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Jeffrey Simpson

Does Peter Kent even care about emissions? Add to ...

It was a pity, although quite predictable, that new Environment Minister Peter Kent should have leaped to defend the oil sands even before being briefed by his department.

Mr. Kent was briefed, of course – by the Prime Minister’s Office, where the lines had been scripted for the oil sands’ new song-and-dance man.

The oil sands are going to be developed. The issue is how, at what rate and under what circumstances. In that connection, it’s too bad Mr. Kent didn’t read, among other things, the latest report by the Royal Society of Canada.

That body – arguably the most eminent collection of minds in the country – decided to carefully study the oil sands. The report is balanced and fair. It exonerates the industry developing the resource from charges that surface water is being endangered. It notes approvingly that the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production has fallen 39 per cent since 1990. It says the claim “by some critics of the oil sands industry that it is the most environmentally destructive project on Earth is not supported by the evidence.”

The oil sands currently produce about 5 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions, the report notes. This figure is touted by unreconstructed defenders of the industry to justify little further action to curb emissions.

Alas, the Royal Society observes that “the predicted future of GHG emissions from the oil sands industry pose a major and growing challenge to Canada’s ability to meet national GHG emission reduction targets in keeping with international GHG reduction targets.” In other words, emissions from the oil sands are going to grow, unless there is a major course correction, without which Canada will be hard-pressed to meet the Harper government’s own reduction target of 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.

Canadians might have thought that such a prospect would at least bother the federal Environment Minister. Apparently not. As the Royal Society observes, carbon sequestration is unlikely to work easily with the oil sands, and in situ production of the kind to be used in future produces more GHG emissions than surface mining.

Then again, maybe the new minister will follow his predecessor and just keep repeating the 17-per-cent figure, even though everyone in the field knows it to be unattainable under current policies. If anyone still doubts that, please check Tuesday’s report from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. It forecasts that on a business-as-usual basis, Canadian emissions will rise significantly for the next decade, rather than falling, as the government keeps predicting.

Perhaps Mr. Kent, like others at the government’s highest levels, simply doesn’t believe the science of global warming. Perhaps he believes, like other deniers, that the hundreds of scientists who contribute to the United Nations climate-change panels are wrong. Perhaps he and his government colleagues believe the scientists are a bunch of left-wing pinkos, or perhaps they just don’t like the United Nations.

Okay, then look at the latest findings of that notoriously pinko institution, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. It just reiterated all its previous warnings about man-made climate change, saying the “facts about Earth’s climate are not in dispute.” NASA yet again demolished theories that global warming is caused by solar changes such as sun spots, a favourite theory of some deniers.

Or, check out the recent report from another pinko group, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It found that 2010 tied with 2005 for the warmest combined global land and ocean surface temperatures since records began in 1880. It noted, in passing, that 2010 in Canada ranked “as the warmest year on record since national records began in 1948.”

As for Canada’s own record, it might have interested Mr. Kent to know that the NRTEE, in a previous report, ranked Canada a lamentable sixth of eight leading countries in “low-carbon performance.” He might also have noted that his own department’s statistics show that Canadian emissions came down slightly because of the recession in 2008 and 2009, but even with that decline remained higher than at the beginning of the decade.

With the recession over, emissions will climb again. We might have hoped that the federal Environment Minister would care.


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