In early 2015, Justin Trudeau went to Calgary to reassure the oil patch that he was not his father.
Almost 35 years after Pierre Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program – fuelling the rise of Western alienation, the birth of the Reform Party and the decimation of the Liberal brand in Alberta – his son vowed never to repeat that mistake if he became prime minister.
“A federal program that harms one part of the country harms us all,” Mr. Trudeau told the Calgary Petroleum Club. “Getting our resources to market is a priority for Canadians, and we know that economic success depends on us keeping our word on the environment.”
The NEP, introduced in 1980, was the opposite of an environmental policy. Rather, it aimed to set a domestic price for oil and end Canada’s dependence on the imported crude from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which had caused an inflationary spiral on the global oil market. But in doing so, the NEP deprived Alberta of billions of dollars in potential oil royalties, and came to symbolize the arrogance of the Laurentian elites who governed Canada in the interests of Ontario and Quebec.
Well, get ready for NEP 2.0.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau named former Greenpeace activist Steven Guilbeault as federal Environment Minister. His first order of business: capping greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. The precise level of the cap Mr. Guilbeault sets will determine investment and production in the oil patch for decades to come – putting thousands of jobs in Alberta, and the health of its finances, on the line.
“His own personal background and track record on these issues suggest someone who is more an absolutist than pragmatist when it comes to finding solutions,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said after Mr. Guilbeault’s appointment.
“Kenney’s people are worried. They call the appointment ‘a slap in the face’ to Alberta,” wrote Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid.
Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre tweeted, “OPEC is popping the champagne” at the nomination of Canada’s “new looney-left Environment Minister.”
And Tory leader Erin O’Toole blasted Mr. Guilbeault as an “ideologically driven” politician whose approach to environmental policy “is going to create further divisions in the country.”
Mr. Trudeau is taking a major risk in placing the future of the oil patch in the hands of a former activist from Quebec, the province where opposition to the oil sands runs highest. While Mr. Guilbeault’s nomination is wildly popular at home, where he has enjoyed rock-star status for years, the 51-year-old Montreal MP represents Alberta’s worst nightmare. He made his name seeking to shut down the “tar sands” while at Greenpeace and Équiterre, an organization he co-founded in the 1990s.
The 657-page report of the Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns, commissioned by Mr. Kenney in 2019 and finally released last week, found Équiterre “co-ordinated and facilitated campaigns seeking to frustrate further development of the Alberta oil sands, including by encouraging … individuals to deinvest from fossil fuels in Canada.” Équiterre, it added, also “opposed the Energy East, Trailbreaker, Trans Mountain, Keystone XL and Line 9 pipelines.”
Mr. Guilbeault has described himself as a “radical pragmatist.” Few people who know him well were surprised by his leap into politics. He had been courted by provincial and federal parties alike for years. His two-year stint as heritage minister earned him mostly mixed reviews. But he knows the environmental file inside and out, and he will be among old friends at the COP26 conference in Glasgow.
Just how far he will go to force the oil and gas sector to cut its carbon emissions – which totalled 191 million tonnes in 2019, or 26 per cent of the Canadian total – remains to be seen. All we know is it will be further than ever before.
In August, while campaigning for re-election, Mr. Guilbeault told Le Devoir that a Liberal government could cap oil and gas sector emissions at the 2021 or 2022 level and reduce the cap annually going forward in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. “If [new oil and gas] projects are unable to respect these caps, they will not be approved,” he insisted.
Now, as Environment Minister, Mr. Guilbeault will face huge pressure from his former comrades in the environmental movement to simply turn off the oil taps. Many of them voted Liberal last month for that reason alone.
One of them was Équiterre co-founder Laure Waridel. “Steven, I have confidence in you,” she wrote last month in the Journal de Montréal. “Please, don’t disappoint me.”
But there is no way for Mr. Guilbeault to avoid letting her down without reviving bitter memories of the National Energy Program in Alberta.
It’s all about to get very hot for Mr. Guilbeault. Can he stand the heat?
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