Harper and the oil patch: Honesty is the only policy

The prime minister explains crazy policy to us

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Compare and contrast.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, today in the House of Commons:

“Frankly, Mr. Speaker, under the current circumstances of the oil and gas sector, it would be crazy, it would be crazy economic policy to do unilateral penalties on that sector. We’re clearly not going to do that,” Harper told the House as Conservative MPs roared their approval.
“In fact, nobody in the world is regulating their oil and gas sector. I’d be delighted if they did. Canada will be there with them.”

Jim Prentice, then federal minister of the environment, not quite five years ago:

“For those of you who doubt that the government of Canada lacks either the willingness or the authority to protect our national interests as a ‘clean energy superpower,’ think again,” he warned darkly. “We do and we will. And, in our efforts, we will expect and we will secure the co-operation of those private interests which are developing the oil sands. Consider it a responsibility that accompanies the right to develop these valuable Canadian resources.”

Back then, it was possible to believe the federal government would impose regulations on the oil and gas industries. The government certainly said it would, often enough. (Peter Kent in February, 2013: “We are now well into, and very close to finalizing, regulations for the oil and gas sector.”) But, as Chris Turner reminds us in his book The War on Science, Prentice quit as environment minister in November 2010, and the Harper government’s periodic attempts to demonstrate environmental virtue, even at some hypothetical cost to the resource sector, pretty much came to an end. 

Of course, it can be hard to tell where the notion of oil and gas regulations ended. Prentice himself has been sounding much like Harper since he became premier of Alberta:

“Environmental performance is important, but so, too, is our industrial competitiveness . . . I think this low-price environment is a reminder . . . that we have to be careful laying on costs, including regulatory costs, on our industry, because we need to remain competitive.”

But is even that new? From my 2010 article, linked above:

“We will only adopt a cap-and-trade regime if the United States signals that it wants to do the same. Our position on harmonization applies equally to regulation. Canada can go down either road—cap and trade or regulation—but we will go down neither road alone.”

So the paper trail on the government’s oil and gas policy is a bit of a mess. The feds will only impose regulations in concert with the Americans? Well, there are two problems with that story. First, as Bruce Cheadle points out:

An Environment Canada briefing memo revealed last month by the Globe and Mail shows that the United States, in fact, placed what were called “significant” limits on its oil and gas sector in 2012.

“For oil and gas, recent air pollution regulations are expected to result in significant greenhouse-gas reduction co-benefits, comparable to the reductions that would result from the approach being developed for this sector in Canada,” states the June 2013 memo obtained by Greenpeace under an Access to Information request.

Second, there is simply no record of a concerted Canadian effort to work with the Americans on joint regulations. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird mentions the Keystone pipeline to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in every meeting and at every phone call. There is literally no record of any public proposal from Harper to U.S. President Barack Obama to work on the joint regulations that are now, the PM says, the necessary condition of any Canadian regulations.

In this light, I note with genuine surprise that the “U.S.-Canada clean energy dialogue” that was created when Obama visited Ottawa in 2009 is actually still a thing. I also note with no surprise at all that the latest joint report, barely a month old, does not mention joint regulations on oil and gas industries anywhere in its 10 pages.

So. The feds have been promising oil and gas regulations for seven years, while periodically insisting they could produce no such regulations without U.S. co-operation. They have also refused to seek such co-operation, while refusing to follow up on helpful U.S. unilateral action. (By “helpful,” of course, I mean “action that would seem helpful if anyone felt like constraining the carbon emissions of the oil and gas sector. Like, hypothetically.”)

One more thing. If the price of oil is too low for regulations, this would be a big change from the last seven years, when the Harper government’s argument was that the price of oil was too high for regulations. There is, in the consistent messaging of this government, no time when government action to constrain the carbon emissions of the oil sands is appropriate. When the price is high, it’s too high. When it’s low, it’s too low. One can assume governments in potential export markets have noted this message, and will act accordingly.

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