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opinion

Linda McQuaig, the high-profile NDP candidate from Toronto, has kicked up a dirt storm with her comments on the oil sands. Last week, she said that if Canada wants to meet its climate commitments, "a lot of the oil sands oil may have to stay in the ground."

This is not official NDP policy, of course. Official NDP policy is–uh–well, we're not sure. At any rate, the other parties were quick to dump all over her for being a wild-eyed radical. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair countered by reassuring us that the NDP certainly does believe in energy development, so long as it's sustainable, and that his party will make the oil companies pay for the pollution they create.

But he didn't exactly distance himself from Ms. McQuaig (who once wrote a book called It's the Crude, Dude, which praised Hugo Chavez for his skillful management of Venezuela's oil industry.) That's because she was only saying what a lot of people think – including a substantial number of NDPers, countless environmental groups, and Barack Obama.

All these folks think the oil sands should be left in the ground because they'll ruin the planet. Some of these folks believe that Canada ought to get out of exporting fossil fuels entirely. Let those Albertans go fish for a living! Sure, there might be some temporary inconvenience to the country – a few hundred thousand job losses, an unfortunate but perhaps salutary decline in our standard of living – but that would be a small price to pay for becoming a moral light unto the nations. (Sadly, the impact on global warming would be approximately zilch.)

The really inconvenient thing about Ms. McQuaig's opinion is that she's right. In the short term – say, the next 20 or 30 or 40 years – there is no way we can cut greenhouse gas emissions while also building more pipelines and exporting more oil. The same is true for any kind of economic growth. The modern industrial economy is so heavily linked to fossil fuels that no matter how much we invest in conservation and renewables, no matter how many carbon taxes and regulations we slap on, the best we can hope for is to slow the growth in overall emissions to something slightly below what they would have been if we'd done nothing.

For the foreseeable future, economic growth is not compatible with deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. That circle can't be squared – not without transformative breakthroughs in technology. But none of our party leaders (with the possible exception of Elizabeth May) is going to say that. They don't think we can handle the truth.

Which brings me to that magic word, "sustainable." We all want sustainable development. Don't you? We all want pipelines that don't leak, tankers that don't pollute our coastal waters, protection for salmon spawning grounds and other natural habitats. But "sustainable" means whatever anyone wants it to mean. And too often it means "Not now, not tomorrow, and not ever."

The future of energy development in Canada ought to be a top issue in this election, with hard questions asked and answered. But the energy segment of last week's leadership debate was a mess of vague bromides and indigestible detail. Both Mr. Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are for some pipelines and against others, though I'm darned if I can keep them straight. Mr. Trudeau says you can be for the economy and the environment, too. Mr. Mulcair just keeps repeating the word "sustainable."

Both Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau have vague plans for carbon taxes, which Conservative Leader Stephen Harper describes as "job-killing." Both say Mr. Harper is fundamentally unserious about greenhouse gas reductions (which is correct). But they haven't said what their targets would be or how we'd get there. Both are blaming Mr. Harper for the crummy economy, which has been hammered by the global collapse in oil and gas prices, even though that's not his fault. Mr. Mulcair would hit the oil industry with tough new regulations, while also creating lots and lots of new jobs (in some other industry, I guess). Whether or not you like what she says, the only reasonably straight talker on the subject is Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

Will we get the energy debate we deserve? The issues are both emotional and complex. The media are underinformed, and the voters are impatient with long and complicated answers. The leaders benefit from obfuscation. So don't hold your breath.