Why does Harper have more ambitious growth targets for the oil sands than those in the oil patch?

On Monday, October 22nd, 2012 in Articles by Elizabeth

The Prime Minister’s goal of six million barrels of oil a day from the oil sands is driving our foreign policy, our trade policy, has undermined our global climate commitments, is eviscerating our scientific capacity and is skewing our economy to one product at the expense of others.

Former U.S. President G. W. Bush was caught on camera once referring to the “vision thing.” Some commentators have suggested Prime Minister Stephen Harper has not enunciated a clear vision. If Canadians wonder what Harper’s vision might be, look to the mania for slashing laws that might regulate the pace of fossil fuel development, to gagging and terminating scientific research that might call into question the impacts of said development, and the new obsession with attracting Chinese investment to ensure galloping growth in the oil sands. Harper has said that his goal is six million barrels of oil a day from the oil sands. This would amount to more than tripling the current levels of production. It is an odd goal for a government. It appears to me that all policy areas are subsumed to this one objective.

It did not come as a surprise that access to information requests from Postmedia’s Mike De Souza showed that, within the bureaucracy, the Enbridge Northern Gateway project was “top of mind” when drafting the 2012 budget. No wonder the repeal of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and its anaemic replacement within the omnibus budget bill; no wonder the gutting of the Fisheries Act, the re-working of the Navigable Water Protection Act to exclude pipelines as barriers to navigation, and the radical change of the National Energy Board Act to allow Cabinet to overturn a National Energy Board (NEB) decision. Now we hear the Species at Risk Act will be subjected to similar “streamlining.”

At the same time, there has been an unprecedented slashing of scientific capacity. Since spring 2012, allegedly due to internal decisions of the Departments of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada, pink slips have been issued to more than 70 scientists across Canada in the marine contaminants program, the government has announced it will no longer support the world-class Experimental Lakes Area (58 lakes in western Ontario, the only place on the planet allowing whole lake experiments in fresh water science), the closing of the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory (the closest research station to the North Pole on the planet, tracking key developments on climate and ozone depletion), as well as a raft of other closuressmokestack monitoring, climate adaptation research and all the work of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. The government’s only advisory body on sustainable development, the National Round Table on Environment and Economy, has also been killed.

The argument that these cuts are necessary as a matter of fiscal austerity would be more plausible if not for the reality that these cuts, cumulatively, come to less than the Harper Conservatives continue to spend on ads touting their wonderful record. Throw in the $28-million spent this year on celebrations of the bicentenary of the War of 1812, the $5-million for the 100th year of the Calgary Stampede, and another $5-million for the 100th year of the Grey Cup, and it is hard to see the elimination of scientific capacity as anything other than a pre-emptive strike against evidence.

The most dramatic proof that the only driving force of Harper’s policy is oil sands growth comes from his 180-turn on foreign policy in relation to China. When he first became Prime Minister, he was overtly frosty towards the Peoples’ Republic of China. Although I applauded his focus on pressing China on human rights, the snubbing of China was too extreme and undermined our diplomacy. Now, Stephen Harper visits China regularly, and craves the audience and photo ops with leaders he once avoided, like the now disgraced Bo Xilai. In fact, the last picture of Bo Xilai taken before his criminal charges was with Harper.

What could explain this about-face? It is the realization that there is simply not enough free market capital flowing into the oil sands. To meet the ambitious growth target (not of the industry, but of the Prime Minister), investment from China is needed. To secure that investment, concerns about human rights in China, indeed for Canadian sovereignty and national security are getting short shrift.

Tabled in the House on Sept. 26, with no debate planned, no committee review and no vote, is the Canada-China Investment Treaty. Under Foreign Affairs rules of procedure, the treaty could be ratified by order in council as soon as Nov. 2. It will bind Canada for a minimum of 15 years. If a future government wished to withdraw, a one year’s written notice is required, but any Chinese state-owned enterprises already invested in Canada receive a further 15 years benefits. What are the benefits?

Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will be able to launch claims for compensation if actions at the municipal, provincial or federal levels reduce their expectation of profits. These claims will first go to six-month secret diplomatic negotiations between China and Canada. If this fails, there will be a secret arbitration with three arbitrators in a hotel room somewhere deciding whether Canada’s laws or regulations have been “arbitrary.” From these rulings, there will be no appeal. Moreover, if Canada (or any level of government) wants to conserve resources, we can only do so to the extent we limit our own use of natural resources.

In short, the Prime Minister’s goal of six million barrels of oil a day from the oil sands is driving our foreign policy, our trade policy, has undermined our global climate commitments, is eviscerating our scientific capacity and is skewing our economy to one product at the expense of others. What no one seems to know is why our Prime Minister has more ambitious growth targets for the oil sands than those in the oil patch and why he has set a pace that no one can explain or defend.

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands and Leader of the Green Party of Party.
Originally published in the Hill Times.

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