Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Harper, Energy and the Environment: It's the Politics, Stupid!

This is getting embarrassing.

Up until recently, the best the Harper government could say about our dismal record on climate change, energy and the environment was that we were doing better than the Americans. But now that even the beleaguered Obama administration is making progress on this front, Canada's intransigence is starting to make us look like we're actually moving backwards.

U.S. to impose new emission rules on power plants, refineries

The Obama administration has announced plans to impose new greenhouse-gas emission rules on power plants and refineries, a move that will increase pressure on the Harper government to introduce its own national emissions regulations in 2011.

The U.S. Environment Protection Agency said over the holidays that it will propose emission performance standards for new and existing fossil-fuel facilities this year, despite opposition from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress.

The sad thing is, the Harper government's blinkered approach to the environment has translated into a bizarre, visceral aversion to anything remotely resembling a national energy policy. Which, for a party that continues to insist they are the best bet for the Canadian economy, may be their most insanely retrograde policy position yet.

Seriously - when even the oil companies are figuring out that renewables are the way of the future, you'd think their buddies in government would be willing to help them out with some sort of coherent policy that would bring us in line with their international competitors and customers.

Of course, now we have a brand new Environment Minister who might finally... oh, never mind.

With serious action ruled out in advance, the Harper government’s environment minister must be a smooth talker. He must be prepared to repeat things that are demonstrably false – as in Canada will reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 from 2005 levels – with a straight face while all those around you are cracking up in derision. When necessary, the minister must bluster.

Peter Kent, a former television presenter, should therefore fit the definition splendidly of what is required of a Harper government environment minister. Since all important decisions are taken by the Prime Minister anyway, it shouldn’t matter that Mr. Kent has no background in the file nor has ever shown any interest in the issues. He is there to rag the puck, so to speak.

To understand the reasoning behind this economically unreasonable position, one need look no further than the poll numbers for Ontario's Liberal government.

Dalton McGuinty has implemented one of the most ambitious and progressive energy policies in North America, and although it's not without its flaws (cough... nuclear... cough), lo and behold it seems that it's actually working. He's implemented a feed-in tariff, similar to systems in Europe, that has resulted in a boom in renewable energy projects and the creation of thousands of much needed manufacturing jobs in the green energy sector. He's well on his way (better late than never) to fulfilling a promise to shut down every coal-fired power plant in the province. He's investing millions in upgrading our energy grid to make it more efficient and less vulnerable to surges and blackouts, and allow for decentralized, greener power generation.

These are exactly the sorts of large scale, long-term projects that save economies but kill governments. Why? Because they cost money and/or raise prices in the short term, and that's all people see. Who cares if we're going to be world leaders in energy and green technology ten years from now when gas is $5.00 a litre and we're all charging our electric cars for pennies a ride? Dammit, my Hydro bill went up two and a half bucks!

Which is why the Ontario Liberals may well find themselves out of power come the next election, and by the time we start reaping the real rewards of their policies, the PCs will be there to gleefully take the credit.

(Of course the converse works as well: the inevitable results of the Harris/Eaves government's popular but short-sighted tax and program cuts have also taken years to take their full effect - just in time for the Liberals to wear that, too.)

These are the political equations which guide Stephen Harper's every move - not economics, and certainly not public benefit. Which is why he will continue to do absolutely nothing on the environment or energy files that won't immediately benefit him politically. In other words, nothing.

Short-term gain, long-term pain. That's how you stay in power.