Truth and consequences

It didn’t take long for the bad stuff to hit the national fan, and it didn’t take long for NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to clarify that the party was all for energy development, as long as it was done in an environmentally responsible way.

“A lot of the oilsands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets.”

— Linda McQuaig, NDP candidate for Toronto Centre

Well, wasn’t that a blast for the federal election campaign: an NDP candidate from Central Canada in effect suggesting Alberta perhaps should not be developing its “dirty oil.”

It didn’t take long for the bad stuff to hit the national fan, and it didn’t take long for NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to clarify that the party was all for energy development, as long as it was done in an environmentally responsible way.

So both statements could be true at the same time.

Shortly after McQuaig’s comments to the CBC, the Ontario Energy Board ruminated that TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Energy East pipeline to carry that dirty oil to a refinery in New Brunswick contained more risk than reward. Needless to say, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant was not happy with that.

More recently, Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips appointed a five-member panel to write a climate change action plan for the province.

Anyone can offer opinions online to the panel and one-day public sessions in Edmonton and Calgary are being arranged, with a deadline of early November for the plan’s presentation. Good luck with that. Seriously.

Meanwhile, consumers are expected to believe that a 50 per cent shutdown of one single refinery in Indiana is responsible for gasoline prices rising by 15 cents a litre overnight — at a time when crude prices are at near-historic lows.

Hanging over all of that — and tying it all together — is McQuaig’s truthful comment that Canada will never come near meeting a signed declaration committing us to a 70 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Not without leaving a lot of that 168 billion barrels of oilsands crude forever in the ground.

Canada produces about 726 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year. That’s about two per cent of the global total. Canada’s greenhouse gas emission target in our latest agreement is just under 220 megatonnes per year.

China produces nearly a quarter of the current global total. The U.S. produces 18 per cent. If cutting greenhouse gas production by 70 per cent will save the planet, that’s where the big cuts will have to come.

Good luck with that, too. I do mean that.

Let’s look at what the experts have told us in the time between what McQuaig said and what our environment minister said.

If we are to cut about more than 500 megatonnes of C02 equivalent off our annual carbon footprint in 35 years, where would the cuts be achieved?

Federal government reports say transportation — cars, trucks, motorcycles, rail and domestic air travel accounts for about 98 megatonnes of C02 per year. That’s the largest category of production.

The entire oil and gas industry — minus the oilsands — accounts for only 19 megatonnes. The oilsands, at current production, accounts for 62 megatonnes.

Add that up: it’s 179 megatonnes. So, if we outlawed all internal combustion engines and all air travel, and shut down the entire oil, gas and oilsands industry over the next 35 years, Canada would miss its sworn goal by 312 megatonnes per year.

Under those conditions, I don’t think many Canadians would still be around in 2050 to celebrate the achievement.

And that draconian effort would affect only 1.4 per cent of today’s global emissions. Good luck to the rest of the world matching our reduction.

In other words, averting climate change in today’s economy is not only more difficult than we imagine; it is more difficult than we can imagine.

So what does this have to do with the sudden spike in the price of gas, and Alberta’s announced climate change action plan? Considering the task before us, the cynical mind wants to know.

One of the questions that have been put to Alberta’s climate panel is how to put a price on carbon. If Alberta puts a carbon tax on gasoline, for instance, what’s the most our government could add to the pump price without really putting a serious crimp on things?

Well, the gasoline industry just put an overnight 15 cents-a-litre bite on the gap between what was being charged and the theoretical max. You want a carbon tax on gas? Well, tack it on top of $1.20 a litre and blame it on a partial refinery shutdown in Somewhere, Indiana.

I can’t shake the feeling that we’re being played here. Consumers do have a real appetite for reducing carbon pollution — except in vehicle fuel consumption, which is the biggest single source of carbon pollution. We also have a big resistance to personal sacrifice when it comes to our lifestyle.

A secret planning document for the federal government, uncovered by the CBC, suggests up to 89 megatonnes of CO2 can be saved in efficiencies in electricity production. Read: close all coal-fired power plants.

Now why would the feds even consider shutting down existing power plants over 35 years hoping to save 89 megatonnes of greenhouse gas, while expanding oilsands production (already producing 62 megatonnes) by approving bitumen pipelines to anywhere?

Don’t blame Linda McQuaig for telling the truth.

Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow at or email