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There’s No Green in Harperland: The Northern Gateway, the “Radical Groups,” and what it means for the future of Canada’s Environment, Economy and Politics.

Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver’s “open letter” on diversifying Canada’s energy markets and reforming the regulatory approval process for energy projects, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s remarks in an interview with The National’s Peter Mansbridge last week regarding the Northern Gateway pipeline project from Alberta’s oil sands to the BC coast have intensified the already growing debates about energy policy, the environment, and the roles and rights of the public and First Nations in decision-making processes.

The attacks on free speech, public participation, and civil society implicit in the Prime Minister and minister’s remarks and the underlying double standard with respect to acceptability of massive expenditures by international corporations in favour of energy development and export projects in Canada but hyperbolic objections to the relatively small amounts of US foundation money supporting some of the participants in the Northern Gateway hearings (to say nothing of the government’s aggressive lobby in the United States in favour of the Keystone pipeline) have been rightly pilloried in the both cyberspace and the mainstream media (For Rick Mercer’s contribution see http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=iZf5fC9v2qE).

The government’s stance begs some deeper consideration as well. Listening to the Prime Minister and Minster of Natural Resources one comes away with the impression that the Canadian economy and its future prospects are limited to the further expansion of the oil sands and the export of their products. The rest of the Canadian economy and the possibility of paths forward beyond the oil sands do not seem to exist in their minds.

The risks associated with such a view on the part of the federal government are enormous. The environmental consequences in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, water use and contamination, air pollution, tailings generation and management, and destruction of the boreal forest of the accelerating development of the oil sands are well documented and understood. The Royal Society of Canada, federal Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development and others have highlighted the failures of the Federal and Alberta governments to establish meaningful capacity to even monitor, much less control or mitigate, the environmental effects of these developments.

The overheating of the Alberta economy and the extent to which the pace of development is outstripping the province’s capacity to provide the required physical and social infrastructure has been recognized by some very prominent voices in the province itself. Former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, for example, has warned that “The oil sands have created in our province, because of the rapid growth that has occurred in the past decade, a very high-cost economy… That means we have a built-in cost factor here in our province that is very difficult for people in other businesses and I see a growing pressure on the current government to revisit this issue.”

The federal government’s perspective imperils for the rest of the country as well. An economy dominated by a single sector subject to profound boom-bust cycles driven entirely by the vagaries of world oil prices is a recipe for economic fragility. It is also a formula for regional division, a point highlighted by Quebec Premier Jean Charest last week in his observation that “There’s two realities in Canada; there are the economies of oil, gas and potash and others.”

For “the others,” including Ontario, the upwards pressure on the value of the Canadian dollar flowing from the growth in energy commodity exports presents profound problems for value-added economic activities, the outputs of which become less and less competitive in potential export markets as the dollar rises. The situation also reinforces the fractures between the provinces like Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and, sometimes, BC, who see their futures in a post-carbon global economy, and those, like Alberta and Saskatchewan, who seem determined precisely to prevent the emergence of such an economy.

The narrowness of the Conservative government’s vision carries with it substantial political risks for the government itself. Like the Harris government in Ontario, in which a number of Mr. Harper’s key ministers (Flaherty, Clement and Baird) first served, the Harper government clearly regards environmental concerns as unimportant, and indeed seems unable to grasp how anyone could regard them as being as significant as the economic potential of natural resources development.

The consequence has been a series of blindsiding of the government by environmental issues. The Obama administration’s unexpected (in the government’s eyes) rejection of the Keystone pipeline project this week is just latest example of this pattern. The government’s early attempts to walk away from the climate change file in 2006 and 2007 prompted a resurgence of public concern for the environment and climate change in particular, and compelled it to look as if it had some intention to act, at least for a little while. Canada’s lonely and almost universally condemned exit from the Kyoto Protocol looks like yet another colossal environmental miscalculation, this time on the international stage.

The government’s calculus on the Northern Gateway project looks equally faulty. The Prime Minister and natural resources minister’s public statements in support of the project seem to invite a judicial review of any National Energy Board decision in its favour on the basis that the board could not be seen as acting independently in the face of their remarks. For the BC First Nations affected by the project, the factums regarding the failure of the federal government to fulfill its “duty to consult” with them regarding proposed activities on territories subject to unresolved claims of aboriginal title in a meaningful and substantive way virtually write themselves.

As disturbing as the government’s behaviour has been, the apparent inability of either of the major opposition parties to mount an effective response to the challenges and opportunities presented by the government’s actions and statements has been even more distressing. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May has at least attempted to mount some sort of response, (http://www.elizabethmay.ca/blog/an-open-letter-to-joe-oliver/) but is faced with the realities of the boundaries of what a single independent MP can do. The NDP opposition, shattered by the loss of leader Jack Layton, and now lost in the midst of a leadership contest, seems at times to have disappeared off the face of the earth.

As for the Liberals, in face of the government’s attack on the environment, public discourse, civil society and aboriginal rights (to say nothing of the tough on crime legislation, abolition of the long-gun registry, dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, and deconditionalization of federal health care funding to the provinces), the best that the party that claims the mantle of Laurier, Pearson and Trudeau has been able to offer is proposals to legalize pot and abolish the monarchy – hardly compelling responses to the current situation.

One would think that the government’s directions represent a significant enough attack on what are thought to be core values of both the New Democrats and Liberals that more forceful and effective responses are warranted regardless of their leadership situations. If nothing else the stunningly narrow regional and economic frame within which the government has positioned itself offers a tremendous opportunity to the both parties to appeal to both the voices of moderation in the fossil fuel exporting provinces and to the more than eighty per cent of the Canadian population that constitutes what Premier Charest terms “the others.” It also presents an invitation to offer a vision more in line with that of the overwhelming majority of Canadians who have consistently and decisively rejected the sort of environment protection vs. economic development dichotomy favoured by the government over the 25 years in which pollsters have asked questions on the topic.

The one thing that does seem certain is the government’s next move. A further gutting of what remains of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is clearly on tap through the implementing legislation for the next federal budget. Fixed timelines for environmental assessment reviews, regardless of the complexity of the project under evaluation are clearly in the cards. What else might lie ahead is anyone’s guess, but the Harper government seems to be setting the table for a major, and potentially profoundly divisive debate about the future of Canada’s environment and economy.

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