STOP: Stop Tar Sands Operations Permanently

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PM’s low-risk environmental plan

Posted by mhudema on March 14, 2008

March 14, 2008

Ed Stelmach is just what the Prime Minister needs. He makes Stephen Harper look almost green.The Alberta premier has promised not to “touch the brake” on oil-sands development. He has vowed not to let anybody – not First Nations, not environmentalists, not Ottawa, not even a quintet of oil companies proposing a partial moratorium – slow the gusher. The 56-year-old cattle farmer is cheerfully, shamelessly intransigent on climate change.What better foil could Harper have?Before Stelmach became premier, the Prime Minister sounded tone-deaf on the environment. Before Stelmach declared himself the protector of Alberta’s prosperity, Harper looked deferential to the oil industry.Thanks to Stelmach, he no longer risks being labelled the champion of unsustainable resource exploitation.He can now proceed with modest environmental change.That is not the prevailing view in Calgary, where Stelmach’s recent election victory is seen as a firm roadblock to any meaningful federal action to slow global warming.Nor is it the received wisdom in Ottawa, where Harper’s lenient and loophole-ridden emission rules are considered a serious electoral liability.But it would be a mistake to underestimate the Prime Minister’s tactical prowess. And in this case, he has several factors working in his favour.The first is that oil-sands production is likely to get cleaner, no matter what Canada does.New energy legislation adopted by the United States in December would prevent the American government from buying fuel that spews more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than conventional oil. It is possible that the Bush administration will exempt Canada from the law, but any reprieve will be temporary.If the Democrats capture the White House next fall, the pressure to cut CO2 emissions will intensify. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have set more aggressive targets than Canada.Barring a sudden shift in America’s political winds, Harper can reasonably expect environmental progress in Alberta, with little prodding from Ottawa.Market forces could also help him.Five major oil producers – Petro-Canada, Suncor, Husky, Shell and Imperial – have called for a slowdown on energy development in the oil sands.Their reasons may be self-serving. Their records may be anything but green. Nevertheless, they recognize that it’s in their long-term interest to set a more measured pace.All Harper has to do is offer mild encouragement.Finally, he stands to gain from provincial initiatives.Both British Columbia and Quebec have introduced carbon taxes. Ontario is phasing out its coal-fired power plants. Manitoba is working toward the creation of a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas producers.All of these initiatives will have more immediate impact than anything coming out of Ottawa.Harper has always been happy to let the premiers do as they wish in areas of provincial jurisdiction. In this instance, he benefits when they do the heavy lifting.With a bit of luck, the Prime Minister will be able to point to improvements on several fronts – none of his own making – by the time he goes to the polls, assuring voters that his approach is working.This poses a problem for Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion.Not only will he have to convince Canadians that Harper is free-riding on the efforts of others, he will also have to make the case that he can get further with regulations and penalties than the Prime Minister has done with “tough” targets and fortuitous timing.It also presents a challenge to environmentalists. They will have to explain to the public why Canada has to move much further, much faster than the oil companies or the American government intend.Harper is gambling that voters don’t really want to change their lifestyle or pay for the environmental damage they do. That is why he keeps putting forward flexible emission limits and banking on unproven technologies.Lest anyone suggest his policies lack teeth, he can always count on Stelmach to wince at the slightest hint of restraint and decry every federal move as draconian.Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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