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Arctic Power...with Added Cleansers

By Maurice Dufour

Whenever Canadians make the international headlines these days, the news is invariably bad. When we’re not clubbing baby seals to death, we’re racking up Fossil Awards at the latest climate change talks.

But the howls of protest over our dirty oil are now drowning out the shrieks of the furry white pups. Hardly a day goes by without a Greenpeace banner being unfurled somewhere in protest over the Alberta oil sands.

All this negative press is taking its toll on our national psyche. For years, our self-image as responsible environmental stewards had made us smug; now Canada’s just another carbon thug.

To counter the mounting criticism, our government has attempted several face-saving maneuvers. One of these has been to use an old trick borrowed from our second favorite national pastime, hockey. It involves moving the goalposts or, in the case of our Kyoto targets, moving the baseline to project toughness on climate change. So, instead of a 6% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2012 from the 1990 baseline—which our government pledged when it ratified the Kyoto Protocol—the Tories have moved the baseline to 2006 and announced a new reduction target of 20% by 2020. Sounds impressive...until you realize that, under the new target, Canada’s Kyoto commitment will be met only in 2025, if at all.

Another strategy has been to engage in our number one favorite national pastime: blaming the United States. As our Environment Minister Jim Prentice lamented when accosted about his government’s pathetic record on stemming greenhouse gases: “the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions in North America currently come from coal-burning thermal electricity plants on the United States side of the border.”

This kind of finger-pointing was moderately successful when George W. was at the helm. At least some people were convinced when a spokesman for the Harper government laid out the rationale for inaction: “We didn’t want to go too tough on targets with Bush in the White House, because then if [he] didn’t follow through, it would place Canadian industry at a disadvantage.”

Problem is, when the White House opened its doors to “a partner who can show leadership in the world on the climate change issue” as our PM put it, Canada’s most credible excuse for inaction developed a serious limp. And the limp is expected to worsen, since Stephen Harper has foolishly agreed to a series of Clean Energy Dialogues with Obama to signal his government’s intent to follow his leadership. I say “foolishly” because Harper is as likely to follow through with his green pledges as Tiger Woods is to make the cover of Good Housekeeping.

To add to Harper’s woes, dozens of U.S. states have been threatening to introduce strict new low-carbon fuel standards, a decision that poses a direct threat to the de facto government of Canada: Big Oil Inc. Eleven state governors are already lobbying Washington for nation-wide standards, armed with a critical report by the Northeast States Center for a Clean Air Future that singled out Alberta crude. If the United States does screen its energy imports more tightly and start imposing border-carbon adjustments, Oil-berta will be very unhappy. And Harper’s green credibility will suffer even more.

And then there are the mounting attacks on Harper’s character and judgment, prompted by his increasingly autocratic behavior. “Prorogued” has recently entered the Canadian vocabulary thanks to Harper’s bullying tendency to dissolve Parliament whenever he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed. The Economist has characterized our PM as a “bloodless control freak,” who has a “ruthless streak” and is motivated by “naked self-interest.” Triple ouch.

Aware of this growing reputational damage, the Tory government has mobilized the best PR team around to try to restore Harper’s image. The goal is to bundle Canada—and Harper, by extension—in swathes of green. And by so doing, they hope our PM will be remembered for his ecocentrism, and not his egocentrism.

Several proposals have been floated so far, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. The idea, at first, did not so seem so farfetched. After all, the Nobel Committee has shown a predilection for politicians lately, and the most recent recipient got it for doing something Harper has also proven quite good at. Unfortunately, Canada’s kill rate in Afghanistan is expected to fall just shy of the minimum required to be eligible for the prize. The proposal was quietly shelved.

The next suggestion was a similar diversionary tactic: a stepped-up campaign to pitch our robust financial sector to the rest of world to take the heat off the oil sands. Indeed, Harper embarked on just such a marketing blitz last year after he found out that our banks had been garnering plaudits for, well, acting like banks. Harper was betting that other countries might see Canada in a more environmental light if they, too, turned green...with envy. The plan worked for a short while. During the “world’s love affair with Canada,” as one of our self-congratulatory banks put it, our relative financial stability overshadowed both the dismal state of our real economy and our environmental profligacy. Until Copenhagen, that is. That’s where Canada was tarred anew.

Harper’s handlers have another card to play, though—continuing to frame Canada’s oil as a security issue. The argument runs as follows: 1) our government is a reliable and stable ally of the main guarantor of world security (that would be the United States); 2) Canada is an “emerging energy superpower”—to quote the Tory-in-Chief himself—with reserves rivaling Saudi Arabia’s; 3) our oil money does not pay terrorists’ bills. As our Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, forcefully put it, “Canada is crucial to the energy security of the United security is more important now than it was 20 years ago...and will be even more important in the future.” From here it is only natural to conclude that “the world needs more Canada.” Indeed, Bono’s fawning words a few years back are now about to be resurrected as our national motto. But here again, a problem has arisen. Someone has pointed out that environmentalists could easily reverse the slogan for their own cynical purposes: at the rate it is using up its resources, Canada needs more worlds. Three, to be more precise, according to carbon footprint calculations.

Realizing that Canada desperately needs a more convincing moniker, Harper has fired his entire PR team, re-read Orwell, and decided that Canada should henceforth be known not just “an emerging energy superpower,” but as “an emerging clean energy superpower.” Of course, for this rebranding exercise to pass the laugh test, formidable obstacles have to be surmounted. Canada recently walked away from the Copenhagen Summit with the Colossal Fossil Award, in recognition of “two years of delay, obstruction and total inaction.” A study prepared by Climate Action Network Europe and Germanywatch during the Copenhagen summit, placed Canada second to last among 57 high-emitting countries when it comes to performance in reducing greenhouse gases. And greenhouse gas emissions here continue to increase faster than in any other large industrial country—27% since 1990. Canada’s emissions are now 34% above our Kyoto target.

Moreover, whereas the U.S. regulatory regime has been reanimated under the new administration, Harper’s “green” initiatives remain anemic. In their January 2009 budget, the Conservatives demonstrated their “green” leadership by eliminating the main program to support wind, solar, geothermal and other forms of renewable energy.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, Canada has actually been scraping the bottom of the UNEP’s country rankings when it comes to green spending initiatives in the past year. Only $7 million of the paltry $200 million allocated for “green infrastructure” had been committed by the fall of last year, as Toby Sanger points out in the Progressive Economics Forum. Compare this with the United States, where up to $3 billion has been committed for renewable energy production.

Tax incentives for clean technology projects here continue to be dwarfed by those offered in the United States. One Canadian investment bank specializing in renewable power, Jacob Securities, finances only 20% of its clean technology projects in Canada. Its CEO recently lamented that “we don’t have anything remotely close to the ...U.S.,” which covers about 30% of the capital costs of projects. Another insider in the clean tech sector reported that “Canada is not on the...radar..., unlike the United States, where incentive programs have lit a fire under many green energy industries.”

Robert Hornung of the Canadian Wind Energy Association has also decried the fact that several Canadian companies are exploring wind energy development opportunities in the U.S. instead of Canada. The result is that, excluding the output generated by the self-propelled wind turbine that heads the Tory Party, wind energy still accounts for a minuscule 1% of Canada’s electricity needs.

As for geothermal power, Canadian government support for the industry is practically non-existent, despite the geological potential of the western provinces. Here again, the industry has gone south to take advantage of the “hundreds of million of dollars of low-cost loans, tax incentives and capital-cost grants the government has already provided for geothermal projects in the later stages of development,” according to the Globe and Mail.

But the main obstacle to Harper’s new pitch is the expanding oil patch in Alberta. Instead of curtailing production in the oil sands—which the head of the IPCC has called for—the Harper government has been its biggest booster. Recently, it approved the construction of Enbridge’s $3.6-billion Alberta Clipper pipeline, which will carry oil sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin, and add about half a million barrels of heavily polluting crude a day to an ever-expanding transcontinental network of pipes and oil refineries. Relentless expansion of the oil sands has tripled greenhouse gases emissions since 1990. This does not bode well for a “clean energy superpower.”

So, how does Harper hope to paint the tar sands green? By plugging “carbon intensity reductions” and championing “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS). The former refer to reductions in per unit energy use, allowing overall emissions to keep increasing. Executives at Suncor Energy, a major player in the oil sands, illustrated the accounting ruse by recently announcing a “carbon intensity reduction” of 51% between 1990 and 2006. Management felt it would spoil the effect to mention that the company’s absolute emissions increased by 131% over the same period.

Any references to Canada’s performance issued by Harper’s office now undergo the same kind of Enron-like manipulation before being released to the public.

The other plank of Harper’s oil-sands/climate-change strategy rests on CCS, which involves pumping carbon dioxide into the ground. Incredibly, two-thirds of Harper’s “clean energy” fund—$650 million—is committed to developing the technology.

In reality, though, CSS is simply a sop to the oil industry to allow it to continue business-as-usual practices. And there is considerable uncertainty over whether it will actually work. Even the federal government has admitted that sequestration would have limited applications in the oil sands. Moreover, there are multiple problems associated with carbon sequestration. The technology is unproven, the costs will be steep, and leaks could occur. Simply building the infrastructure for carbon capture will consume colossal amounts of energy. Substitute “oil subsidy” for “sequestration,” and you’ll come closer to Harper’s real goal.

So, Harper will have to supplement his strategy for greening the oil sands with another ploy. Luckily, an exciting new greenwashing opportunity for Canada has presented itself: nuclear energy. Nuclear is “a no-emissions source that will be expanding around the world,” Harper told a gathering of business leaders in London last year. Coincidentally, Canada is the second largest uranium producer in the world.

We can expect Harper to ramp up his “nukes-are-green” campaign in the coming months. He has already enlisted the help of a well-known eco-evangelist to spread the gospel of nuclear energy. That would be Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of another uranium-rich, clean energy superpower, Kazakhstan. Our minister of international trade was recently dispatched to seal a nuclear deal with the kleptocrat that runs the Central Asian country, much to the delight of our own mining industry. One day, we might even get to unload a few of our floundering Candu nuclear reactors in that part of the world.

It’s a win-win-win situation, really. New markets for uranium, new markets for our nukes, and we get to burnish our green image at the same time.

Too bad nuclear does not qualify as “clean” energy, according to the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. Too bad, as well, that Harper can’t justify the “no-emissions” claim—unless he knows of a site where uranium can be just picked up off the ground. Too bad a sure way of safely disposing of nuclear waste is still out of reach. Too bad Harper is running out of ideas for his clean energy superpower campaign.

Expect a Nobel Prize nomination soon.

Maurice Dufour teaches political science at Marianopolis College in Montreal, Quebec.

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