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An oil sands mining operation at the Muskeg River Mine is shown in July of 2008.

Larry MacDougal

It's official: the Conservative Government has now released - or at least promised to release - more climate-change plans than there were Police Academy movies. Only unlike Police Academy 7, there is nothing funny about what they are proposing.

Lost in a long-weekend of meaningless polls, amateur political advertising analysis ("clearly the lighting used in the Liberal ads was intended to appeal to female, rural voters...") and dizzying election spin came word that the Harper government is about to make public their climate change plan. This is of course the fourth fall in a row that the Conservatives were on the verge of releasing a climate-change plan but no matter.

What is interesting about this proposed plan (not to confused with the previous plans), is the Conservatives are proposing a two-tiered approach to climate change in Canada; "the Conservatives intend to put a cap on the emissions from Ontario's manufacturing sector and other polluting industries across Canada, while letting oil and gas companies meet less stringent intensity targets which allow output, and pollution, to increase."

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As an Ontario based Liberal who cares about climate change, I should of course be outraged by this proposal. Absolute targets for some, intensity targets for the oil sands. How cynical. Moreover, given the importance of the oil sands in Canada's overall emissions growth, how empty and meaningless.

Here's the thing though, if you believe that there is no "contradiction between having a strong environmental commitment to make the oil sands environmentally and socially sustainable, and being a party that believes in a great national industry which is going to be driving growth right across Canada for the next century," then I'm not sure what policy option you can adopt other than having some form of intensity based targets for the oil sands that over 20 years will help slowly make development a bit cleaner but won't - in absolute terms - reduce emissions at all (and in fact will allow total emissions to explode).

Maybe there's somebody smarter than me who can explain to me why I'm wrong but as far as I can tell, it's a binary choice: either you put very strict targets on the oil sands but slow them down (and thus cause at least some economic pain) or you don't. The don't option in this case means Canada will remain a total laggard when it comes to climate change but it will also lead to continued strong growth for the oil sands with resulting economic benefits across the country. Again - maybe there is a way to cut the baby in half and have it both ways, I just have never seen such a proposal before in any detail greater than empty rhetoric.

So while I may not agree with the Conservative plan, there is at least a certain honesty to it: they are choosing continued oil sands development over reducing Canada's emissions in a meaningful way. Ya, they will go tough (maybe) on the manufacturing sector but they have made their decision and the oil sands (and Saskatchewan's natural gas industry) will not be harmed economically on the alter of emissions reductions.

A fair decision. Not the one I would make if I was in charge but that's the Conservative government's decision. Good for them, bad for the environment.

While it is unlikely that the environment will be a major issue this election, that doesn't mean this just goes away politically. Watch for the "counter" position to be placed in the capable hands of Premiers Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest to articulate and fight for. As I have written previously, environmental federalism is destined to be a dominant issue in Canada over the next decade.

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