…if by conservative we mean someone who is completely invested in the status quo and has no real vision for the future even as the global energy system is being transformed by new technologies, policies
Yesterday’s column argued that the four CPC leadership candidates were out of touch with global energy trends and their policy planks would not prepare Canada for the accelerating energy transition. Newly elected party leader energy platform Erin O’Toole was the best of the bunch. Unfortunately, that isn’t saying much.
From a high-level point of view, O’Toole is a bit more progressive than Andrew Scheer – he doesn’t flinch when saying “climate change” – but that’s damnation by faint praise. Just like Scheer, O’Toole’s energy worldview is rooted in the status quo.
In fact, he’s pretty much a clone of his biggest Western backer, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and the more “enlightened” Calgary oil and gas executives: climate change is a serious global problem, but oil and gas will continue to be consumed for many decades, therefore, Canada needs to support lower greenhouse gas emissions from hydrocarbon production but at the same time enable much higher exports to help reduce emissions elsewhere, especially Asia.
This leads to platform planks like, “helping the world stop burning coal by transitioning to natural gas” while proposing a National Strategic Pipelines Act that would “allow the government to declare a pipeline to be nationally strategic and subject it to an expedited review process.”
Kenney and industry leaders really think of themselves as the good guys, the white hats, the Rodney Dangerfield of energy sectors who don’t get the respect they deserve.
It also helps to understand how the industry narrative evolved.
Until fairly recently, climate denial figured prominently. When that storyline fizzled under the weight of public opinion and federal climate policy, industry proxies and trade associations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers pivoted to greenwashing the status quo. “We’re already the most environmentally responsible oil and gas producers in the world,” they shouted from the rooftops.
Hardly. Canada may be better than Nigeria or Wyoming, but environmental liabilities (orphan wells are just one example), 1.4 trillion litres of oil sands mining tailings in 37 giant ponds, and sky-high greenhouse gas emissions put the lie to that claim.
If Donald Trump has taught us anything, however, it’s that evidence and truth matter little when it comes to crafting a successful narrative. Repeat the torqued information often enough, tap into your tribe’s deep-rooted anxieties, and you can sell snake oil by the tanker full. Kenney’s “energy war room” may have turned into a bust, but its greenwashing narrative leaves no doubt about Kenney’s strategy and the $30 million a year budget leaves even less doubt about its importance to the UCP.
O’Toole’s job as CPC leader is to amplify that narrative on the national stage.
For example, the former Canadian Forces is a loyal soldier who thinks “Canada has some of the toughest environmental protections in the world,” unlike the bad guys in the “dictatorships with no environmental protections or respect for human rights.” It’s Ezra Levant’s old discredited Ethical Oil argument, still an article of faith in Calgary where O’Toole will need to fundraise in a big way.
One policy plank that sets the Durham, Ontario MP somewhat apart is his unabashed advocacy for nuclear power: “Canada is a world leader in safe nuclear technology and should continue that leadership role, including with Small Modular Reactors (‘SMRs’) that could assist in emission reduction in remote areas using Canadian technology that could be shared with and sold to the world,” according to his platform. He frequently praises Ontario’s nuclear plants, several of which are located in his riding, for providing clean and reliable power.
For some reason, Canadian conservatives hate wind and solar power. Maybe environmental groups arguing that renewables can replace oil and gas tomorrow raised hydrocarbon hackles. Whatever the reason, if conservatives must have clean electricity, then they want it to be nuclear.
For example, Kenney recently signed a memorandum of understanding with three other premiers to investigate the commercial potential of SMRs. O’Toole’s support for electrifying oil sands production using SMRs neatly connects the dots between GHG reductions, the Alberta government’s goal of expanded oil production, and promotion of the Canadian nuclear industry.
The rest of O’Toole’s climate policy isn’t much different than Scheer’s much-maligned election climate plan: carbon taxes for industry, not consumers; subsidize technology innovation rather than impose regulations; pressure “China, the US and Russia to step up and do better.”
The strategy is to talk big but do as little as possible. This has been the Canadian approach to climate change for decades, but now that voters, Ottawa, and most of the provinces are gearing up to take climate more seriously, O’Toole’s approach appears, well, downright conservative.
It’s the outsized commitment to defending the status quo during a period of intense structural change to the global energy system, rather than any single policy, that is the hallmark of O’Toole’s energy and climate policies.
Canada can fight change or lead it – O’Toole seems determined to wrestle change into submission. Good luck with that, sir.