OPINION: Liberal environmental contradictions could pave way for Conservative win

Carbon pricing, the Trans Mountain pipeline to be key facets in upcoming election

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna responds to a question during Question Period in the House of Commons, Thursday, May 9, 2019 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

A few weeks ago, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s environment minister, delivered a powerful and heartfelt address, highlighting both the Liberal government’s and her own personal commitment to meeting the environmental challenges facing Canada. The speech in Toronto garnered positive responses from the media in attendance.

ALSO READ: Canada hires firm to ship back garbage, will be done before end of June

For myself and many in the audience, however, the most dramatic moment of the event occurred at the end. A visibly nervous young woman stood up and challenged the minister on the government’s environmental record, even though McKenna was not taking questions. The woman asked about the government’s purchase and ongoing support of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion from Alberta to British Columbia.

To her credit, McKenna engaged with her questioner, and followed up with a more private conversation. Yet the moment seemed to vividly illustrate the challenges the Liberal government has set itself up for regarding environmental issues leading to the October 2019 federal election.

Carbon pricing

On the one hand, the government has established a relatively strong record of action on environmental issues. Most notable has been its determination to carry forward with its carbon pricing initiative, the centrepiece of its overall plan to meet Canada’s greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.

This has been despite vociferous opposition from newly elected Conservative provincial governments in Ontario and Alberta, as well as ongoing challenges from Saskatchewan and others. The government has also advanced the dates for a national phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation and is moving forward with proposals for low-carbon fuel standards, among other things.

On the other hand, the government has been surprisingly aggressive in its pursuit of new infrastructure intended to facilitate increased exports of fossil fuels, and by implication, expansions of the carbon-intensive production of bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands.

Such increases will make it difficult, if not impossible, for Canada to meet its Paris commitments.

Although it rejected the Alberta-to-B.C. Northern Gateway pipeline, the government has let the approval of the Canadian portion of the Keystone XL pipeline to the United States stand, along with approving the expansion of the Alberta-to- Wisconsin Line 3 pipeline, and most controversially, the twinning of the Edmonton-to-Vancouver Trans Mountain pipeline.

Bought the pipeline

The federal government then purchased the pipeline for $4.5 billion to ensure its construction.

Federal approval of the Trans Mountain project was rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal in August 2018. The court ruled there was inadequate consultation with the affected Indigenous peoples, and said the National Energy Board failed to properly consider the impact on marine wildlife of increased tanker traffic that would stem from the pipeline.

The National Energy Board’s subsequent reconsideration of the environmental components of the project acknowledged major risks, particularly to the endangered southern resident Orca population of the Salish Sea. But it recommended, on the basis of the anticipated economic benefits, that the project proceed anyway.

The government has signalled its intention to make a final decision on the project by mid-June. An approval is widely expected, along with further legal challenges from Indigenous peoples, affected municipalities and environmental groups.

The Liberals’ electoral success in 2015 was due, to a considerable degree, to their ability to consolidate centrist and progressive voters behind Trudeau, running on a platform that prominently featured environmental issues.

Vote-splitting

Conservative Stephen Harper’s election wins in 2006, 2008 and 2011, in contrast, were based on the splitting of those votes among the Liberals, NDP, Greens and, in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois. It gave the Conservatives a path to victory despite receiving less than 40 per cent of the popular vote in all three elections.

The Green Party’s recent electoral successes highlight the risks of the re-emergence of that vote-splitting phenomena. It won the federal byelection in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, became the official opposition in Prince Edward Island, holds the balance of power in British Columbia and has elected provincial members in New Brunswick and Ontario.

McKenna’s young questioner personified the chances of the federal Liberals losing younger, environmentally concerned voters to the Greens over the contradictions in the government’s approach to environmental matters, especially the handling of the Trans Mountain pipeline issue.

If this were not bad enough for Trudeau’s Liberals, a new crisis has emerged over the past few weeks from an unexpected source — the unelected Senate.

Senate manoeuvring

The Conservative-dominated Senate committee on energy, the environment and natural resources has made major amendments to Bill C-69, the government’s environmental assessment reform legislation, reportedly largely at the behest of the Alberta government and the oil-and-gas industry. The changes will significantly weaken an already feeble reform bill.

The Conservative majority on the Senate’s transport committee, for its part, has rejected another bill, C-48, which bans large oil tanker traffic on the West Coast. Although the full Senate has yet to weigh in on the bills, the situation presents serious challenges for the government.

Leaving aside the Constitutional issues arising from unelected senators making major amendments to legislation adopted by the elected House of Commons, capitulating to the Senate committee’s amendments to Bill C-69 and rejection of C-48 would further damage the government’s already uncertain record in the eyes of environmentally concerned voters.

This would especially be the case, for example, among the ridings in the lower mainland of British Columbia, where the Liberals made major gains in 2015.

Giving in to the Senate committees’ actions on the bills would likely drive more voters into the arms of Elizabeth May’s Greens, while the prospects of any electoral benefits from Alberta and Saskatchewan seem slim.

At the same time, it could increase the chances of a narrow Conservative federal election win, restoring a government that would prioritize the expansion of energy exports.

The Trudeau government was elected on the basis of a reconciliation between economic and environmental progress, as well as reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples. In practice this has manifested itself in the pursuit of strong but deeply contradictory environmental and economic agendas.

The government now finds itself called out, as it was at McKenna’s speech in Toronto, on those contradictions. How it responds is likely to have a major impact on the outcome of October’s federal election and the future of Canada’s environment and economy.

Mark Winfield, Professor of Environmental Studies, York University, Canada , The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

RCMP and fire departments respond to possible drowning on Sylvan Lake

RCMP say they are actively searching for a man in his 20s with boats on the lake

Red Deer-Lacombe MP Calkins comments on CPC promise to make maternity benefits tax free

Tax credit would remove federal income tax from EI maternity and EI parental benefits

Sylvan Lake Community Partners helps families prepare for school

The Tools for School is in its second year, and has helped around 50 families

PHOTOS: Jazz at the Lake swings into its 17th year

The annual music festival ran over three days this past weekend

Town of Sylvan Lake looking at lake usage in new survey

The Town is in talks to contract part of the lake, but has to have a plan for water usage first

VIDEO: Title of 25th Bond movie is ‘No Time to Die’

The film is set to be released in April 2020

New study suggests autism overdiagnosed: Canadian expert

Laurent Mottron: ‘Autistic people we test now are less and less different than typical people’

Trans Mountain gives contractors 30 days to get workers, supplies ready for pipeline

Crown corporation believes the expansion project could be in service by mid-2022

New ‘Matrix’ film set with Keanu Reeves and Lana Wachowski

Fourth installment to feature Reeves as Neo and Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity

Ethics commissioner ready to testify on Trudeau, SNC-Lavalin: NDP critic

A new poll suggests the report hasn’t so far hurt the Liberals’ chances of re-election this fall

Inflation hits Bank of Canada 2% target for second straight month

Prices showed strength in other areas, including an 18.9 per cent increase in the cost of fresh vegetables

Alberta oil curtailment rules extended to late 2020 as pipeline delays drag on

At issue is ability to export oil in face of regulatory and legal challenges against pipelines

Nearly 50% of Canadians experience ‘post-vacation blues’: poll

48 per cent of travellers are already stressed about ‘normal life’ while still on their trip

Most Read