Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Energy East Foosties: LIUNA, the Liberals & the NDP

Last month, in my environmental column with the Sudbury Star, I wrote about the Energy East pipeline, and why it should be given a “rethink” by supporters, in light of what we know about the need to hold the line on global warming at 2 degrees Celsius (see: "Rethink Energy East pipeline", the Sudbury Star, October 18, 2014). Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, had recently spoken about the need for investors to be wary of fossil fuel assets which could become stranded when the world finally got serious about climate change. I took Carney’s conclusion one step further, and suggested that investing in transportation infrastructure for fossil fuels was incompatible with the fight against climate change, and I suggested that when the carbon bubble bursts, infrastructure projects like Energy East may lose their value very quickly.

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That column elicited a response in the form of a letter to the editor of the Sudbury Star from a Mr. Mike Ryan, Business Manager for LIUNA (the Laborers International Union of North America). Unfortunately, Mr. Ryan’s letter wasn’t published online by the Star. I’ve taken the liberty to provide a reproduction of the letter here, so that readers will have a better sense of where I’m coming from with this blogpost.

Not Thinking about Climate Change

Upon reading Mr. Ryan’s letter, my first reaction was one of confusion, for although Ryan referenced my column, it was entirely unclear as to which parts of that column he was responding to. It remains unclear to me whether Ryan even read the column at all before penning his letter to the Star. Ryan certainly had a lot to say about Energy East’s safety and environmental features, along with the jobs that it was sure to bring to LIUNA members in our community. But there was nothing in his letter which addressed the specific economic issues which I had raised in my column – economic issues which specifically arise as a result of climate change.

Of course, Mike Ryan and LIUNA don’t want people to think about climate change, and how building pipelines are only needed if for an expanded tar sands – and not simply to meet current production levels. Expansion of the tar sands, of course, has already been compared to being “game over for the planet” by former NASA researchers Dr. James Hansen. And even if Hansen’s assessment goes too far as many believe, what is clear that if tar sands production doubles between now and 2030 (as called for by the Alberta provincial government), Canada can forget meeting its commitment made in Copenhagen to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

Worse, this kind of reckless expansion of the tar sands imperils other industrial projects throughout Canada, including in the energy-intensive resource extraction and manufacturing sectors. If Canada tries to meet its greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets while simultaneously allowing the tar sands to double its production capacity, reducing emissions in other energy-intensive sectors will be necessary to offset rising tar sands emissions. And this is especially true if some sort of carbon trading scheme is implemented under a hypothetical NDP or Liberal government.

LIUNA, however, really doesn’t want you to think about any of this. They’d rather paint a picture of happy workers making good wages, building safe and environmentally friendly infrastructure. It’s a very compelling picture, too, because if you take climate change out of the equation, that’s probably what you’d have.

But you can’t take climate change out of the equation, given that this infrastructure is needed to allow the tar sands to expand. And that’s true no matter how much LIUNA – or Canada’s Conservative government – might want to pretend otherwise.

Support for Energy East: The Liberals and the NDP

Oh, and by the way, it’s also true no matter how much Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party, along with Tom Mulcair and the New Democratic Party, want to pretend otherwise. Trudeau and Mulcair are certainly not the “climate warriors” their publicists make them out to be. If an expanding tar sands is incompatible with the fight against climate change and holding the line at 2 degrees C, it’s clear that Trudeau and Mulcair either didn’t get that memo – or are willfully disregarding it. Both the Liberals and NDP support building Energy East and allowing the tar sands to expand. Mulcair has been very direct in his support for the pipeline (see, “Mulcair to make energy policy power play", CBC, December 3, 2013, and "Despite environmentalist opposition, Mulcair supports west-east pipeline", mymcmurray.com, February 7, 2014). Trudeau has been a little more cagey, but ultimately when confronted by those demanding an answer to their questions, Trudeau made it quite clear that Liberals will support the Energy East pipeline, just as they support the Keystone XL pipeline (see: "Canow, with 350.org, meet Justin Trudeau", September 19, 2014).

If pipelines are being built because they are required to permit the tar sands to expand its production, and if an expanding tar sands means “game over” for the planet, it is then fairto say that both Justin Trudeau and Thomas Mulcair both support ending the game for the planet – and not in the planet’s favour.

LIUNA's Financial Donations and Support

In light of the support Energy East enjoys from the Liberals and the NDP, is it really any wonder that LIUNA plays a little “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” with both of these political parties? Sure, donations made to political parties from unions at the national level are no longer allowed, but here in Ontario, unions can (and do) still give to political parties. LIUNA, of course, is one of the biggest donors to the provincial Liberal Party – the party which is now in power in Ontario, and which has directed the Ontario Energy Board to review the Energy East and Line 9B pipelines. Between 2004 and 2011, LIUNA gave Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals more than three quarters of a million dollars in political contributions – a figure three times the size made by the Ontario Liberal’s largest corporate donor, developer Ellis Don, over the same period (see: "Follow the Money: Funding Ontario's Political Parties, 2004 - 2011", votetoronto.ca, October 4, 2011)

In the 2011 federal election, LIUNA publicly endorsed Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff (see: "Labourers International Union of North America supports Michael Ignatieff's vision of Canada", press release from LIUNA, April 28, 2011). Since then, LIUN has continued to play footsies with the NDP, as a quick Google Search with keywords “LIUNA” and “NDP” reveals. At the electoral district association (EDA) level, LIUNA has partnered with the NDP on movie nights and other special events, largely because LIUNA remains involved in social justice matters important to the NDP. But LIUNA did have a fairly public split with Jack Layton’s NDP in 2011, when its executive decided to support Ignatieff and the Liberals. And of course, LIUNA was a very public backer of the infamous Ontario Bill 74, which would have allowed Ellis Don to tear up contracts made with other unions – something that the NDP and the Green Party opposed.

Perhaps LIUNA and the NDP have kissed and made up, given Tom Mulcair’s strong and equivocal support for Energy East (see: "Mulcair sticks with pipeline policy as report challenges Energy East", the Globe & Mail, February 6, 2014). LIUNA has been engaged in a battle for public opinion all along the proposed Energy East route, popping up at Energy East events in Timmins, Ontario (see: "Pipeline leaks worry Timmins residents at Energy East meeting", CBC, April 2, 2014)and Saint John, New Brunswick (see: "Energy East open house in Saint John met with opposition", New Brunswick Media Co-op, November 1, 2014). With some Northern Ontario cities located along the pipeline route electing anti-pipeline councils (Kenora, Thunder Bay and North Bay), you can bet that Northerners will be hearing more from LIUNA in the future.

Of course, in the United States, LIUNA has been very vocal about pressuring President Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project. LIUNA’s position on Keystone XL tore apart the “Blue Green” alliance in the labour movement, paving the way for a return for “brown” vs. “green” divisions within labour and the political parties supported by labour. LIUNA also continues to support Northern Gateway, despite the solidarity shown by unions like UNIFOR, which took a stand with communities, indigenous peoples and the environment in its opposition.

Not in the Best Interest of Members

The very worst part about LIUNA’s position on never having seen a bitumen pipeline it didn’t like is LIUNA’s executive appears to be acting against what is best for many of its members. Although LIUNA represents pipeline workers, the union also represents those in the renewable energy industry – which is now the world’s fastest growing economic sector. Here in Canada, despite some promising starts towards prioritizing renewables, we’ve really been losing ground to international competition thanks to an uncoordinated national policy of putting all of our energy eggs in the bitumen basket. Although Stephen Harper promised to stop subsidizing rich multinational oil corporations back in 2009 at the G20 in Pittsburgh, little action has taken place (see: "Joint Report by IEA, OPEC, OECD and World Bank on fossil fuel and other energy subsidies: an update on the G20 Pittsburgh and Toronto commitments", 2011). This week, a new report was released by the Oil Change International and Overseas Development Institute which shows that taxpayers are funding exploration for oil reserves which can't be mined/burned (see: "Stop subsidizing oil exploration: think tank", Canadian Press, November 11, 2014). Harper continues to delay the regulatory mechanisms long promised to the Canadian people to limit greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sector.

As long as the tar sands continue to be subsidized by Canadian taxpayers, renewable energy producers in Canada will have to continue to accept an uneven playing field. But rather than calling for an end to the market interventions which disadvantage its members, LIUNA has instead decided to play along and promote the continued expansion of the tar sands. And perhaps that’s another thing which the decision-makers at LIUNA would like for you – and its own membership – to forget.

#NotProgressive: Accepting Corporate and Union Donations

What’s clear to me is that unions like LIUNA, along with corporations, continue to have far too much of a role to play in distorting our democratic processes. Although LIUNA can’t donate to federal political parties, the massive amounts of money that it has given the Ontario Liberal Party over the years makes enough of a case that it’s well past time to outlaw corporate and union donations at the provincial level. Further, that political parties like the NDP and the Liberals continue to partner with LIUNA on events and other activities is quite problematic, given LIUNA’s pro-pipeline and anti-planet agenda.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party, along with Tom Mulcair and the NDP, really want voters to cast their ballots for a “progressive” leader and party during the next federal election – each believing that voters should opt for their specific parties. What is becoming clear, however, is that any political party which puts the interests of tar sands corporations ahead of the planet can’t be considered progressive. That there are those in the labour movement which continue to work against the interests of the common people and the planet is illustrative of the fact that the labour movement itself cannot be uncritically considered “progressive”, despite some of the very good work done by unions to promote an alternative energy vision.

The Liberals and the NDP need to terminate their relationship with LIUNA if they want to be considered real progressive options for voters. Further, Trudeau and Mulcair need to abandon their support for the Energy East and Trans Mountain – pipelines which have but one purpose: to facilitate the expansion of the tar sands. As an expanding tar sands is incompatible with holding the line of warming at 2 degrees Celsius, there is no other option available – at least not for anyone or any party which wants to consider itself as being “progressive”. And until the Liberals and the NDP adopt these positions, it is quite clear to me that they will remain #NotProgressive.

Looking for LIUNA's Climate Change Plan

And as for LIUNA and letter-writer Mike Ryan, I’ll leave with this one last thought. Mike, the Green Party has a very good plan to end Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels in order to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Our plan involves slowing tar sands growth, ending subsidies for fossil fuels, putting a price on carbon, and promoting renewables and conservation. It is a realistic plan, but it will require a shift in the way that we produce, use and price energy. It’s a plan which, in some version, will need to be enacted by decision makers if we are serious about taking a stance against warming. In light of the reality of climate change, what is LIUNA’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? I looked online, Mike – I searched and searched, but I couldn’t find any position which LIUNA has taken on climate change. I’d dearly like to know what LIUNA has to say about climate change.

I hope that I’m wrong, but I expect I know the answer: Nothing.

Maybe when LIUNA shows up at the next TransCanada open houses, private citizens in attendance can level the same question at the union. The fight over Energy East is just beginning, and it’s likely going to get ugly. If the NDP and the Liberals can’t be climate leaders, they need to get out of the way for politicians who have the courage to stand up for average citizens, communities and the planet – politicians who are not beholden to corporate and union interests. Right now, it seems to me that those politicians can only be found in the Green Party.

(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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