Pembina Institute

Still waiting for the U.S. on energy issues? Time for Canada to unhitch the wagon

Everyone in Washington D.C. today is trying to read the tea leaves from the American midterm elections, in which the Republicans assumed majority control of the House of Representatives and the Democrats held on to the Senate. But it's not just Americans engaged in this analysis: from Parliament Hill in Ottawa to the corporate board rooms of Calgary, many Canadians are considering what implications this outcome will have on climate change and energy issues in Canada.

Barack Obama in OhioThis speculation goes beyond Canadians' usual interest in what's happening south of the border, and with good reason. The federal government has effectively abandoned Canada's sovereignty on climate and energy policy by making "waiting for the U.S." Canada's official climate strategy. While the U.S. got to work, drafting and then passing comprehensive climate legislation that won the approval of the House and nearly passed in the Senate, Canada stalled. But by summertime, it was clear that comprehensive legislation would not pass in the U.S. Senate. Columnist Paul Wells of Maclean's magazine neatly summarized what this meant for Canada's "wait and follow" approach:

In announcing a "continental approach" to energy and the environment, Harper was betting Obama would fail to get anything done. Canadians have paid too little attention to the collapse this summer of climate change legislation in the U.S. Senate. It meant Harper has won his bet.

 

Which brings us to the outcome of yesterday's election. Waiting for Congress to pass climate legislation will take at least two years, but more likely four. While the Obama administration is moving forward to regulate emissions under the Clean Air Act, waiting for the U.S. risks being recipe for delay and inaction. That's simply not a responsible approach for Canada to take to an issue as important as climate change.

With drought harming businesses in the prairies; forest fires threatening homes, lives and resources in the Rockies; melting permafrost making roads impassable and cutting off isolated northern communities; and intolerable heat waves and air pollution in the south, Canadians can not afford to wait for U.S. Congress to agree on a climate plan that reflects American interests.

Nor do we have to. The federal government already has all the tools it needs to custom-build a meaningful climate plan for Canada. Canada and the U.S. are different countries with dramatically different energy interests, sources and needs. In fact, analysis show that Canada's plan to expand oilsands operations means we'll need to take more ambitious action to cut our greenhouse gas pollution than the U.S. in order to meet the same target. Meanwhile, economic modelling shows Canada can adopt a much more ambitious climate policy than the U.S. and still enjoy solid economic growth, creating over a million net new jobs in the next decade.

cracked earth Now more than ever, it is time for the Prime Minister Harper to ensure  Canada takes action to meet - or, better, beat - the targets his government has committed to, provide companies investing and operating in Canada with the certainty they seek, and rebuild Canada's international reputation.

But action on climate alone won't fix Canada's international image problem. The oilsands remain in the international spotlight, including in Washington, D.C.. Despite yesterday's election outcomes, some Democrats will still be concerned about the environmental impacts of oilsands development, while some Republicans are likely to promote increased use of Canadian crude.

The new Congress matters most in its influence on the Obama administration, which remains the most significant player on the oilsands issue. The administration shapes U.S. decision making around oilsands imports from Canada and it, along with influential members of Obama's party, has expressed concern about the environmental impacts of oilsands development.  As I wrote just last week, the Obama administration is currently conflicted over the environmental issues associated with the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.

When it comes to oilsands, the question is not so much about how the midterms affect Canada. The real question is how the federal and Alberta governments will address the environmental, economic and social impacts of developing this resource. We need effective action from both levels of government to ensure oilsands production respects environmental limits.

We shouldn't have to look to the U.S. to see that Canada needs an effective, custom-built plan to manage oilsands impacts, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and meet our climate change commitments. But we do need to look to the science and to a clean energy future - something that Canada needs to work a lot harder at doing.

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