Monday, January 9, 2012

It’s Official: The Harper Regime has Declared War on the Environment

Earlier today, Federal Natural Resources Ministers Joe Oliver released an open letter to Canadians through the Globe & Mail (“An open letter from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver”, January 9, 2012) regarding the proposed Enbridge Northern Gate Pipeline. In his letter, Oliver directly equates those involved in environmental causes as being “radicals”. Needless to say, Oliver’s letter in the G&M, and comments made by Stephen Harper on Friday of last week about environmentalists funded by “foreign money” hijacking the Canadian Environmental Assessment process for the Northern Gate Pipeline have created a bit of a media firestorm.

Up until recently, the primary controversies around the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) processes have had to do with the anticipated timing for wrapping up the review. With over 4,000 public delegates expected to speak on the proposed pipeline, which will see tar sands bitumen flow from Edmonton, Alberta, to Kitimat, British Columbia, those involved with the Environmental Assessment (EA) have indicated that the process likely won’t come to a conclusion until late 2013. This late date for a decision hasn’t sat well with Stephen Harper and his Conservative government, which had previously hinted its concerns to EA administrators.

However, with these lastest remarks about “foreign interference” and by equating Canadians who are concerned about our environment with “radicals”, it seems that the phony war which the Conservatives have been fighting against the environment has finally become official, with these comments intended to separate Canadians into two camps: one which is in favour of runaway development and exploitation of the tar sands, trade and job creation; and other which is occupied by ideologically-motivated radicals and extremists on the take from foreign governments bent on destroying Canada’s oil industry and impoverishing Canadians.

The Politicization of the Environment

Let’s take a closer look at what’s been going on with Northern Gateway. First of all, the CEAA process is not a political process. While the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is an Act of parliament, it sets out a process which is followed by an appointed hearing body, free of political interference. I was originally concerned about the potential for political interference with the Northern Gate EA process when I first heard Harper and other cabinet Ministers complain about timing. Normally, these processes take as long as they need to in order to facilitate true public discussion and the review of technical documents. While timelines are built into the process, they are often flexible enough to accommodate the specific complexities of any matter under review.

The fact is, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline will cross through a number of jurisdictions, including two provinces, federal lands, and lands claimed by a number of First Nations. It will traverse forests and rivers where vibrant wildlife and fisheries exist. And, when bitumen arrives at Kitimat, it will be loaded onto ocean-going tankers, bound for Asia or elsewhere. These tankers must traverse the narrow confines of B.C.’s rugged coast, long known as a graveyard for ships, due to its shallow waters and frequent bad weather (including fog).

Simply put, the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal is about as complicated as a proposal subject to the CEAA can get, both from a jurisdictional and an implementation point of view. And that’s not even mentioning the significant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions which processing some of the world’s dirtiest oil will add to the atmosphere. In large part, it’s those emissions which have captured the attention of the rest of the world, and which has led to Harper declaration of war.

All About Climate Change

Canada has become an environmental laggard under successive Liberal and Conservative governments which have continually put the interests of the oil industries ahead of Canadians, and quite frankly, ahead of the rest of the world. Although Canada ratified the Kyoto Treaty with a promise to reduce our emissions, our federal government balked at playing a leading role as facilitator to take up the Kyoto challenge. Instead, the federal government left it up to the Provinces to tackle reducing emissions, with my home province of Ontario carrying out the bulk of that work by promising to close coal-fired generating plants.

Of course, Ontario’s contribution to reducing emissions has likely been more significant that the provincial government would like to admit. Indeed, due to an oil-inspired rising Canadian dollar, hundreds of thousands of well-paying manufacturing jobs have left the province. Matt Price in the Huffington Post refers to upwards of 600,000 jobs being lost, mostly in Ontario, as manufacturing companies have found that their exports simply can no longer compete in a global market with a sky-high Canadian dollar (“Canadian Jobs Lost to the Tar Sands”, The Huffington Post, January 5 2012).

And make no mistake, the rising Canadian dollar has had everything to do with increasing the capacity for oil production in Alberta, which has been a national priority of both Liberal and Conservative governments. Canada has done more than simply not acting to rein-in greenhouse gas emissions: we have made increasing our emissions a national policy to be celebrated. And now, under the Harper regime, Canada has upped the ante even further.

Before Christmas, to Canada’s international shame, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada would be withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord. This announcement came hot on the heels of the United Nations conference on climate change, held in Durban, where it appears that Canadian government delegates negotiated for a new Kyoto commitment period in bad faith, negotiating while knowing that the government was getting ready to withdraw from the treaty. This kind of overt sabotage at Durban wasn’t a new role for Canada, however.

Indeed, since Stephen Harper came to power in 2006, Canadian negotiators have been fiercely travelling throughout the world trying to sabotage international and bi-national agreements on climate change, including the recent challenge to the European Union’s initiative to tax petroleum produced from dirty oil at a higher rate than petroleum produced from conventional sources, due to the higher carbon emissions associated with dirty oil.

After U.S. President Barack Obama made the decision to stall the proposed Keystone XL pipeline (the approval of which Prime Minister Stephen Harper had notoriously suggested would be a “no brainer” for Obama), the Harper regime has been very keen to move forward with the Chinese-backed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline. You see, without pipelines to move bitumen out of Alberta for processing, there will be no need to ramp up further production in the tar sands. The creation of pipelines is essential for the oil industry to expand its production before stricter environmental standards can be imposed on it by a new government which might adopt a “go slow” approach. This is why there has been such a rush on to move forward with pipeline construction.

Whose Interests are Being Served?

Look, tar sands bitumen isn’t going anywhere. It’s only because the oil elites want to make as much profit as they can in the shortest amount of time possible that there is now a push on for pipeline construction. The oil industry sees that the writing has been on the wall for some time now, as the international community is destined to get its act together and finally get serious about climate change. The tar sands, of course, when in full production, will be a significant global contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In the future, developing tar sands bitumen will be less profitable, due to carbon taxes or the need for industry to purchase carbon offsets. We’re not there yet, but we will be there in another decade. Just as industries which used polluting sulphur dioxide could see that they needed to clean up their acts when a new regulatory system was being proposed in the 1980s, the oil industry today understands that changes are afoot. That they are fighting those changes tooth and nail, rather than working with governments to improve the health and well-being of citizens indicates to me, anyway, what their priorities really are.

However, it’s one thing to say that the interests of the oil industries have been to put their own profits ahead of human well-being. But what of the Canadian government? Shouldn’t our government be looking out for the health and welfare of Canadians and our social, economic and natural environments in which we inhabit? Well, I always thought that was the role of our government, but clearly the Harper regime in Ottawa is putting the interests of oil industry profits ahead of the social, economic and environmental well-beings of Canadians. And they are doing it in such a way that they are actually eroding our democratic rights in the process.

And here’s where the latest front appears to be opening up. Based on Minister Joe Oliver’s open letter, we may end up with changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act which deliberately shuts out opportunities for participation in the EA process by Canadians who may share a different set of priorities than does our government. Clearly, the Harper regime has stated in the past few days that international trade and opening up the tar sands to multi-national oil companies for runaway development is more of a priority than protecting and thoughtfully managing Canada’s non-renewable resources, the exploitation of which will lead to the creation of more greenhouse gases and a bigger contribution on the part of Canada to global climate change.

For those who think that we would be putting jobs at risk by not allowing runaway development of Alberta’s tar sands, I invite you to further explore the anticipated impacts of a global rise in temperature of just 2 degrees Celsius. Take a look at how such a rise in temperature will impact jobs and the economy. When the Harper regime talks about “jobs” what they really mean are oil industry profits, because if they were really interested in jobs, they would be doing a lot more to preserve existing jobs and laying the groundwork for a low-carbon economy.

The Declaration of War, which seems to be supply the Harper regime with its speaking points about Northern Gateway, has already suggested that anybody associated with an environmental organization which has received funding from “foreign” sources should not be allowed to publicly participate in the Environmental Assessment process. Remember that list of 4,000 speakers? It’s that list which is being targeted by Harper for being too long and therefore delaying a decision. And many of the speakers on that list are, in fact, from local environmental organizations, some of which may have received funding from non-Canadians.

The fact that non-Canadian organizations have been assisting Canadian environmental organizations with funding has turned into a circus for the neo-liberal oil interests over the past few months. They have claimed that “foreign interests” are dominating the Canadian environmental agenda, and have outright questioned the patriotism of Canadians who may be concerned about climate change and curbing rampant tar sands expansion. In 2011, Canadian grandmothers and university students, some of whom are from my home town of Sudbury, Ontario, were blasted by EthicalOil mouthpiece and Sun Media columnist Ezra Levant as being anti-Canadian “extremists” for their participation in a fence-scaling exercise in civil disobedience. Levant’s own criticisms were then parroted by a number of cabinet ministers (see my earlier blog: “Who are the Real Extremists?“, October 4, 2011). is engaging in hypocrisy of an extreme sort through their calls to ban Canadian environmentalists from the Environmental Assessment process simply because an organization to which they belong may have received a financial contribution from a non-Canadian. Many environmentalists are volunteers and receive no compensation for the work in which they engage in. Those that do receive compensation tend to champion the values and the interests of their organization, just as anybody speaking on behalf of any organization might. And that’s the point which makes EthicalOil’s position so incredibly hypocritical.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal will directly benefit multi-national oil companies through higher profits. Billions of dollars will be made by opening up the tar sands to runaway exploitation. These dollars will end up in the pockets of some of the richest foreign corporate executives in the world. Yet isn’t leading the charge to shut those multinational corporations out of the EA process. Why is that?

In their black-and-white world, EthicalOil likes to distinguish between job creators on the one hand and job killers on the other. Multinational corporations are the job creating heros in their narrative, and environmentalists out to kill Canadian jobs are the villains. Increasingly, it appears that this narrative is being adopted by our government, especially with the recent and disturbing statements about environmentalists being job-killing radicals. What has yet to be determined is whether our government will change the Environmental Assessment process to shut out legitimate points of view being heard.

Exploding the Myths

The fact is, we live in a global society, and what happens here in Canada will have an impact on the rest of the world, especially as it relates to anthropogenic climate change. That Canada has wilfully committed to a course of action whereby we are determined to be the biggest per capita polluter in the world is reason enough for others to be concerned about the actions of industries operating here, particularly related to the exploitation of non-renewable resources. And the actions of our government to facilitate pollution should not be immune from international scrutiny simply because the oil industry is viewed as a “job creator”. As a result, we can expect to hear more about environmental tariffs being imposed on Canadian export goods as a result of our emissions intensive policies. And that’s further bad news for Ontario’s manufacturing sector, even though Ontario is actively striving to reduce energy derived from non-renewable resources.

Again, we here in Ontario know firsthand that the tar sands are not the ballyhooed job creator that EthicalOil and the Harper regime would have us believe. We’ve seen manufacturing jobs leave the province due to a high dollar, driven up by oil industry revenues. With the price of oil expected to continue to climb over the next decade, we can expect that uncontrolled tar sands development will only drive the value of the dollar up further, leading to an unsustainable situation in Eastern Canada with regards to job loss. There’s a very good reason why the Conservative Party of Canada’s real base of power is in the Alberta heartland. That Conservatives in other parts of Canada fail to see the damage which Harper’s out-of-control oil policy is inflicting on regional economies is maddeningly frustrating to me.

Some Good News (for a change)

There may be some good news coming out of these new attacks on the environment and the patriotism of Canadians who might simply be concerned about the pace of development of our non-renewable resources. If there is any good news at all, it’s that I expect this latest gambit will backfire on the Conservatives over the next few years. By committing to this kind of hyper-partisan rhetoric, there is no longer a way for the Harper regime to back down from their position. They’ve drawn the lines in the sand now between themselves and the oil elites on the one side, and Canadians who may be concerned about the environment on the other. Make no mistake: along with officially declaring war on the environment, the Harper regime has also declared war on moderate Canadians. Ultimately, this approach will backfire as it continues to become increasingly clear to Canadians that environmental issues (and particularly climate change) can no longer be ignored by Ottawa.

That the Harper regime might have completely destroyed long-established environmental legislation and assessment processes in the interim will be something which future, responsible governments will have to address when Harper is finally deposed. The destruction to our economy and our environment which the Harper regime’s short-sighted and greedy war will cause will not be so easily undone.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views of the Green Party of Canada)


Anonymous said...

Nice post. The Harper Conservatives are incompetent amateurs who do not realize the extent of the damage that they are inflicting upon those surrounding them.

Kaaren Soby said...

WELL SAID! The HARPER Govt. is a disaster and it WILL the meantime, as you noted we have to put out every effort to stay vigilante over our environmnent AND our Democracy.....its erosion under this " REGIME" is frighteniing...I watched it flower with the suppression of our Civil Liberties, during the Olympics....what a sham!....Kaaren Soby,Artist....

Sudbury Steve said...

Thanks Anonymous and Karen for your comments. Karen, I've written a lot about the erosion of our democratic rights over the past few years. It's been troubling for me to do so because I often feel so helpless and frustrated. Knowing that you are out there, and others like you, who share my concerns, gives me reason and motivation to continue to strive against the path we appear to be on.