Canada’s Conservative government wants to talk continental cap-and-trade with Obama administration

Taken alone, I should be happy that my federal government wants to begin serious talks with the United States about establishing a continental cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. Fact is, I was expecting this kind of knee-jerk reaction from my government as soon as Barack Obama got elected to the White House. It’s why, as a Canadian, I’m so encouraged by Obama’s win. His aggressive energy and environmental policies will force a laggard like Canada to act after years of being hip-connected with the Bush administration’s policy of half-measures and inaction.

The fact that a day after Obama is elected that the Canadian government comes out and says, hey, let’s make a deal, let’s establish a continental cap-and-trade regime — well, it just stinks to me. Why hasn’t Ottawa pushed this idea before? Why didn’t the Conservatives put it out there earlier for public discussion and to show that Canada can show leadership on the climate file? (Note: It was disclosed in the Conservative platform a week before our Oct. 14 election but didn’t get much coverage. See comments below).

The feds say they didn’t introduce push it before because there was no point in initiating talks with a lame duck U.S. administration, but that’s difficult to believe given the Conservative party’s track record on climate. The more likely reason is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was waiting to see if Obama *didn’t* get elected so he could continue to align Canada with less aggressive Republican climate policy. (Note: But I’m willing at this point to give him the benefit of the doubt).

Now that the writing is on the wall — Obama is in and has made energy and climate his top priorities — the Conservatives figure the best strategy now is to appear proactive and cooperative with the U.S. in hopes of being able to negotiate a cap-and-trade regime that’s maybe not so tough on Canada, which through its oil-sands developments is acting these days like a petrostate. Canada will be swept up anyway by U.S. changes, so coming out now with talk of deal-making allows the Conservatives to take credit later for something it has resisted but which Canadian provinces like Ontario and British Columbia have promoted.

It must hurt Harper and executives in the oil patch to see stories like the one on Dow Jones yesterday with the headline: “Under Obama, Dark Days Seen Ahead for Fossil Fuels.” According to the story, under Obama “energy and environment policy marks a tectonic shift for the nation. He would move the U.S. away from petroleum as its primary energy source and towards renewable energy, advanced biofuels, efficiency and low greenhouse-gas-emitting technologies.” In fact, Obama wants to create a windfall tax on oil that trades over $80 a barrel, and the funds from that would be used to create a government venture capital fund and incentive program aimed at renewable energy and clean technologies. He’s also focused on reducing U.S. transportation fuel consumption by doubling CAFE efficiency standards. And, with respect to his plan to create a national cap-and-trade regime, the aim is to return the United States to 1990 levels by 2020.

The Conservatives plan to lower greenhouse gases three per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, or 20 per cent from 2006 levels over that same period. But few believe there is a serious plan in place to get anywhere close. And rather than establish hard caps on emissions, Harper has emphasized initial caps on carbon intensity, meaning an individual barrel of oil might have a lower carbon footprint but the planned overall increase in oil-sands production would still lead to emission increases.

The desire now to engage Obama in a continental cap-and-trade regime is likely an attempt to negotiate some key concession for Canada’s oil sands, playing on Obama’s promise of getting the United States off of Middle East oil within 10 years. And it’s a good cunning thing to play on. It’s doubtful Obama could achieve such a goal without relying on increased production and imports from Canada’s oil sands. The Harper government knows it, and likely sees this as its strongest — perhaps its only — card to play.

Given all this, it will be interesting to see how Obama’s administration responds to the Harper government’s invitation to negotiate a continental cap-and-trade pact. The good news is it will draw a lot more attention — and scrutiny — to the oil sands, its environmental footprint and the unsustainable way it is currently being developed.

14 thoughts on “Canada’s Conservative government wants to talk continental cap-and-trade with Obama administration”

  1. A further complication arises because of overlapping jurisdictions. US states, Canadian provinces, and regional initiatives are all working on climate change mitigation. To some extent, this federal government-to-government bid seems designed to supplant that. Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon has expressed the hope that a Canada-US deal could “provide uniformity and supplant the patchwork of plans that are being implemented in various states and provinces.” While uniformly good policies would certainly be a step forward, there is the distinct danger that more innovative and committed jurisdictions will be forced down towards mediocrity, and that time will be wasted as reorganization occurs.


  2. I would see it a different way. For years, there was no point in approaching the Bush administration with anything like this as it would have obviously been ignored.

    Funny how we “all” like to easily pick the negative Canadian view on this eh?

  3. I get your point, but there’s no reason to keep intentions secret — if indeed they are true intentions — until the right moment arrives. What’s wrong with the Canadian government telling its citizens, industry, etc… that this is what it wants to do and it will work toward it? Why not reveal these intentions in the election platform? These are fair questions.

  4. Re. “What’s wrong with the Canadian government telling its citizens…”

    Well, you would be potentially and needlessly creating an issue for your good buddy from the Alberta of the USA (Texas…get it? 🙂 ) and most important economic patron to deal with, with his public. Why antagonize the bear when he’s not going to move on it anyway and you need him to like you?

    I think if it’s not a ploy to get ahead of Obama – and really, it’s a smart move in the end and helpful to Barry when even the continent’s largest polluter is calling for emissions regime – this issue is a good example of Harper not showing the leadership he’s claiming on this file.

    It’s also a good point about jurisdictional control, but that’s really a Canadian issue in the end, not a US one in my mind. What I can’t stomach is that Alberta as a province thinks it has a right to be at the table for a discussion between two nations. US State is going to look at Alberta sitting there and (once again) suppress the urge to point out to the Canadian trade / energy rep that this is total mickey-mouse behaviour, Confederation or no.

    Final point: the fact that Obama wants oil prices above $80 per barrell and is making long term investments in efficiency is the best possible news for Canadian energy sector. The oil we leave in the ground gets more expensive over time and therefore more valuable. Now if only we could find more responsible government to actually HAVE an energy policy.

  5. Thanks for the link, Darklamp. You’re right, my own database searches show there were only a handful of articles that appeared to pick up on these campaign promises. But then again, that’s what happens when a party releases its platform just a week before an election — it doesn’t give anyone much time to absorb it. Fact remains that the Conservatives didn’t tout this because they knew that, under scrutiny, it would lead to higher energy costs the same way Dion’s carbon tax would have — but without the tax shift (break) for average Canadians.

    But, having seen the platform, I must give Harper credit for putting the N.A. cap-and-trade objective in there. We all know why he did — he’s got no choice and wants a better negotiating position for the oil sands — but I’m willing to wait and see the substance of any negotiations that do follow. What we really need to see is what the caps will be and what the value on carbon will be.

    I’m less impressed with the 90 per cent non-emitting electricity target, because we know that the big emphasis there is “clean coal” and nuclear. Given it will be 2018 earliest before the next new nuclear plant in Canada comes online, it’s doubtful that nuclear will do the job by 2020. As for clean coal, check out my next post.

  6. Thanks Darklamp.

    “…that’s what happens when a party releases its platform just a week before an election — it doesn’t give anyone much time to absorb it.”

    It’s a 44 page document..1 week. 7 pages a day and you’re ahead of the game!

    It’s not about not having enough time to ‘absorb it’. It’s about everybody in this country have preconceived notions that the Conservatives are ALWAYS against any environmental policy, the Greens are pot smoking hippies, the liberals do nothing but lie, and the NDP are …well, the pot smoking hippies.

    This country could accomplish a lot more if we all just took a second to read what’s out there instead of entering (and commenting/blogging/writing) about what each party is doing strictly based on preconceived thoughts.

    The 90% target is a start. It’s not the holy grail solution but it’s in the correct direction. Just like the Liberal’s Green Shift and the idea about Carbon Taxation being ‘a start’ in the correct direction…i just wished they focused on Tax credits vs. increased taxation. I (and corporations) react faster to a carrot than a whip.

  7. The Conservatives aren’t always against environmental policy. What they’re against is meaningful climate policy, and actions to back it up. In fact, the Conservatives have done pretty well on the environment front, if you exclude the oil sands. As for taking the time to read, I personally e-mailed every major party asking for a summary of their energy/environmental planks. They all replied except the Conservatives. They all promoted those aspects of their platforms in public forums. It’s no excuse to bury it in a platform document released a week before an election, so much so that the mainstream media hardly picked up on it — let alone the general public.

    The top priority for the Conservatives in a low-emission world is clean coal/sequestration and nuclear. The other stuff is just wrapping paper. On your point about taking the time to read what’s out there, yeah, it would help. I just for once want to see action rather than read promises on paper. But I’m sure you agree with me there.

  8. You know Tyler, when the platform came out, it was at the same time that the “market crisis” was peaking for Canadians. Harper was trying to calm everyone down by telling people to invest in the market because there are bargains to begot.

    I think that it was a simple economy trumps environment situation and the public did not have an appetite for it. I wonder how many media editors pushed the cap and trade story away to make room for an economic story. Anyways, at least Harper is holding on to his promise and moving away from the intensity regime (except that I do not know why both were announced and how they will work together).

  9. Completely agree. On the one hand, its good to see that Harper is taking some of the more important steps in making a climate change a priority. But on the other hand, he should have put the wheels in motion long ago, and I am still uncertain on whether or not he will propose some half assed lame system that panders to the Oil Patch.

    The statements that Ed Selmach has made regarding needing a seat at the table are preposterous… no matter how great the wealth of oil is in Alberta, I am simply amazed at the possibility of him derailing one of the most crucial North American environmental pacts ever.

    On your recommendation Tyler (and some others as well) I read ‘Tar Sands’ and if Andrew’s information is correct, Carbon Capture and Sequestration is very, very expensive, and hardly proven to be effective. It is not the panacea! We have to reduce emissions at the source (and clean up the horrific tar ponds as well!)

  10. Well Tyler I also would like to see action as opposed to promises. Harper has definite interest in protecting the oil sands in Alberta over issues of the environment. Because of this, this may also be hampering the implementation of any environmental policy that increase efficiency and decreases pollution.

    Harper has a consistent record of breaking promises and I would also remind you Harper has put Canada in a position of a international criminal by breaking our legal commitment to honour international treaties like Kyoto.

    As we all know ignoring the law seems to be the de regour for Stephen Harper when it suits he own ends.

  11. Bob rae taking over liberals and coalitions why not Canadian perhaps would be more likely to accept it better but i do think thath economy in quebec and Ontario experience bob rae and other province cover by npd would be a good union for economic issues the bloc cannot do the separation in Ottawa be serious Canada please but if we could get a good definition of whath is a Quebecer and whath rights should we have has a nation different from the rest in Canada and perhaps have less taxes to pay maybe this would help quebec and Canada at same time , harper said quebec was a nation but just to get more vote in quebec it meant nothing he did laugh at all Quebecer faces and its not right he needed the bloc often to pass their shit also , and language issues created in the Canada and insult being blog about Quebecer came on the lies of mister harper about the bloc thath was elected to represent the quebec in Ottawa like it or not we do trust mister Duceppe and we like him and believe he has our interest at heart sadely every Quebecer is associated to being separatist wich is not true , we are tired to be played by bad politics in Canada and being play in quebec also and asking quebec to accept more the immigrants and gives them all they want and letting them get in massively , sorry they are not Quebecer and we have to pay each of them French courses for them to work here so they integrate quebec culture and way of doing things but do you think they know about quebec or Canada political problems and about political views ?? most of them send money to their country while working here and we cannot put every religions options vallable and respect every demand before they where here we had a way of living why would we change ??? and if we would live in any other country than Canada than we would see thath they wont make concession for us never, they will make concession for alot of money maybe and than again they might take your money and kill you in many places , alot Quebecer are now bilingual not idiot why Canada takes us for idiot or bad French separatist and no one sees thath there is a problem between quebec French and Canada English and lots of racism problems and than we ask quebec to understand immigrants we are gonna be a minority in our places if nothing being done for real Quebecer so no chance the separation will ever pass but they will be no more quebec neither cause is population would have disapeard also will be left immigrants thath may be worst than Quebecer to deal with after so???? If Canada cares about quebec than i think they should get more smart about the issues we pay the most taxes and we know about budget thath we are good in thath we can be trusted and we put up with a America English and now with immigrants thath don’t speak English or French neither thath take over every where and Quebecer stays up and proud even if we are being abuse . jean lachapelle

  12. People curious to know more about carbon capture and storage might want to read the McKinsey report “CCS: Assessing the Economics”, or the MIT report “The Future of Coal”, or the IPCC Special Report on Carbon Capture and Storage. Now that Gore is out there saying this technology doesn’t exist, its worth considering the authoritative views of those who say it does.

    I can’t take Harper seriously on climate policy. All I see is a guy who wants the tar sands developed to extract every last drop. Harper stated that a carbon tax “will screw everyone”, and ruin the economy, which is the same thing as saying any method of putting a price on carbon will do the same thing as far as I can see. All he wants in any negotiation with the US is to ensure that Alberta can develop its oil, and any move he seems to make in the way of doing the slightest thing about climate is a sham designed to delay.

    Andrew Weaver is one of the Canadian scientists who have a leading position in the IPCC. He wrote a book, Keeping our Cool, which most of the following information comes from.

    As of 2002 Harper wrote that Kyoto is a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth producing nations”, and “the science of global warming is tentative and contradictory”. As late as 2006 Harper couldn’t distinguish between what weather is and what climate is. As the Arctic melts his big response has been to fortify the area to assert the Canadian right to develop its oil and gas deposits. Harper cut climate research and doesn’t bother to reply to urgent calls from Canadian scientists that he develop an effective national strategy or at least even consent to being briefed on the topic. Nature magazine has criticized Harper in its Feb 21 2008 issue for his “manifest disregard for science”, i.e. climate change science. He’s stopped Canadian scientists employed by government from speaking to the media unless their remarks are approved in advance.

    Its preposterous to think he cares about climate in any way other than how he can stand in the way of any action being taken at all.

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