the whole situation became far more timely on Thursday July 16, the first day of the meetings.

First, there was the enormous Nexen pipeline spill in Alberta. Pipeline breaches are fairly rare but they make quite the mark: over 31,000 barrels of bitumen mixture seeped over 16,000 square meters of traditional First Nations land. Such news broke on the same day a rogue ecologist denounced so-called reclaimed land as a farce; ecologist Kevin Timoney stated: "it is probably unrealistic to expect that a healthy wetland could be created from essentially contaminated material."

Environmental Defence's Marshall suggests that such problems are symptoms of a highly overstimulated and toxic industry.

"It makes up a relatively modest size of Canadian economy but is overwhelmingly responsible for Canada not meeting its climate targets," he says. "If you were to do a cost-benefit analysis of tar sands development and whether more is needed, the conclusion you'd come to if you looked at the actual numbers is we'd do much better at diversifying our energy economy."

Woynillowicz warns that Canada shouldn't expect renewables to replace revenue from the tar sands; instead, he gives the example of a manufacturing company that operates with entirely renewable energy having a leg-up over competitors. Other jurisdictions -- Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, even China -- can offer up examples of innovation, he says.

In the end, Canada's reputation on the emissions front will come down to firm commitments that translate into tangible policy outcomes. This round of negotiations didn't cut it. But there's always hope.

"I don't think the Canadian Energy Strategy is done in terms of its actual implementation and commitments," Hudema concludes. "There's room for negotiation and movement there. Once the premiers, especially from Quebec and Ontario, start hearing from the jurisdictions that have really been pushing for action on climate change, we'll see more progressive positions start to emerge."

 

James Wilt is a freelance writer in Calgary. He's previously worked as staff writer for Fast Forward Weekly, and has recently contributed to VICE Canada, DeSmog Canada and Alberta Venture.

Photo: flickr/ Danielle Scott

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