Friday, December 12, 2014

Ontario Liberals “Blowing Smoke” on Climate Change

With the re-election of Premier Kathleen Wynne, and a new majority for the Ontario Liberal Party, I actually had a smidgen of hope that Ontario might finally start to get serious about climate change. The extra attention afforded to this important issue by the renamed Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, under the direction of the very capable Minister Glen Murray, gave me some optimism that Ontario might finally start to move again in the direction of taking the climate crisis seriously. Mandate letters issued to various provincial ministers – made public by Wynne’s government for the first time ever – were riddled with references to climate change. There was cause for optimism.

But, when faced with the first serious test of credibility – when asked to “walk the talk” - it was Premier Kathleen Wynne herself who hastily retreated on action related to climate change.

After meeting with Quebec’s Premier Phillipe Couillard, the two Liberal Premiers of Canada’s largest provinces issued a statement setting out conditions for the development of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline – a $12 billion pipeline which will flow diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to a new port facility in Quebec, with some continuing on to New Brunswick. One of the conditions Wynne and Couillard required of TransCanada assess whether developing the pipeline would raise greenhouse gas emissions – something that the pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board, insists is beyond the purview of its mandate (see: “Premiers Wynne and Couillard set seven criteria for Energy East”, the Globe and Mail, November 21, 2014).

Initially, environmentalists and those concerned about climate change cheered. Finally, it looked like Canada’s two largest provinces were going to back a position outlined by U.S. President Barack Obama regarding the Keystone XL pipeline – that upstream impacts needed to be considered as part of any pipeline development proposal. And realistically, that position only makes sense.

Pipelines Only Needed for Expanding the Tar Sands

The only reason why there is a rush on now to develop Energy East, Keystone, Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain is to facilitate the planned expansion of the Alberta tar sands. These pipelines aren’t needed if production were to remain relatively stable over time, but the plan is to see a more than doubling of production - from about 2 million barrels per day in 2014 to 5.2 million barrels per day by 2030 (see: “Oilsands: Facts and Statistics”, Alberta Energy).

Of course, the plan to more than double production just isn’t going to work out unless an economical way of moving the bitumen to markets is found. Some pundits believe that the bitumen will flow to market with or without any new pipeline capacity, utilizing rail or trucks if it has to. Frankly, that sort of assessment is just absurd, as it completely defies economic believability. The profit margins for bitumen, in comparison to other forms of oil, are quite narrow, due to significantly higher production costs. With Canada’s rail system already experiencing strain just trying to keep up with production here and from the U.S. Baaken, it’s just inconceivable that Alberta bitumen will flow without one or more of these pipelines.

And that’s not just my opinion. It’s one shared by Canada’s former Natural Resources Minister (and current Finance Minister) Joe Oliver. It was routine to hear Oliver talk about the need for the Keystone XL pipeline on his junkets to the United States, where he spoke to congressional leaders and the business community. Oliver insisted that while rail could take up some of the transportation of increased capacity, pipelines were absolutely essential if tar sands production were to increase (see: “Joe Oliver on Keystone: Pipeline Expansion Still Needed Despite Price Gap Narrowing, Oliver Says”, the Huffington Post, March 18, 2013).

In light of this reality, it becomes evidently clear that the development of new pipeline capacity is essential to realize the planned for increase in output of the tar sands. You just can’t expand the tar sands without new pipelines, period.

And if you expand the tar sands, guess what happens to greenhouse gas emissions?

That’s been the point of all serious commentators on this topic – that it is an effort of willful ignorance to pretend that the development of a new pipeline won’t contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. So, when Wynne and Couillard made it a condition for TransCanada to demonstrate how they’d get around this bind with regards to Energy East, really they were establishing a condition which would have been almost impossible for TransCanada to fulfill. Nevertheless, demonstrating how the new pipeline wouldn’t increase emissions would have to be a part of the assessment to obtain a social license for development from Ontario and Quebec.

Enter Jim Prentice

Almost immediately, new Alberta Premier Jim Prentice flew into the picture, conducting whirlwind meetings with Couillard and Wynne – changing their minds on their stated position (or maybe just pointing out where the logical conclusion of holding that position would take them – to saying “no” to the pipeline – although how Wynne and Couillard couldn’t have known this in advance of listing their 7 conditions just baffles me – either Wynne was trying to fool Ontarians about climate action, or she just didn’t understand the implications of her own position).

Quickly, Kathleen Wynne pulled a complete u-turn on the climate condition for Energy East (see: “Wynne drops main climate change requirement in considering Energy East pipeline”, the Globe and Mail, December 3, 2014). Rather than assessing greenhouse gas emissions from the project, now all that Ontario wanted to do was to have TransCanada consider the tiny amount of emissions associated with the construction and laying of the pipe itself. And that’s like deciding to assess what traffic impacts of a new 8-lane elevated super-highway will have on the local roads system by only looking at the girders and columns, on-ramps and off-ramps – and pretending that there won’t be any vehicles which ever use it.

Needless to say, environmentalists and others concerned about climate change were appalled by this complete and utter flip-flop from Kathleen Wynne. Worse yet, Wynne insisted that this reversal wasn’t a change in Ontario’s position, despite it so clearly being the case (why did Wynne think that Prentice jumped on the plane the next week to have an emergency meeting with her? Was it because Prentice didn’t think she was talking about upstream impacts? Seriously?).

This flip-flop has been a super-fail for Ontario – and by extension, for all of Canada. Rather than using this opportunity to demonstrate real leadership on climate change, Wynne and the Liberals decided to step back into the comfort of “business as usual” – while simultaneously trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public by pretending that they’ve been taking the issue seriously. It’s shocking and appalling, and Ontarians are right to be upset about yet another Liberal sell-out.

Ontario Liberals - No Coherent Plan for Climate Action

Look, I still have some hope that Ontario’s Liberal government might take some positive actions for our global climate. I have to acknowledge that under former Premier Dalton McGuinty, Ontario has demonstrated that it was willing to be a Canadian leader, if a modest one, on climate change. Ontario shut down all of its coal-fired generating stations (although it took about twice as long to do so as originally forecast), and developed the Green Energy and Economy Act, which has kick-started renewable energy projects here, making our province a North American leader (although the Act itself could have been implemented so much better, by preferencing local energy co-operatives over large scale multinational developers who haven’t taken the time to obtain their own social licenses from Ontarians pre-development in far too many cases).

But steps forward by the Ontario Liberals have been compounded by numerous steps backward. This week, Ontarians learned from our Auditor-General that the smart meter installation program went over budget by a considerable amount – costing Ontarians almost $2 billion for a system which still isn’t working at 100% capacity as about one sixth of all installed meters aren’t transmitting data. Worse yet, due to the Liberals energy pricing policies around time of use billing, Ontarians haven’t realized any energy savings from having a smart meter program in place. For the climate, that means that the expensive installation of smart meters hasn’t done anything to reduce emissions from our electrical generating capacity (and although Ontario’s electricity system is one of the greenest in North America, about one quarter of electrical production is from fossil fuels, primarily natural gas).

But the Liberals seem content to brush the Auditor-General’s criticism off as “blowing smoke” - unbelievably complaining that her numbers are wrong, and that she doesn’t understand how electricity systems work (despite the A-G having worked for 10 years at Manitoba Hydro before taking her current position - see: “Bob Chiarelli accused of ‘sexist’ shots at Bonnie Lysyk after auditor’s report”, the Toronto Star, December 10, 2014)). This new sort of arrogance is surprising, and if this is what we can expect of Kathleen Wynne’s government on a go-forward basis, it doesn’t speak well of the Liberals ability to listen to voices which may make them uncomfortable – including the voices of the people who put them into power in the first place.

Betting on Discredited Cap & Trade

Back in 2003, Dalton McGuinty was talking about putting a price on carbon through a Cap & Trade scheme. Ontario eventually joined the Western Climate Initiative, along with California, Oregon and Washington State, but there’s never been much of an effort to actually cap carbon emissions. Interestingly, it may be that’s about to change now, with Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray making some noises about carbon pricing.

But with the disaster of the European emissions trading scheme and the complete collapse of the Chicago market, cap & trade has become a pretty discredited way of pricing carbon. Just when economists and industry leaders are calling for the imposition of a carbon tax, it looks like Ontario is about to embark on setting up an extremely costly trading scheme which will lead to questionable outcomes in terms of reducing emissions. Frankly, this could be another complete disaster for Ontarians – and for the climate. A straight tax on carbon is a proven winner in terms of reducing emissions and creating cleantech jobs, yet for some reason the Liberals are reluctant to go there.

Ontario Progressive Conservative - No Credibility on Climate, Energy, Economy

What Wynne’s Liberals need now at Queen’s Park is someone who is going to both hold them accountable for their actions and decisions, and push them forward on climate change and renewable energy. But at the moment, there isn’t anyone who appears positioned to do so. The Official Opposition, led by the leaderless Progressive Conservatives, have demonstrated time and again that they’d pull the plug on Ontario’s participation in the fastest growing industrial sector in the world – the renewable energy sector. Why Conservatives want to plunge Ontario back into the dark ages and stifle innovation, prosperity and job creation is lost on me (well, not entirely – fact is, the Liberals bungling of the Green Energy Act has led to significant push-back of solar and wind power projects in particular – push back that the Conservatives are keen to capitalize on for grabbing votes in rural areas, despite such push back going against the long-term economic interests of the Province. But Conservative parties seem to be far more interested in obtaining power and enriching their elite backers than in promoting general economic health for all citizens).

New Democrats - Acting Against the Interests of the Climate, Public

So that leaves Andrea Horwarth’s NDP as the only other party at Queen’s Park that might be able to hold Wynne to account right now. However, the NDP in Ontario, similar to Tom Mulcair’s federal New Democratic Party, has become the anti-climate party – or more precisely, they’ve never ever bought into taking climate change seriously in the first place, and despite talking the talk, they’ve really started to show their true feelings about it.

Horwarth’s NDP has consistently campaigned on making it easier to waste fossil fuel energy, through capping its price at the gas pump, and by having taxpayers subsidize the generation of electricity for business and residential users. Out of a misguided notion of what it means to champion “hard working Ontarians”, the NDP seems to believe that creating more carbon pollution will somehow boost the economy – rather than risking its collapse. Federally, Tom Mulcair has publicly supported the expansion of the tar sands enterprise by embracing the Energy East pipeline. In British Columbia, New Democrats who campaigned against putting a price on carbon have just recently voted to create a taxpayer subsidized liquefied natural gas industry, from which carbon and methane pollution have yet to be assessed. In Manitoba and Nova Scotia, recent and current NDP governments have done little to nothing to take meaningful action on climate change – certainly, no NDP government has ever put a price on carbon, despite having the opportunity to walk the talk.

An Opportunity for a Real Green Champion at Queen's Park

What Ontario needs right now is a real champion of climate change at Queen’s Park, not the on-again/off-again but-always-bungled “leadership” from the Liberals. A Green voice at Queen’s Park would go a long way in holding Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government accountable on climate change and renewable energy. Even a lone Green voice – as Elizabeth May has shown Canadians on the federal scene – can drive the political conversation both inside and outside the legislature.

With an unexpected by-election coming up in Sudbury in 2015, there will be an opportunity for Sudburians to make history and send a Green to Queen’s Park and change the tenor of the conversation around climate change and renewable energy (amongst other issues). Sending another New Democrat or Liberal back to Toronto isn’t going to lead to anything more than business as usual – but sending a Green will change everything.

In 2015, Sudbury will have the unique opportunity to make provincial history – and make national headlines – by electing Ontario’s first Green Member of Provincial Parliament. It is certainly my hope that Sudburians see the need to send a Green to Toronto for the benefit of our collective prosperity; issues like climate change, which the old-line parties either don’t get or refuse to wrap their heads around.

Greens across Canada know that having a Green elected to the largest provincial legislature will go far in helping shape the conversation and debate around a number issues the Green Party champions, including climate change. Anyone familiar with the Rob Ford saga knows very well that the concentration of media in Toronto presents a unique opportunity for an elected Green MPP to play a part in what is fast becoming a national conversation about the need for taking real action on climate change. With Greens now in the federal legislature, and in provincial parliaments in B.C. and New Brunswick, it’s clear that Greens can win in a first-past-the-post electoral environment – and can add a degree of post-partisan decorum to our rapidly degenerating democratic institutions.

We’ve got the chance here in Sudbury – let’s seize it.

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

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