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New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh greets NDP candidate for Papineau Christine Pare, right, in Montreal on Aug. 23, 2021. The NDP leader visited several constituents and businesses in the Papineau riding.ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

If there’s one thing NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh wanted, it was to be unequivocal: He promised he would end all fossil fuel subsidies. No exceptions, no quibbling, no nuance. Yet also not much clarity about what it really means.

This was campaigning in black-and-white symbols, never mind that the fine print is grey. It turns out that some of the things that the NDP counts as oil subsidies are supposed to be green.

Mr. Singh came to Montreal because two years ago it was the site of a massive climate change protest led by Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. He was flanked by young people who had taken part. And the point was to argue that Justin Trudeau showed up to the demonstration, but hasn’t lived up to his words on climate change.

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“You have a choice between Justin Trudeau, who has increased oil subsidies, or you can vote for New Democrats, who will finally end oil subsidies, and face the climate crisis,” Mr. Singh said.

How much are those subsidies? The NDP says they amounted to an astounding $18-billion in 2020, citing a report by Environmental Defence.

But take a closer look and you will find that report took a broad view of what constitutes fossil fuel subsidies. It includes programs that develop clean technology to reduce emissions in the oil sector, the portion of the pandemic wage subsidy that went to the sector, and most of it is not payments to oil companies but loan guarantees for export finance. It also includes $1.7-billion for capping off and cleaning up inactive oil and gas wells.

So when a reporter asked about whether Mr. Singh would take a scythe to all the things in that report, you might have expected him to make exceptions.

Nope. Mr. Singh gave no hint of exception. Everything must go.

And you have to wonder if all the people listening to Mr. Singh’s clear-cut, black-and-white promise really had that in mind.

Some might have thought fossil fuel subsidies meant paying Big Oil to push bitumen through a pipe, and didn’t expect green tech incentives to be on the list. And remember, Mr. Singh wasn’t pointing to specific programs as being wasteful or ineffective. He was saying they are fossil fuel subsidies, and because of that, they should be swept aside. All of them.

Well, sort of. The New Democrats say that if elected, they would get rid of it all but then create their own programs, which might do some similar things, if they are for renewable energy. So all $18-billion in fossil fuel subsidies will be gone, except some might be revived if they are not fossil fuel subsidies.

For climate-conscious voters hearing about an end to fossil fuel subsidies, a key point is that it would rule out programs that might be effective in reducing greenhouse gases. It would rule out transition programs for the oilpatch that provide incentives for lowering emissions.

There are certainly unambiguous subsidies for actual oil and gas production, such as the federally financed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. And though it was an NDP government in Alberta that lobbied for it, Mr. Singh can legitimately argue that is an actual subsidy.

But there are projects that are more mixed bags. The government funded a massive program to cap and clean up inactive oil and gas wells. That helped some oil companies, but it was also a green-tinged make-work project when Alberta’s economy was hard hit.

Mr. Singh, apparently, would not have done that. He said the NDP would remediate wells not by subsidy but “direct investments,” which the party said would mean only funding the cleanup of abandoned wells with no owner.

And there would be no transition programs for the oil sector to offer incentives for technology to reduce emissions in the oil sector – though reducing emissions is supposed to be the goal.

Maybe many of Mr. Singh’s supporters want just that – a government that subsidizes emissions reductions, but not in the oil sector. But you have to suspect green-conscious voters didn’t really think that when he promises to end fossil fuel subsidies, it would mean all those other things, too.

But the details were never the point, anyway. Mr. Singh didn’t go looking into that $18-billion figure to see what it was. This was a promise made of symbols, and the point was making it sound clear.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that a report by Environmental Defence includes programs that financed the production of car batteries and low-carbon steel as subsidies for the oil industry. In fact, the report categorized those programs as programs that “without green strings may result in significant subsidies.”

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