Pembina Institute

Advice to Harper: be cautious about tooting Canada's horn

There is no doubt energy will be on the agenda for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's visit with U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday. Whether talking about climate change or oil, the two countries are closely intertwined. And Harper might want to think carefully before promoting Canadian leadership on climate change or oilsands development.

On the issue of oil, Obama cannot ignore his own party, which is raising significant concerns about the environmental footprint of oilsands development — particularly high greenhouse gas emissions. Leading Democrats in the U.S. Congress in the House and the Senate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and tens of thousands of citizens are now worried about increasing U.S. reliance on oilsands. The issue at play is a pipeline proposal by TransCanada that would almost double U.S. imports of Canadian oil. The concerns are not anti-Canada in nature. Many Americans are genuinely concerned about the high level of greenhouse gases that accompany oilsands production and its environmental footprint.

Harper should stop and think before claiming Canada has strong regulatory oversight over oilsands development. U.S. decision-makers are aware of the recent reports from the Royal Society of Canada and the Office of the Auditor General's Environment Commissioner, both of which point out problems with federal oversight and monitoring of oilsands development.

SmokestacksOn the issue of climate change, Harper's government has followed a policy that suggests it would "harmonize" with U.S climate policies.  But while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead with regulations on industrial greenhouse gas pollution, the Government of Canada has so far failed to follow suit.

Can we imagine the conversation that might unfold in the room when the topic comes to energy?

Harper might try to make the same argument that his new environment minister, Peter Kent, made last week, suggesting Canada has a strong climate action plan in place. But as my colleague Clare Demerse pointed out yesterday, the government's current plans would see us miss our 2020 target by 75 per cent.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Obama administration has already implemented regulations on greenhouse gas emissions for new major facilities. Regulations for existing facilities and refineries will be finalized in 2012. In other words, the U.S. is working to cut greenhouse gas emissions even though the U.S. Congress could not pass federal legislation.

Obama might want to talk to Harper about his clean energy initiatives. And he'd have plenty to talk about, whether it's his investments in renewable energy (which are more than 18 times greater, per capita, than Canada's) or his commitment to put one million electric vehicles on America's highways by 2015. In his recent State of the Union address, Obama committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and federal legislation to achieve that has since been tabled. By contrast, Canada has so far refused to make any new commitments on phasing out subsidies — in defiance of recommendations from our own officials.

Early reports indicate Obama and Harper will talk about the Clean Energy Dialogue, a program started two years ago between the two leaders. Joint progress, however, appears quite modest. If anything, given Canada's lack of ambition, it's starting to look more like a clean energy monologue.

For a long time, the Americans weren't scrutinizing our climate and oilsands issues.  But now they are. And the real test is whether Canada has an ambitious plan to regulate oilsands development and an aggressive plan to cut greenhouse gas pollution and meet Canada's national emission targets. The reality is that Harper can't say we have either of those.

As the Canadian and Alberta governments lobby members of Congress and the administration, sometimes partnering up with the oil industry, they should pay heed to this scrutiny. They are not serving Canada well in terms of our reputation if our policies are weak.

And now that Americans have woken up to realizing their energy relationship with its northern neighbor, they are not looking for talk — they are looking for action. 

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Chris Curry — Mar 29, 2011 - 11:21 AM MT

Could you be specific please? What are the weaknesses, example by example. What are the regulations currently in place which govern the operation and development of the oilsands. Describe them for us and then say why they are inadequate, with logical reasoning.
I find that general statements as in Danielle's blog do not educate. If you are telling the American government that the Canadian ministries are fabricating material which they are presenting to them, you are attacking our own government. You should be arguing with the Canadian Environment minister, the Prime Minister, etc. -- not telling the U.S. administration that our government is stupid and dishonest. I find the claims here to be extraordinarily disingenuous.

Danielle Droitsch — Feb 09, 2011 - 04:20 PM MT

Thank you for your comment. This blog was written to help Canadians and Americans understand the current state of Canada's clean energy and climate policy — or lack thereof. The Canadian government spends quite a bit of time promoting Canada's climate policy in the United States, largely to defend the oilsands industry. But what this blog points out is that the United States is now ahead of Canada, despite the fact that one house of Congress is Republican dominated. Indeed, whether one house of Congress is Republican or whether certain political appointees have recently departed, are not particularly relevant in this context.

The real concern is that the Canadian and Alberta governments have a fairly concerted effort in Washington, D.C., to paint a picture in the United States that is simply untrue. This lobby effort is slowly being exposed through freedom of information efforts and by the work of groups like ours on the ground. Helping to expose these practices is part of our aim to promote strong climate and clean energy policy from Canada. This is not about attacking government. It is about promoting a strong government. There is nothing beneficial about telling Canadians or Americans that we have a strong climate policy, when we do not. Unfortunately, that is what is happening in Washington, D.C.

Wil — Feb 05, 2011 - 04:44 PM MT

Danielle, I'm not sure if you are aware but the US had midterm elections in Nov 2010. It seems like quite a strange Advice to the Prime Minister that you don't mention the impact of a Republican controlled House. As well, the departures of Carol Browner and David Goldwyn recently is quite important.

Sometimes Pembina contributes some very interesting research and opinions, but sometimes, such as this, it's pretty weak. It would be much more interesting to read an actual "briefing note" style blog posting by Pembina, especially one at least grounded somewhat by realism. Sadly, realism is not often your strong suit, which is, of course, attacking various levels of Canadian governments.

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