Tzeporah Berman, the high-profile Vancouver environmentalist, on Friday lauded the oil-sector provisions of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's COVID-19 bailout package as a sensible way to begin winding down the Canadian fossil fuel industry.
"This bailout announcement is a major turning point for oil and gas politics in Canada," Berman said in a news release published by Stand.Earth, the former ForestEthics environmental organization for which she is international program director.
"Supporting workers, addressing climate change, and cleaning up orphan wells are all measures that align with global targets to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050," she said. "The end of business as usual and winding down the oil and gas industry are a hard, but necessary part of achieving these targets."
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his United Conservative Party government seem to be praising it too. Talk about strange bedfellows!
One wonders how long it will be before Kenney and the UCP, who constantly caricatured Berman as the enemy of all things Albertan in their successful campaign to drive the NDP from office last year, will also be saying the same thing about the prime minister's objectives, only without the tone of approval?
Not long, probably. After years of ginning up conspiracy theories about how anything Trudeau and his Liberal government do is designed to destroy Alberta's energy industry, it just wouldn't be like the UCP not to use the stick Berman just handed them to beat the PM.
I bet they'll even quote Berman in a social media meme!
For the moment, though, the UCP is trying to take a more nuanced line on the Trudeau bailout -- to wit, that here in Alberta we're oh-so-grateful for the cash, but doesn't the prime minister understand that we need more, right now?
"Yesterday's federal announcement of funds to help clean up orphaned and abandoned wells is appreciated and will put thousands of people back to work," Energy Minister Sonya Savage tweeted Friday. "But more will be needed for liquidity to bridge our energy sector to the other side of this unprecedented financial meltdown." (After which, she presumably meant, it should return to business as usual.)
Even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which nowadays functions more or less as the oilfield propaganda arm of the UCP and Conservative Party of Canada, appeared to have adopted this double-barrelled strategy.
At the end of March, CAPP president Tim McMillan sent a long letter to federal Environment Minister Seamus O'Regan using COVID-19 as an excuse to demand Ottawa dump the carbon tax, stop monitoring pollution and quit enforcing environmental laws and regulations.
On Friday, though, he too had qualified praise, mildly saying he "recognizes the Government of Canada's support for the oil and natural gas industry, and appreciates the initiatives."
The Calgary Herald, fearless champion of whatever the oilpatch wants, described the bailout as "one course in a long-awaited meal. It whets the appetite, but it isn't enough." This was widely distributed on social media and elsewhere by the usual UCP touts.
Well, nuance isn't something that comes naturally to the UCP or the oilpatch, so if this all seems half-hearted and unpersuasive, presumably they'll all be more comfortable when they switch back to a full-throated attack.
In the meantime, UCP supporters must be feeling a certain amount of discomfort at finding themselves praising the same federal policy as Berman, whom they attacked relentlessly when she served on an NDP advisory committee. After all, this is the woman the UCP even set up an inquiry to go after, and then chickened out of calling her as a witness.
Personally, I think Berman's theory that the prime minister is planning for the end of the oil industry is about as likely as the UCP's theory he's plotting to destroy it. Which is to say, not very likely in either case.
In the present parlous situation, many observers of Trudeau's bailout are left with the queasy feeling that while it may have been the best he could do politically, Alberta's oil industry has just wriggled off the hook of being held responsible for the cost of decades of environmental damage.
Certainly, the bailout's socialization of orphan well cleanup suggests the oft repeated claim the industry is responsible for cleaning up its own messes was just a convenient fairy tale to pacify the rubes.
"Providing support to cleaning up orphaned wells is far preferable to giving handouts to the oil industry, and consistent with what science and sound economic planning would suggest," said Julia Levin of Enviromental Defence on Friday.
However, she added, "it is crucial that these funds be tied to conditions that ensure the problems of wells becoming orphaned are fixed permanently, and that Alberta puts in place a polluter-pays program so the public is not left with these liabilities in the future."
"If these funds are not repaid by industry once the cleanup work is done, today's announcement will become another public subsidy to oil and gas, and undermine the crucial principle that polluters are responsible for cleaning up their mess," agreed Regan Boychuk of the Alberta Liabilities Disclosure Project in a release the same day.
Speaking of prime ministers, readers will remember how long-time Red Tory strategist Dalton Camp, that friend and foe of John Diefenbaker, quipped that Jean Chrétien looked like the driver of a getaway car. Premier Kenney doesn't look much like a getaway car driver, but it seems his role is much the same -- ensuring the oil industry gets safely out of town with its loot intact.
If Prime Minister Trudeau is bold enough to actually attach some strings to the bailout money, you can count on it the UCP will go right back to screaming at him.
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
Image: David J. Climenhaga
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