Why Prentice took on the oil sands

Jim Prentice preaches responsibility regarding the oil sands

Why Prentice took on the oil sands It wasn’t quite Daniel in the lions’ den, but it had a whiff of Nixon to China about it. Here was a senior Conservative cabinet minister putting the boots, at least rhetorically, to Alberta’s oil sands.

“It is no secret, and should be no surprise, that the general perception of the oil sands is profoundly negative,” Jim Prentice said the other day. “That is true both within Canada and internationally.” The environment minister was speaking to members of the University of Alberta Calgary schools of public policy and business. Right there in Calgary. The belly of the beast. Well, it was the Palliser Hotel, so it was the fanciest part of the belly of the beast, but still.

In his next sentence, Prentice seemed uncertain where to put either blame for the oil sands’ image or hope for its improvement. “We need to continue the positive work of industry, with investments in environmental technologies that will show the world how environmental responsibility and excellence can be taken to new levels,” he said.

But then: “Absent this kind of Canadian leadership, we will be cast as a global poster child for environmentally unsound resource development. Canadians expect and deserve more than that.”

A bit of a mixed message, then, but in the end it was Angry Jim who tipped the balance. “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.”

It was unusually strong language coming from Prentice. Indeed it may even wind up meaning something significant. “Nobody should be under the illusion that every single industry won’t be asked to do its part,” a senior government source told me. (Which means everyone should expect that every industry will be asked. These complex constructions can be tricky.) “The oil sands industry is going to have to do their fair share.”

And if anyone can ever be expected to ask the oil sands to do their fair share, it’s an Albertan Conservative prime minister with an Albertan environment minister. The Liberals tried leaning on Alberta oil for national policy ends in the 1980s and it ended badly for them. Whereas Harper would have some credibility at home on the issue.

But the question that remains unanswered because I don’t think the Conservatives know the answer yet is: fair share of what? The only reason to require significant green constraints on the oil sands, which after all contribute only five per cent of Canada’s total greenhouse emissions, is if the Harper government makes a serious effort to reduce emissions anywhere. Here, Prentice was ambiguous at best.
The government “will implement the Copenhagen accord,” he said. But he added a jumbo red-white-and-blue caveat. “We have consistently said from the outset that we must harmonize our climate change strategy with that of our greatest trade partner because of the degree of economic integration between our two countries.” So no action unless the Americans get their act together? Absolutely. “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.”

This wasn’t a warning to the oil sands so much as a heads-up: the industry’s future will be determined in Washington. Two very different outcomes are possible. Harper will not move against the oil sands, or anything else, on principle alone. If the Obama administration and Congress can’t implement a serious climate change policy, the oil sands will have a carefree future.

But if Obama and Congress do get a meaningful cap-and-trade system running, then neither will Harper spare Alberta industry on principle. There are public relations benefits in seeming to be green. Regional political opportunities, too. The Conservatives have more seats to gain in Quebec and Ontario than in Alberta.

Most importantly, Harper has never believed a Canadian prime minister can legitimately disagree with an American president on something important. He sends Prentice out to attribute this to “the degree of economic integration,” but it’s really just his personal credo. We’re different from the Americans in all sorts of ways that could conceivably affect competitiveness—tax rates, infrastructure spending, health care system design. We could have our own carbon policy, too. Harper won’t hear of it.

Well, he does show some independence. You can reach carbon targets by penalizing emissions or by investing in new technology. The Obama administration is outspending Harper’s government on renewable energy by about 14 to 1. Per capita. Which means if he does ever lower the boom on the oil sands, Harper will have to be that much more punitive. That’s the price of failing to match Obama in action while Harper hopes to match him in inaction.

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