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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

No turning back for a PM fixated on bitumen Add to ...

Quite predictably, no sooner had the Obama administration announced proposed new emissions regulations on coal plants in the United States than the Harper government insisted it had beaten the Americans to the punch.

We promulgated regulations before the U.S., bragged the Harper government, even though they only apply to new plants (of which there will be few, if any) and plants near the end of their normal life.

No matter which country got there first, the regulations south of the border will bite harder because the U.S. is more coal-dependent than Canada. Of greater consequence, President Barack Obama is prepared to use his bully pulpit to alert Americans to the long-term threats and challenges of greenhouse gas emissions that produce climate change.

He’s spoken about the issue often, including passages about it in his Inaugural Address and State of the Union. He’s given interviews and delivered speeches. He’s used his political capital, in other words, which is something Stephen Harper has never done and never will. What Mr. Harper will do is promote by any and all means bitumen oil, and the pipelines to get it to markets, even though the growth in bitumen production is the driving reason why the Harper government (and therefore Canada) will fall miserably short of meeting its GHG-reduction targets.

Those targets call for a 17 per cent reduction by 2020 from 2005 levels. But the government’s own data – delivered to the United Nations earlier this year – show emissions only falling from 737 million tonnes in 2005 to 734 million by 2020, a negligible drop. Worse, despite the government’s contention that emissions will drop after 2020, they are set to soar – to around 815 million tonnes.

Why? The government’s favourite product – bitumen oil, the product Finance Minister Joe Oliver insists is so important that the entire Canadian economy will head down the drain without its export.

Bitumen, if developed as expected by the industry, the Alberta government and the Harper government, will triple in output by 2030 which will produce another 80 million tonnes of GHG emissions, according to the government’s own numbers. That amount represents approximately the total increase in the country’s emissions. Almost every sector of the Canadian economy will produce fewer or roughly the same amount of emissions – cars and trucks, electricity generation, cement, manufacturing, agriculture – but whatever gains are made will be swamped by emissions from bitumen production.

It ought to have been self-evident long ago that bitumen’s political, environmental and social licence problems in part had to do with this poor GHG record – a record that is going to get worse, not better. Even the Alberta government admits in its “Plan for the Alberta Oil Sands” that it seeks only to “slow the rate of growth in oil sands greenhouse gas emissions,” without saying by how much or setting timetables.

With the industry playing defence, and the governments in Edmonton and Ottawa doing so little (except engaging in endless sales campaigns), bitumen oil is struggling to find new markets. You would have thought that after five years of salesmanship, it might be time to step back and take a hard look at performance, but that’s apparently not in the cards for the industry or the Harper government. Things might change in Alberta once Jim Prentice becomes premier, because he gets that bitumen oil has a big, big problem that salesmanship can’t erase.

Meanwhile, while the Harper government allows emissions to rise, the Obama administration is making progress against climate change part of the country’s foreign policy and defence preoccupations.

Recently, Secretary of State John Kerry issued guidelines to U.S. diplomats abroad to make climate change a priority issue that requires “elevated urgency and attention.” In another development, a government-appointed panel of defence experts declared that climate change poses a severe risk to national security as a future “catalyst for conflict.” And the Obama administration produced a long National Climate Assessment based on the work of 300 American scientists that argued the last decade was the nation’s hottest on record and 2012 was the hottest year. It concluded that “What is new over the last decade is that we know with increasing certainty that climate change is happening now,” mainly because of fossil fuel burning.

American politics being what it is, nothing much might come from these policies and exhortations. But at least the U.S. government is trying to mobilize some part of the population, in contrast to the Canadian government.

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