Just when Prime Minister Stephen Harper declined to join other world leaders on the podium of the United Nations climate change summit, the climate for his ambitious energy agenda continued to deteriorate across Canada.
l In New Brunswick, voters pushed pause on the development of the province’s shale gas industry, declining to buy into its economic potential until more is known about its environmental impact.
The incumbent Conservative government was ousted from office last week after a campaign spent touting the benefits of the industry for the have-not province. Liberal premier-elect Brian Gallant promised a moratorium.
l In Quebec, a Superior Court judge brought TransCanada’s drilling off the coast of the port of Cacouna on the St. Lawrence River to a temporary halt.
Justice Claudine Roy’s ruling reads like an indictment for dereliction of environmental duty against Quebec’s newly elected Liberal government. She could find no scientific or regulatory rationale for the decision to allow TransCanada to drill at a critical time in the reproductive cycle of the river’s threatened beluga population.
The court injunction could be just one of a series of Quebec roadblocks on the way to building a west-to-east pipeline to link Alberta’s oilsands to the refineries of Eastern Canada.
The defeat last April of the Parti Québécois was greeted with a collective sigh of relief in other parts of Canada but it was not necessarily good news for the country’s energy corporations.
The PQ is never more aggressive in the pursuit of environmental issues than when it is in opposition, a role that frees it from the pressure of stimulating economic growth in the province.
The party’s rhetoric over the transport through Quebec of oil destined to be exported out of Canada has been heating up — and gaining traction.
l In Alberta, Premier Jim Prentice mused about the need for a change in the route of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. In a non-binding plebiscite last spring, a clear majority of the residents of Kitimat, B.C. — the Pacific Coast port that would host the pipeline’s terminal — voted against the project despite the jobs the project would bring to the city.
Prentice, who has been in office for two weeks, feels that addressing Alberta’s reputation as an environment miscreant is a prerequisite to getting its energy export ambitions back on track.
None of those developments bodes well for the ruling federal Conservatives as they prepare to run for re-election on their economic record next year.
Almost a decade ago, Harper decreed that Canada’s national interest commanded a proactive approach to the development of its energy resources. The tenet that a vibrant energy sector is key to the country’s prosperity is a matter of federal consensus among the main parties in the House of Commons.
But the way that Harper has gone about implementing it has been neither consensual nor effective.
To facilitate an ambitious energy agenda his government has dismantled large sections of Canada’s environmental oversight infrastructure.
The words “climate change” were excised from the federal vocabulary.
Federal environmental watchdogs were defanged or put down as in the case of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.
The environmental movement was essentially treated as a fifth column.
One result from this passive-aggressive Conservative approach to climate change has been to move the debate to a host of fronts other than Parliament.
It is playing out in the courts, in the provinces and in public opinion, with the Harper government almost always on the losing side of the argument.
While the majority of Canadian voters support the development of Canada’s energy potential, most continue to expect their governments to act as honest brokers in the search for a balance between the economy and the environment.
It is not a given that the Liberals or the New Democrats would fit the profile of honest broker that Harper has so consistently relinquished although it is certain that neither would embrace the energy industry with the same (stifling?) vigour of the Conservatives.
But it is fast coming to a point where it would be easier to advance Canada’s energy agenda on the blank page of a new federal government than based on a Conservative climate change record blotted with indelible ink.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.
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