Stephen Harper: The environment prime minister?

They're not going to stop development of the oil sands or stop their push for pipelines, but the Conservatives may be in the midst of a re-branding exercise when it comes to the their record on environmental stewardship.

On Thursday, Stephen Harper announced his government's $252 million National Conservation Plan (NCP), which "will involve significant steps towards achieving our biodiversity targets, that is, protecting 17 per cent of our land and inland waters, and 10 per cent of our marine and coastal areas."

"Our Government is committed to working closely with Canadians so that together we can provide effective stewardship of Canada’s rich natural heritage for present and future generations," the prime minister said in a statement.

"The National Conservation Plan will help ensure the sustainability of our nation’s greatest resources, contribute to our country’s long-term prosperity and further position Canada as a world leader in conservation. It will also help ensure that Canadian families and visitors can enjoy the beauty of our country from coast to coast to coast for years to come."

The NCP announcement comes on the same week Minister of Natural Resources Greg Rickford announced significant measures to further enhance Canada’s pipeline safety system.

[ Related: Federal national conservation plan dismissed by Opposition as lacking detail ]

At least one environmental group, however, isn't impressed with the mini-flurry of environmental announcements.

"Preserving land..without reduce greenhouse gas emissions is public relations not conservation," the Sierra Club's John Bennett told Yahoo Canada News regarding the NCP.

"We do ‎need to preserve much more of nature but it is more complicated putting up a no trespassing sign."

Green groups, like the Sierra Club, have long chided the Harper government for its environmental record. They've been critical with regard to the Tories' position on the Kyoto accord, its promotion of Alberta's oils sands, for allegedly muzzling scientists, for spending cuts to research and for weakening the Navigable Waters Act.

A couple of environmental announcements isn't going to appease these groups.

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Nevertheless, the Conservative Party's re-branding exercise — branding themselves as conservationists — makes sense for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is a chance of scoring some political points within certain demographic groups.

Here is a very applicable quote from Preston Manning, the father of Canada's current conservative movement, from his speech at the 2014 Manning Centre conference.

While conservatives are generally seen to be competent on the economy, we continue to be seen as defensive and weak on the environment. In our Quebec poll, for example, perceived weakness on the environment was given as the number one policy reason for not supporting conservative parties.

Of course, what is most exasperating is that this need not be so. I know, you know, all kinds of people – especially ranchers, farmers, loggers, fishers, hunters, hikers, out-door people who either work or recreate in close communion with their physical environment – who are fiscal or social conservatives and environmental conservationists all at the same time. They hold all of these commitments and positions in common.

And this shouldn’t surprise us. Conservative and conservation come from the same root. Living within our means financially is easily and logically extendable to living within our means ecologically. And market mechanisms, which conservatives prefer to excessive regulation by governments, can just as readily be harnessed to environmental protection as to economic development.

But this perceived weakness on the environmental front needs to be more seriously addressed if conservative support is to be broadened, especially among the young. The philosophical and policy means for doing so exist in the growing body of literature and activity on the “green conservative” theme”. And the appointment of Leona Aglukkaq as Canada’s Environment Minister is a most positive and welcome step as the Arctic, with which she is intimately identified, is seen by many Canadians as the place to make a “fresh start on the environment” and the better management of the environment/economy interface.

So, while it might be premature and a little facetious to call Stephen Harper the 'environment prime minister' stay tuned for a pro-active campaign, by the Tories, defending their environmental record.

We might also see more significant 'enviro' announcements: Expect, for example, to hear about new federal regulations to rein in emissions in the oil and gas sector in the very near future.

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