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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)


On emissions, talk has been Ottawa’s only action Add to ...

Bruce Carson saw the early years of the Harper government from the inside.

Mr. Carson was a senior policy adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and sat in on many political meetings. He was one of the rare people in the inner sanctum who spoke regularly to people outside government, beyond the Conservative core. A Conservative he was – a fire-breather he was not.

In a book just published about his years in government (a very fair, descriptive account), Mr. Carson recounts many incidents that shed light on how Mr. Harper thinks and operates. Mr. Carson is a supporter of the Prime Minister, of course, but he wonders about a few things, energy and climate change policy among them.

Mr. Carson recounts that in January, 2010, Mr. Harper and cabinet minister Jim Prentice convened a meeting in Calgary of leaders in the oil and gas industry. By Mr. Carson’s account, Mr. Harper led off the discussion asserting that countries around the world were talking a better game about fighting climate change than they were playing – a truthful statement then, as now.

Everywhere, however, the Prime Minister heard criticism of Canada’s “tar sands” and “dirty oil.” Maybe these criticisms were unfair, but they had to be dealt with – by bitumen producers upping their environmental and communications strategies.

“If they didn’t,” Mr. Carson writes, “the government would impose a levy on bitumen and do the job for the industry. The message was delivered in Harper’s usual forceful way.”

The Prime Minister’s message struck Mr. Carson as putting “to bed any thoughts that Harper was soft on GHG reduction or willing to give the oil and gas – and particularly the oil sands – developers a free pass.”

So it struck Mr. Carson 41/2 years ago. Today, he writes, “the thought on my part is: What happened to the resolve Harper expressed in January, 2010, in relation to the oil and gas sector, especially the oil sands?”

It’s a good question.

One of the two strategies Mr. Harper urged on the industry has been followed: An expensive, multifaceted advertising campaign extolling the virtues of bitumen oil washed across Canada on television and in print. Some of the ads were inadvertently humorous, as advertising often is. The ads didn’t show a mine or a piece of equipment or anything industrial, let alone something as awful-looking as tailing ponds, but rather the ads offered forests and lakes in an attempt to green the bitumen industry.

Other ads quoted business people outside Alberta whose companies were prospering from the bitumen industry. It wasn’t just Alberta, but all of Canada where people were enjoying the fruits.

Overseas, the communications campaign bought paid advertisements in prestigious and expensive publications, the New Yorker magazine being the latest. Canadian diplomats were thrown into the campaign, notably in the United States but also in Europe and anywhere else where bitumen needed a boost. Ministers, including the Prime Minister, gave interviews to foreign journalists to talk up bitumen and deflect criticism of the industry.

So the communications part of the strategy was executed at considerable cost and over many years – thus far with no discernible result. The industry’s image is pretty much what it was.

But as for what Mr. Harper called the “environmental game,” as Mr. Carson recalls the Prime Minister’s words, the industry’s efforts – yes, there have been efforts – cannot hide the fact that bitumen will be the fastest-growing source of new greenhouse gas emissions for the foreseeable future in Canada.

These emissions, if projections hold, will wipe out all lower GHG emissions from other sources in Canada. This statement does not come from wild-eyed environmentalists who hate all fossil fuels. Rather, it is based on the government’s data as reported to the United Nations.

Those who follow such matters have trouble remembering how many times cabinet ministers have insisted that regulations on GHG emissions from the industry were forthcoming.

The latest pronouncement from Mr. Harper suggested that none would happen until the United States moved. Mr. Prentice, a federal minister in 2010 and now the front-running candidate to become premier of Alberta, seems stuck in the same thought pattern: Only move if and when the Americans do, which means no time in the foreseeable future, given the dysfunctional U.S. Congress.

Communications campaigns there have been; serious action there has not.

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