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Election preparations reveal fissures in unity of Ontario environmentalists Add to ...

Last month, Ontario’s leading environmental groups sent each of the province’s party leaders a list of shared priorities heading into next year’s election.

But that election, which threatens to stall or even reverse the gains they’ve made under the current government, is helping make clear that not all of those groups are on the same page when it comes to strategy.

Although environmentalists insist they’re as united as ever, there appears to be a split between relative pragmatists and those more wedded to their movement’s oppositional, anti-establishment roots. The former seem more committed to playing nice with Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals, who have run arguably the greenest government in the province’s history; the latter believe it’s their obligation to always press hard for more, however relatively friendly the party in power.

The contrasting approaches were noticeably on display last week after the much-anticipated release of the Liberals’ long-term energy plan.

The government’s renewed commitment to nuclear power for about half the supply, Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart charged, meant that – for all the money being spent on wind and solar and biomass – the province would be left with “the old system with a little green trim around the edges.” Similar complaints were made by other groups, including the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.

But just a couple of days later, the prominent activist group Environmental Defence released a glowing progress report on the Liberals’ Green Energy Act. Drawing favourable comparisons with similar renewable-energy efforts in Europe, it called Ontario “a leader in the worldwide trend towards powering prosperity with sustainability.”

Environmental Defence was one of the groups that drew up the priorities list, of which opposition to nuclear was a big part; its executive director, Rick Smith, was the author of the cover letter. But it bit its tongue on the heavy nuclear component of the Liberals’ plan, evidently surmising that it couldn’t have expected much better than a long-term commitment of $27-billion for renewable energy development, plus another $12-billion toward conservation.

More broadly, there’s a recognition among many environmentalists – privately, if not publicly – that they’ve had it pretty good under Mr. McGuinty’s watch. From the establishment of a 1.8-million-acre greenbelt in the Golden Horseshoe to restricting half of Northern Ontario from development to enacting wildlife protections, the Liberals have often risked alienating other interests to suit environmental ones. And the phase-out of coal power alone, a favourite Liberal talking point, is enough to warm many green hearts.

Tim Hudak’s Conservatives – currently leading in most opinion polls – have sent mixed signals as to just how sharply they oppose some of those policies, and their positions will remain ambiguous until they release a platform some time in 2011. But few observers expect them to make the environment as much of a priority if they form power, so it does seem rather an obvious time to rally around the Liberals.

Both relative pragmatists and hard-liners seem to agree that, in the long run, they need to get to the point where an election doesn’t put them in such a perilous position. That includes Mr. Smith, who, in an interview, spoke enviously of the gay-rights movement’s victory in gaining success across the political spectrum.

“That’s where environmental issues are at in Europe and other Canadian provinces,” he said. “There were minimal differences between the ambitious environmental platforms of the three major parties in the last UK election, and conservatives are the leading proponents of renewable energy across Europe. That unanimous support from all parties is where green issues need to get to in Ontario.”

Very few, however, seem to think Ontario is there just yet. As they try to push it toward that point, the looming question for environmentalists is whether they have to pick sides in the meanwhile.

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