2012 brought the best and worst of times for energy and environment in Canada

Blog - Dec. 21, 2012 - By Julia Kilpatrick

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.” Though originally written as a social criticism of the period leading up to the French Revolution, Charles Dickens’ words seem an equally appropriate characterization of the past year for energy and environment issues in Canada. 

Few highs and new lows

At first glance, it seems we saw few highs and some new lows in the public discourse over energy development and environmental protection in Canada. Right from the start we saw a ratcheting up of the rhetoric from the federal government, with the release in January of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s now infamous letter antagonizing environmental groups and people outside Canada who care about protecting our natural heritage in response to unprecedented interest in the public hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project. As my colleague Nathan Lemphers observed at the time, “Apparently Canada is open for business but closed to criticism, no matter how constructive.”

That letter set a tone for the year in which energy issues became highly polarized, making it very difficult to have a constructive, facts-based conversation at the federal level about the very serious challenges we face as a country — such as the need to make energy development more responsible, to take serious action on climate change (both at the international and domestic levels), and to respect the rights of First Nations and the concerns of all Canadians about the impacts of energy projects on the places they cherish.

Did someone say “Dutch disease?”

As the spring began to heat up, so did the debate over the economic impacts of oilsands development. NDP leader Tom Mulcair created no small controversy with his diagnosis that Canada suffers from “Dutch disease” — that is, a decline in manufacturing because of a dollar that’s inflated by rapid resource development and, in the Canadian context, oilsands expansion in particular.

The Dutch disease debate was near overheating just as the Pembina Institute released a report on how oilsands production is reshaping Canada’s economy. Following the release, report co-author Dan Woynillowicz remarked that, “As controversial as it may be, Canadians deserve a rational, mature conversation about how the current pace and scale of oilsands development are affecting Canada’s economy, both for better and for worse. We need less heat and more light from our leaders — across the country and the political spectrum.”

The worst of the worst

In an interivew with the CBC in May about proposed changes to environmental laws, federal Environment Minister Peter Kent claimed environmental charities were "laundering" money. Photo: Courtesy CBC Power and Politics.The lowest point of the year came with the Harper government’s introduction of two consecutive omnibus bills, C-38 and C-45, which together included changes to nearly every major environmental law in Canada, weakening environmental protections and making it easier for energy projects to be developed despite a range of potentially serious impacts to air, land, water, species or the climate. The bills also included measures to increase the CRA’s scrutiny of charitable spending, gave politicians the power to overrule recommendations by the National Energy Board, weakened the laws protecting all but 97 of Canada’s more than 32,000 major lakes, and made it more difficult for Canadians to have a say in decision making about energy projects.

Given the sweeping changes made to environmental protection at the federal level in 2012, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say this year could be fairly characterized as the “worst of times.”

Seeing the peaks among the valleys

But that’s just one side of Dickens’ famous paradox. Looking back on this "season of Darkness," there is ample evidence that it was in many respects also a “season of Light”.

One of the real highlights this year was seeing how Canadians rallied in response to the government’s plans to weaken environmental legislation through the two omnibus bills. More than 50,000 people signed a petition organized by the Black Out Speak Out campaign, and on June 4, more than 600 organizations and individuals across the country — from green groups to labour unions to human rights advocates — darkened their websites to signify their opposition to the bill and to “speak out for nature and democracy.”

Photo of an electric vehicle. July brought another promising signal out of B.C., as the province marked the fourth anniversary of its carbon tax, showing the rest of the country that sensible climate policy is nothing to be afraid of. Meanwhile some communities in British Columbia continued to proactively tackle their carbon emissions by providing incentives for projects such as district energy units, solar hot water systems and energy conservation retrofits.

At the end of the summer Alberta unveiled its long-awaited Lower Athabasca Regional Plan to manage the cumulative effects of oilsands development and other industrial activity in northern Alberta. Throughout 2012 Ontario’s feed-in tariff continued to encourage the development of large-scale renewable power across the province, and other provinces are beginning to capitalize on the economic potential of this sector. And closing the year on a positive note, Quebec just announced new regulations to establish a cap-and-trade market that will be linked with California’s. Though Quebec, Ontario and B.C.’s climate policies all leave room for improvement, it’s promising to see some provinces taking the climate challenge seriously.

As it turns out, the climate leadership we’re seeing at the provincial level is more in keeping with what Canadians want to see than Ottawa’s current lacklustre approach. Just this week, an Environics poll found that a majority of Canadians want more action on climate change and nearly 60 per cent of Canadians would support a B.C.-style carbon tax in their provinces, despite months of fear mongering by the Conservatives. It’s a promising signal heading into 2013 because it shows that the government is on the wrong side of public opinion on this issue, and Canadians are ready for their government to lead with more effective climate policies.

Taking the long view

Infographic for our Behind the Wheel report. Of course, it’s impossible to list all of the noteworthy work that supporters of the Pembina Institute made possible in 2012, and there are many other stories I’d love to share — including some really innovative work in Ontario tackling climate change through transportation policies and urban design, an important intervention by our oilsands team raising awareness about the cumulative impacts of oilsands development in Northern Alberta, and exciting work our consulting services arm is doing to reduce the climate risks and impacts of the financial services sector. 

These examples show that, despite the adversarial nature of the energy debate this year, many promising developments are occurring across the country. In this season of reflection, it’s worth remembering that industry and environmental groups do not need to be adversaries — we’ve proven time and again that we can work together to achieve common goals. 2013 presents the challenge, and the opportunity, of continuing to build on this momentum.

Julia Kilpatrick
Julia Kilpatrick

Julia was the communications director at the Pembina Institute until 2015.


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