by Barry Cooper
March 17, 2016
For the past six weeks, I have been doing research in the United States. Only the state dinner penetrated the news blackout on Canada. I read and heard nothing about Alberta.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s words were reported, they were context free. In the Rose Garden, for example, he was quoted as saying “it’s wonderful to see our American friends and partners share and working on the exact same priorities” as Canada.
What the prime minister seemed to have in mind was applauded by his new friends at the Center for American Progress. The centre, a strong supporter of President Barack Obama’s environmental initiatives, has attacked Alberta’s “dirty and destructive” resources and spearheaded opposition to pipeline construction. When asked, the PMO had no comment or explanation why Trudeau broke bread with such persons.
Canadian and U.S. “priorities” certainly did not translate into policies. We are facing a carbon tax; the Americans are not. Despite the low loonie, Canadian oil is marginalized in favour of subsidized energy sources. As the Alberta royalty review report noted, increased U.S. production poses a “huge risk” because Alberta oil is sent only south, whereas American oil can now be sold abroad — a problem that has been publicly discussed for over a decade in this province.
Not until I returned to Calgary and started wading through the accumulated newspapers did I see that one pattern in Canadian politics has not changed: the regional divide between western resource-producing provinces and Laurentian Canada is as deep as ever.
Take the proposed carbon tax, for example. In principle, carbon pricing and carbon taxing apply to both upstream and downstream emissions. In reality, they don’t. Writing in the National Post, Colin Dormuth suggested applying environmental sustainability criteria to Bombardier, whose products have produced far more CO2 than the oilsands. Economist Jack Mintz would also include the automobile and heavy equipment manufacturing and petrochemical industries in Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and New Brunswick. This all sounds like a joke.
In any event, as Claudia Cattaneo and Geoffrey Morgan remarked in the Financial Post, Alberta oil is already “greener,” which is to say, more low carbon, than, say, Saudi crude. This brings us to the opposition in Laurentian Canada to the Energy East pipeline.
There are nearly 90,000 person years of employment involved and $6.3 billion of tax revenue over 20 years. It will end rail transportation of oil through such towns as Lac Megantic, Que. The $16-billion project will cost the federal treasury nothing.
So why do municipal politicians around Montreal object? Why does the government of Quebec seek to enforce an inapplicable provincial law? Why does the prime minister muse about a social licence? “Only communities grant permission,” he said.
Premier Rachel Notley was clearly bewildered that Quebec would rather import oil from Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Venezuela, Nigeria, and yes, the U.S. and eventually from Iran, rather than Alberta.
“It makes no sense to finance the economies of other countries this way,” she said. Not only is it economically stupid, it is “more environmentally responsible for Canada to rely on its own abundant energy resources.”
Energy East, she said, “is this century’s railway.” Yes, it is. Except for one thing: the CPR was then headquartered in Montreal.
Energy East is not about energy or the environment. It is about the East. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Wildrose Leader Brian Jean both noted that opposition to it increased regional tensions and divisiveness.
For Quebec politicians, including the prime minister, who clearly was tricked by the sophisticated political chicanery in Washington, D.C., that is the whole point: Saskatchewan, and especially Alberta, need to be reminded of their proper place in the Laurentian vision of Canada.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.