Obstinate Harper Fuels Pipeline Opposition

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to transport oil from Alberta to a new port here on the B.C. coast is shaping up to be the political battle of the year, if not the decade. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, stung by U.S. President Barack Obama’s call to delay a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline in the face of a vocal protest movement, has already tried to blame foreign interests for opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline. The truth is, the Harper government has only itself to blame for the breadth and depth of the opposition to new pipelines that would ferry crude from the oil sands in Alberta.

If the Harper government were not so consistently obstinate on federal climate policy, people like me (a climate scientist who has long been wary of the NIMBYism of environmental groups) might not become vociferous opponents of projects like Northern Gateway. We are forced to oppose individual carbon-intensive projects because the government refuses to listen to scientific or economic reason on climate change.

Since their days in opposition, the Harper Conservatives have failed to take real action to address greenhouse-gas emissions. They have been unwilling to negotiate with other countries, other political parties, or even the provinces, on emissions targets or carbon pricing. They have promised initiatives like a cap-and-trade system for large industrial emitters, but have never delivered. They even recently softened their own proposed emissions regulations for coal-fired power plants, which were already full of loopholes, because of lobbying by industry.

Related: Putting a Price on Carbon

It is a government’s refusal to address inequities or negotiate on issues of public concern that motivates and empowers protest movements. If the Harper government wants to quell the widespread national and international opposition to the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines, it needs to announce a comprehensive climate policy that includes a federal price on carbon.

A shift from taxing income to taxing carbon, demonized by the Conservatives during the 2008 election campaign, would be a traditionally conservative way to ensure that further development of the oil sands does not come at the expense of our other industries, our reputation, or the global climate.

A carbon-pricing system, like those of British Columbia and Australia, would not necessarily prevent pipeline construction. Rather, it could allow the market to decide whether the costs of a new pipeline outweigh the benefits, and ensure that any emissions from such new projects are more than compensated for by cuts elsewhere. This would also help Canada slowly transition towards a 21st-century economy, based on innovation and our plentiful renewable resources, without ignoring extractive industries of our past.

Related: The Height of Responsibility

Announcing a federal price on carbon might not end all opposition to Northern Gateway. A climate policy would, at minimum, provide the federal and Alberta government some room for negotiation with environmental groups. In a globalized world, opposition to local resource extraction or local resource flows without reducing overall demand for that resource can outsource environmental degradation to other countries. It is certainly easier for people to place local environmental sacrifices in a global perspective if the country is committed to addressing a global problem like climate change.

Under other circumstances, I would not oppose individual pipelines or power plants. Unfortunately, right now, opposing individual projects is the only option for controlling Canada’s carbon emissions.

Absent a federal effort to manage carbon emissions, there will be a pitched battle over every new pipeline and every new coal-burning power plant. Many of those seeming slam dunks, like Keystone XL, will clang off the rim.

We could keep fighting like this forever. Or we could work together on a federal climate policy.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.