Stephen Harper: Friend or foe of Alberta’s energy sector?
At Issue: Keystone is a proxy for government inaction on climate change, and there are few governments in the world that personify that better than our own. As such, it raises an interesting question: Has Harper’s Conservative government really helped the energy sector?
When he was younger, Max Fawcett wanted to make a mint in the markets. Now as the managing editor of Alberta Venture he gets to write about them. Close enough, right? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Max Fawcett
Stephen Harper is a friend of the energy sector. That probably sounds like a fairly uncontroversial statement, given the fact that he’s a conservative politician who represents a Calgary riding. Indeed, on the political left in this country, the notion that the current Conservative government is in league with the energy sector – or, as the more conspiratorially-minded might say, working at its behest – has become an article of faith.
But let’s step back for a moment. After all, by any rational, dispassionate analysis, the U.S. government should have approved the Keystone XL project long ago. As the University of Calgary’s Jack Mintz has pointed out, the economic case for its approval is “unassailable.” But Keystone isn’t about the economy, be it the effect it would have on the realized prices for oil producers in Alberta or the construction jobs that it would create in America.
Instead, Keystone has become about the environment – and not, as opponents have suggested, because it would increase carbon emissions. The oil that would have flowed through that pipeline will find its way to market somehow, albeit at a higher cost to the Canadian producers that need to get it there. No, Keystone is a proxy for government inaction on climate change, and there are few governments in the world that personify that better than our own. As such, it raises an interesting question: Has Harper’s Conservative government really helped the energy sector?
Yes, the government has been vociferous in its support of the Canadian energy sector, but it’s done more than just talk. It’s also backed those words up with deeds. Take the 2012 budget, which saw the streamlining of Canada’s cluttered environmental review process, one that’s obstructed the energy sector’s ability to build projects and critical infrastructure in a timely and efficient manner. The capping of joint panel environmental reviews at two years and National Energy Board hearings at 18 months will ensure that certain interests aren’t able to effectively filibuster important projects or impede development that benefits the vast majority of Canadians. And while the government has been, at times, perhaps a tad too enthusiastic in its support of pipeline projects like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, it clearly understands how important those are to Canadian energy producers. Its urgency on the file, meanwhile, isn’t unwarranted, given the magnitude of the opportunity available to the energy sector – and, by extension, all of Canada – if it can find a way to get its product to lucrative Asian markets. The size of the prize numbers in the trillions of dollars, but those will go into the pockets of another country’s citizens if Canada is unable or unwilling to meet the demand. Give credit where it’s due: the government is doing everything it can short of nationalizing large portions of B.C. to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Stephen Harper’s way of doing politics has served him well over the years – better than well, really. But when it comes to how he’s handled the debate over Canada’s energy sector and its relationship to the country’s environmental responsibilities, his aggressive approach and that of his key ministers may be on the verge of backfiring in a major way. The Obama administration is skeptical of the Canadian government’s willingness to act on climate change. The federal government history of lashing out at anyone who criticizes either its approach to environmental management or its relationship with the energy sector may have permanently undermined its credibility on the issue. It hasn’t helped that the Harper administration overreacted to Thomas Mulcair’s dubious views about the oil sands by referring to them as a form of treason, and treating other high-profile critics with equally disproportionate disdain. Rather than trying to drown its critics in rhetoric it should be taking a page from the late Ralph Klein, whose low-key, back-channel approach to representing the sector and its interests abroad was very popular with people who worked in it. But by furiously trying to stomp out any opposition to the energy sector’s interests, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government may have, rather ironically, only managed to amplify it.
The Results Are In
Last month in this space we asked you about the economic legacy of the late Ralph Klein. Was Alberta’s most outspoken premier good for the economy, or just the beneficiary of a rising tide?