Behind that Prentice Wikileak

Much like “Jurist”, I had to laugh at the headlines conjured up in the wake of the most interesting Wikileaks revelation so far concerning Canada. The Globe, summarizing the leaked minute of a private meeting between former Environment Minister Jim Prentice and U.S. Ambassador David Jacobson, says “[Prentice] threatened to impose new rules on oil sands”. Okayyy, but it’s not really a threat if you make it only in the presence of a third party, is it? We’ve all met fake tough guys who are full of stories about how they really told so-and-so off, but who are really just imagining what they would have said if their spine weren’t made of marmalade. Similarly, the CBC has it “Prentice was ready to curb oilsands”, mysteriously failing to add “…but he didn’t really get around to it, and then one day he just cleaned out his desk and left.”

The actual text of the cable suggests that Prentice’s underlying cynicism did not go unnoticed by its presumptive author—the Ambassador himself. Be honest, now: don’t you cringe a little at this part?

Minister Prentice was clearly making every effort to establish a connection with Ambassador Jacobson, outlining his respect for the Administration and his interest in President Obama’s “back story”, persona, and goals. …Prentice appeared keen to forge a personal relationship with Ambassador Jacobson—to the mutual benefit of both countries.

Obviously the whole point of such face-to-face meetings is to “establish personal connections”, but if your sister came back from a blind date with a report like this you’d say “Gawd, what a schmuck.” Minister Try-Too-Hard got careful about his language, however, when he and the ambassador came to grips with the actual tar-sands issue. At every turn in Jacobson’s account of the conversation, Prentice’s concern is with image, not environmental reality. Just imagine this paragraph without the bits in bold type:

During a discussion of the Ambassador’s travels, Prentice asked for his views on the oil sands. Prentice shared that he was concerned about the media focus on the sands and the possible impact on Canada‘s international reputation. He recalled that he was first concerned about oil sands coverage during a trip to Norway where the public was debating whether or not Norway should be investing public funds (Statoil) in ‘dirty oil’. As Prentice relayed it, the public sentiment in Norway shocked him and has heightened his awareness of the negative consequences to Canada‘s historically ‘green’ standing on the world stage. Calling himself “conservationist-minded”, Prentice said he would step in and regulate the sands if Canada’s image in the world gets further tarnished by negative coverage. …Prentice did say that he felt that Government of Canada’s reaction to the dirty oil label was “too slow” and failed to grasp the magnitude of the situation.

As an honest Albertan, I’ll call your attention to two other things about this paragraph:

(1) In an exchange of views on the oil sands, Prentice apparently doesn’t actually say a word about the oil sands—only the international reaction to them.

(2) “Conservationist” is a conscious alternative to “environmentalist”, not a synonym for it. Conservationists are what we had before we had environmentalists. After years of interviewing Alberta politicians and businessmen and hearing them take this line, I understand “conservationism” to denote an emphasis on the value to human beings of wilderness and biodiversity, as opposed to a worldview that says the grizzly’s needs and priorities (and the lichen’s) are indistinguishable from our own. Since this distinction is rarely discussed, it’s an easy means of equivocation: saying you’re “conservationist-minded” can easily mean you wouldn’t personally want a derrick to spoil the view at your A-frame in Kananaskis.

The punch line of the Wikileak arrives when Prentice disavows any actual intention to act on planned tar sands expansion: “In response to the Ambassador’s inquiry about a possible moratorium on further expansion in the oil sands, Prentice didn’t think it was necessary at this time and felt growth to [3-4 million barrels a day] was sustainable.” And there’s a little dénouement when Prentice again summarizes his goals—as the Environment Minister of the Dominion, mind you—solely in terms of image: “At the end of the day, Prentice wants Canada to be billed as the most environmentally-conscious energy superpower.” One wonders at the need for “billed as” to be present in that sentence.

I’m being unkind to Prentice; I don’t know that I would behave any differently in his place, and I’m certainly, as a matter of core philosophy, on the “conservationist” side of the conservationist/environmentalist divide. Moreover, he’s right that government was somewhat slow to react to the publicity crisis, though I don’t see why that should be blamed on the federal government rather than Alberta, since Alberta’s so belligerent about its responsibility for and ownership of its oil.

But Prentice has long been regarded, in the downtown-Toronto conventional wisdom, as a lone Nice Moderate who struggled to fit in with a pack of faith-crazed ideologues. Maybe people should consider the possibility that he really was, after all, a foam-jowled Calgary wolf—one who just happened to be particularly expert at wearing sheep’s clothing. The rap on this federal government, the common theme of the attacks on it, is that it doesn’t respect evidence in decision-making. Those who still see Prentice as a potential alternative leader will, I think, be precisely those who overlook his obsessive concern with “labels” and “standing” and “reputation”. Does he sound, in the cable, like a data-driven Environment Minister? Does it sound like he was much concerned with what the oil sands are doing—or not doing—to the watershed, the wildlife, the people downstream, and the climate?

I ask because if Canadian oil sands policy is going to be determined exclusively by the squealings of people who have seen ugly photographs of them but don’t otherwise know anything about them…well, the sands and the people who make a living from them are going to lose that fight. If your position is “Shut ’em down”, then an emotional, esthetics-based debate is easy for you to win. There is a policy case, weak or strong, to be made on behalf of the tar sands; it would be a lot harder to argue that they make the world prettier or the landscape pleasanter or the animals happier.

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