Thursday, December 5, 2013

NDP Ups its Game: One Green's Take on Tom Mulcair's Energy Vision

What’s a Green to make of New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair’s December 3, 2013 speech to the Economic Club of Canada, which lays out his party’s vision for Canada’s future energy policy? On the one hand, it’s easy to be flattered that the NDP has finally come around to connecting the dots between energy, climate change and the future health of Canada’s economy – connections Greens made long ago. On the other hand, some serious flaws remain, but they may not be enough to avoid the NDP eclipsing the Green Party on the energy issue – at least in the minds of the public.

The text of Mulcair’s speech is available on the NDP’s website (here’s a direct link, so that you can avoid dealing with the websites annoying ‘splash page’ – a term I learned just recently, thanks to Twitter). It’s a good read. Mulcair uses some of the current buzzwords and concepts such as “social license”, “clean” (rather than “green”) energy, and “negawatts”. The use of terminology, for me at least, is very telling – recall that Mulcair once talked about “Dutch Disease” quite openly, but after critical attacks from the media (and notably from Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan), Mulcair doesn’t use that term any longer. But after reading his speech to the Economic Club of Canada, it’s quite clear that combatting “Dutch Disease” remains top of mind for the NDP Leader. As it should.

If you’re reading his speech, pay particular attention to the terms “natural resources” and “energy”. For many Canadians, the term “energy” is often interpreted to mean energy derived from natural resources, so it’s easy to confuse the two. Mulcair, however, has a much broader interpretation of “energy”, one which no doubt makes Conservatives cringe. He doesn’t necessarily equate “energy” with fossil fuels, and it’s worth keeping this broader interpretation in mind when reading his speech.

Elizabeth May and Tom Mulcair

Interestingly, Mulcair gave this speech just a couple of days after Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, published her own vision for Canada’s energy future in the Hill Times (“Why a green economic future is more robust, resilient than putting all of our eggs in the fossil fuel basket”, Elizabeth May, Green Party of Canada, December 2 2013). It’s interesting to contrast these two leaders’ approaches to dealing with energy issues in the 21st Century. While their starting points are different, it’s clear that Mulcair has started to move closer to May and the Green Party on some of the more substantive matters, such as the right balance between fossil fuel exploitation and renewable energy. While Mulcair appears to want to implement this program by stealth, May is more direct –but both now appear to be on similar pages. And both provide a sharp contrast to where Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is at.

In many respects, there’s not a lot that’s new here for Mulcair and the NDP – the concepts Mulcair discusses have primarily been broadcast by him and his colleagues for quite some time, for the most part. And clearly, there still needs to be a lot of flesh put on yesterday’s bare-bones announcement, which stands to reason. I can’t fault Mulcair for a lack of specifics, for even though many of the ideas he talked about yesterday have been around for a while, it’s how Mulcair connected the ideas which appears to be new for the NDP. With this in mind, I can’t really expect the NDP to produce comprehensive policy like we Greens have with our “Vision Green” overnight. The specifics will take some time to develop.

Laying the Basis for a Transformational Energy Economy

Unquestionably, there is a lot of good stuff in Mulcair’s speech, and the NDP will be able to build upon the ideas there outlined. Despite what’s being reported in the media about Mulcair’s position on pipelines and environmental assessments (which are important aspects of Mulcair’s overall plan), his speech is actually much more revolutionary than the media suspects, I think. For there can be little doubt, once the dots are connected, that Mulcair and want to make Canada a leader in renewable energy technology – at the expense of fossil fuels.

Mulcair calls for a transformation to a “21st century energy economy”, indicating that such a transformation requires more than just building on what we’ve done in the past. To me, this means Mulcair is envisioning something which isn’t incremental – he’s talking about an economic overhaul. And he’s got a pretty good plan to lay the groundwork to make it happen.

Mulcair wants the government to get back into the business of national leadership – on energy, the environment and the economy. Without such leadership, it’s almost certain that Canada will continue to languish as a fossil-fueled entity, while other nations and regional groupings wisely invest in efficient, inexpensive renewable energy. The long-term health of our economy requires the very change in direction contemplated now by Mulcair. Direct, government investment in green technology (“clean” is Mulcair’s term - for political reasons, the use of the word “green” by the NDP is strictly prohibited) to kickstart the new economy is a major plank of Mulcair’s plan.

Critics, of course, will wonder just how much this is going to cost. A better question, I think, is just how much is this going to save? For Mulcair and the NDP have connected those dots now, and have indicated that these investments will be paid for with monies saved from corporate subsidies to fossil fuel companies – which in Canada alone totals several billions of dollars a year. Further, revenue generated by the NDP’s Cap and Trade scheme will be put back into green tech investments. It looks to me like Mulcair and the NDP have finally come to the realization that there’s money to be made in saving the Earth from climate change.

Jobs are also very important for the NDP, which is why critics are sure to blast Mulcair for killing jobs in the tar sands, as a result of strangling investment. That may be – but the fact is that there are some jobs in sectors which we can’t afford to save, and frankly the fossil fuel industry is going to find itself under global assault in the coming decades. It’s well past time we stopped telling our children that there’s good money to be made working in coal mines or on oil rigs. The real good paying jobs which we’ll need to fill in the future are those in the green tech sector. Mulcair seems to understand this.

Expansion of the Tar Sands Enterprise?

So, what about the tar sands? If there is fault to be found in Mulcair’s speech, it’s here that we’ll find it. Mulcair continues to justify the expansion of the tar sands – even goes so far as to suggest that access to its fossil fuels will remain a priority of an NDP government. But even here, Mulcair offers caveats. Fossil fuel resource development must meet high environmental standards, in order to provide fossil fuel companies with the necessary “social license” to sell their dirty products abroad.

From a mainstream economic standpoint, this argument is compelling – it’s certainly one which I’ve seen repeated time and again in the media. Many have suggested that the lack of American action on the Keystone XL pipeline has been the result of not having our environmental ducks in a row. Ditto for the European fuel quality initiative.

Unfortunately, the argument (which Mulcair has bought into) is internally inconsistent. “If only Canada was serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting the natural environment, Canada would be in a much better position to open up the tar sands for massive exploitation.” Clearly, if Canada were serious about reducing emissions, we would not allow for the expansion of the tar sands, which produces some of the dirtiest energy on Earth. We certainly would not be thinking about building new liquid natural gas terminals and exporting even more dirty energy to Asia. And we would have banned new coal-fired energy generation outright.

If you want to talk about “social license” in the context of allowing the continued exploitation of dirty fossil fuel resources, you’ve got a strange way of looking at the concept of “social license”. Yet, that’s what Mulcair has done – and I’m certain that it will resonate amongst the pundits (and oil industry execs) who are growing increasingly nervous about figuring out a way to get their product to market.

Towards a Real National Energy Strategy

For me, a real national energy strategy (something which Mulcair almost, but doesn’t quite, recommend – but which the Green Party has long championed) must begin with the notion that we have to hold global warming at 2 degrees Celsius. That number, 2 degrees C, is the critical starting point for a way forward. What it means is that we must begin the lengthy process of weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels in order to achieve the 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century that we’ll need to give ourselves a reasonable chance of not triggering devastating climatic feedback loops (such as permafrost melt – and the resulting massive release of stored methane).

In this scenario, the expansion of the industrial enterprise known as the tar sands must be wound down. There isn’t any other choice.
On some level, though, Mulcair does seem to understand that – even though he says the opposite. Access to the resource for the purpose of economic growth is what Mulcair appears to champion on the one hand – but on the other, Mulcair does talk about initiatives which would have the effect of strangling the industry to an appropriate degree. The NDP reaffirmed its displeasure with both the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, which means that there will remain a bottleneck for getting the goods to market, particularly should aggressive expansion (as contemplated by the Conservatives) occur.

West-East Pipeline

Mulcair is now suggesting that he would support a “West-East” pipeline – one which provides finished product to Eastern Canada, thanks to the new refineries he wants to see built in Alberta. Mulcair argues that it makes more sense to do the value-added for bitumen upgrading and processing in Canada, rather than exporting unfinished materials abroad for a quick buck. Creating the refining capacity here in Alberta will also create jobs. And building a new all-Canadian pipeline to the East will increase Canada’s energy security.

On the whole, this part of Mulcair’s speech appears to be lifted almost entirely from Elizabeth May’s April musings about pipelines (see: “Pipelines to the east?”, Elizabeth May, Island Tides, April 25 2013). That being said, I’m pretty sure that Mulcair and May are not the only people in Canada who have arrived at the conclusion that building up Alberta’s refining capacity makes sense for keeping jobs in Canada, and increasing our energy security. But May couched her proposal within the broader context of a broader “carbon plan” (presumably a component of a national energy strategy), based on the fundamentals of science – the need to hold warming at 2 degrees C. And while May left the door open for new West-East pipeline capacity, possibly, maybe – but only if necessary, Mulcair wants to embrace it, sort of kind of, under the right circumstances.

NDP - Still Not Ready for Straight Talk on Climate Change

That may sound like a quibble, but really, it isn’t. The difference is based on a fundamental lack of understanding (or at least on stated understanding) on the part of the NDP regarding the dire circumstances we’re going to find ourselves in if we don’t drastically reduce emissions quickly.

Mulcair could have told the Economic Club of Canada yesterday that it’s important to hold the warming line at 2 degrees Celsius, but he didn’t. He might have mentioned why 450 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must drive a reduction in fossil fuel consumption, but he said nothing. He could have talked about the coming carbon bubble in order to add some heft to the clean tech economic expansion he outlined, but he left that justification out. No mention of developing a carbon budget for Canada, or of leaving unburnable carbon in the ground. And no calls for public sector divestment of fossil fuel resource stocks. These ideas were not explored as a justification for an NDP energy policy.

Sure, Mulcair at least made the connection between energy and climate change – but he did so quite lightly, almost as an afterthought. From reading his speech, Mulcair seemed to be just as concerned about the economic climate for foreign investment in the tar sands as about climate change.

Mulcair: Fundamental Shift in NDP Policy on Emissions Reduction?

Yes, Mulcair called for a strict adherence to Canada’s “international climate change obligations” – but it’s not at all clear just what Mulcair means by that. Was he referring to our obligations under Copenhagen, which would see Canada’s emissions actually rise 3% from 1990 levels? Or was he referring to emissions reduction targets which the NDP has long championed – those which were enshrined in the Kyoto Accord – 7% below 1990 levels. Given that Canada has pulled out of Kyoto, our only current “international obligation” is outlined in Copenhagen. Did Mulcair just signal a fundamental shift in NDP policy on emissions reduction in his speech? We’ll have to wait to find out, I suppose. But Mulcair’s lack of clarity on this important issue suggests that he might be throwing in the towel on meaningful emissions reductions targets.

Mulcair: Perhaps a Little More Revolutionary than Advertised

All of this being said, it appears to me that the NDP’s “New Vision for a New Century” for a “prosperous and sustainable energy future” provides a pretty good direction for our nation, for the most part. While I continue to have my own preferences, and believe that the NDP still needs to move a little more quickly on green energy, and give Canadians a little more straight talk on climate change, I recognize that Mulcair has provided a framework and narrative on energy issues which appears to balance competing economic interests (fossil fuel exploitation vs. green tech), even though a balance really isn’t what we need at this point in Canada’s history. That being said, while the frame might provide the appearance of balance, a deeper analysis suggests that Mulcair is already contemplating tipping that balance in favour of renewables – which is where we need to go.

It's just unfortunate that Mulcair won't play it straight with Canadians on this. Then again, he's likely to experience more electoral success through this minor deception than by telling the truth.

Implications for the Green Party

Might the NDP and Mulcair put May and the Green Party into eclipse on this issue? Let’s be realistic here – the fact is that in most regions of the nation, the Green Party is already in eclipse, be it to the NDP or the Liberals. What is problematic for the Green Party is that Mulcair is here offering a pretty clear differentiation between the NDP and the Liberals, which, when an election comes, is going to play well with progressive voters, who already tend to rally around the NDP flag. That being said, not all progressives will turn to the NDP – and it’s here that Greens need to start looking to pick up votes in the next election. If voters like the NDP’s energy policies, but not the NDP – those voters could potentially go Green.

Sure, it would be easier for Greens to campaign in an election with the NDP espousing crappy policies on energy and the environment. But ultimately it’s way more important that Canada’s Loyal Opposition begin advocating generally sensible policies on energy, environment and economics. It may not be in the Green Party’s interest, but most Greens (including this one) will put Canada’s interests ahead of the Party’s every time.

Anyway, there are certainly a lot of other policy areas where Greens and New Democrats can find significant disagreement to distinguish themselves. Certainly, the NDP’s flawed (and legally questionable) approach to Quebec independence comes to mind. But let’s save that for another day.

Respecting and Creating New Relationships with First Nations

Before concluding, I feel that it would be remiss for me not to write something about Mulcair’s call for true “nation-to-nation” partnerships with First Nations. This was one of the several connections which I alluded to earlier, and while making a commitment to resolve land claims and treaty disputes has a much wider scope than energy policy, clearly it’s a component of any successful energy strategy. For me, I know that Tom Mulcair and the NDP are being sincere in their call for prioritizing a sea change in the relationship which our Federal government has with aboriginal communities. On that issue, I think it’s fair to say that we Greens are in lockstep with the NDP.

(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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