Joint climate action for Keystone fails to persuade

Blog - Sept. 30, 2013 - By Clare Demerse

Outsourcing our climate policy doesn't work for Canada's climate goals. Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

It’s been a few weeks since news broke that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had written to U.S. President Barack Obama about the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, offering “joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector” in exchange for his approval of the project. But so far there is little evidence — in public at least — that the Obama Administration is interested in accepting Harper’s offer.

If Harper did fail to catch Obama’s interest with his letter, it’s worth asking why. Environmental groups in the United States and Canada have pointed to Harper’s lack of credibility in offering climate action, and of course there’s good reason to do so. But part of the explanation might be that the U.S. just doesn’t share Stephen Harper’s interest in “aligning” U.S. and Canadian climate policy.  

And fair enough: the Harper government’s insistence that Canada can’t tackle climate change without the U.S. has never convinced us either.

Cover for whom?

When the CBC broke news of the letter, Harper’s offer of joint action on oil and gas regulations was presented as a “clear signal that Canada is willing to make concessions” to win Obama’s approval of Keystone.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen HarperThe letter itself has not been released, so we can only speculate about its contents. But there’s an important piece of context in interpreting Harper’s offer that hasn’t received much attention. Namely, the oil and gas sector — which accounts for about six per cent of U.S. emissions — is not a top priority in the U.S. regulatory approach

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken some actions to curtail the sector’s emissions, but it has not yet proposed greenhouse gas regulations for existing oil and gas facilities. (Instead, the EPA’s priority now is power plants — a far larger source of U.S. greenhouse gas pollution.)

North of the border, the oil and gas industry has certainly noticed the EPA’s timeline. Canadian refiners, in particular, argue that their competitive position would be damaged if Canada moves to regulate ahead of the U.S.

With that context in mind, it’s unclear that Harper’s letter actually represents a new offer to reduce emissions or a concession to Obama. (Remember, his government has been saying for years now that it will regulate oil and gas emissions.) Instead, the Prime Minister’s call for “joint” action could mean that Stephen Harper wants the U.S. to regulate its oil and gas sector before Canada does.

In other words, rather than offering Obama political cover, Harper could be looking for it himself.

Outsourcing climate policy

The notion that Canada can’t afford to cut its emissions unless the U.S. does too has been a constant in Harper’s approach to climate change, as several Canadian officials pointed out when news of the letter to Obama broke. Linking it to Keystone is just a new variation on an old theme.

And Canada has indeed aligned itself with the U.S. on several occasions, from adopting their national 2020 target as our own to enacting the U.S. standards for curbing greenhouse gas emissions from passenger and freight vehicles. Canada also has a Clean Energy Dialogue with the U.S., although — as the name suggests — it’s a forum to exchange ideas rather than a plan to cut emissions.

At the Pembina Institute, we’ve never accepted the idea that Canada should outsource its climate policy to another country. A G8 nation like Canada needs to have a perspective of its own on the important issues of the day, and climate change definitely falls into that category (as Stephen Harper is finding out, perhaps to his chagrin, in the case of Keystone).

The U.S. is unlikely to have Canada’s interests top of mind when it crafts domestic climate policy, so their approach may not be a good fit for our situation. And on issues from health care to tackling acid rain, there is plenty of evidence that Canada can prosper while moving independently of the U.S.

Moreover, copying U.S. climate policy never really made sense from a greenhouse gas perspective. Despite linked economies, our emissions profiles are quite different.

In the U.S., the power sector — including coal and natural-gas fired electricity — accounts for one-third of emissions, so it’s easy to see why this was the priority in Obama’s climate plan. In Canada, the oil and gas sector occupies that same niche, accounting for nearly a quarter of Canada’s emissions. (The two sectors have very different emissions trajectories, though: coal emissions in the U.S. are already dropping, while oilsands emissions are projected to more than double from 2010 to 2020, making them Canada’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution.)

But the U.S. doesn’t have an oilsands sector. So no matter how hard the EPA works, it is never going to write emission regulations for the oilsands. Cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands is a uniquely Canadian responsibility.  And so far — despite years of consultations with industry and Alberta — it’s one that the federal government has utterly failed to fulfill.

The magic number

In the CBC’s initial story about Harper’s letter, an unnamed government source complained that the Obama had failed to give Canada a “hard target” of emissions cuts Canada would need to make to secure his approval of Keystone.

The reality is that we already have a hard target from Washington: our shared national climate goal for 2020. If the Prime Minister’s Office needs a magic number, a good starting point would be 113 million tonnes — the amount by which Environment Canada currently projects we’ll miss the 2020 target. Strong oil and gas sector regulations are essential to help get Canada on track for that goal.

Barack Obama’s climate plan re-affirms the U.S.’s commitment to the 2020 target and aims to make the emission cuts needed to meet it. It’s definitely not too much to ask Stephen Harper to do the same on this side of the border.

Follow Clare on Twitter @claredemerse

Clare Demerse
Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


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