It’s not Mulcair wrecking Canada’s oil rep

by Paul Dechene

Mulcair & Harper

“Mulcair is a traitor!” Screamed the national media after the NDP leader traveled to the United States to scupper the Keystone XL project, a pipeline that would transport raw bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to refineries south of the border.

Actually, the traitor talk came almost exclusively from Canada’s wannabe Fox News, the Sun media chain. And the line was really a more timid, “Mulcair has been called a traitor.” — by whom, exactly, was hard to determine, unless you count commentators on Sun media websites.

Even Alberta Premier Alison Redford,  the provincial leader who has the most to gain if the pipeline goes forward, stopped well short of using the  t-word, only calling Mulcair’s anti-Keystone tour of the States, “a fundamental betrayal of Canada’s long-term economic interests.”

Of course, not only was no one of import calling Mulcair a traitor, it turns out Mulcair didn’t go to Washington to speak against the Keystone pipeline at all.

“Tom didn’t go down for Keystone,” says Megan Leslie, the NDP’s environment critic, clearly fatigued by weeks of misinformation. “He went down to meet with U.S. decision-makers to introduce himself as the leader of the opposition. So he talked about a range of different things. The point of it wasn’t Keystone.”

In fact, during his trip, he barely mentioned Keystone at all.

But what he didn’t do — unlike Alison Redford, Brad Wall and Harper cabinet ministers Joe Oliver, Ed Fast, John Baird and Vic Toews — was loudly and proudly lobby the Americans in favour of the project.

In fact, the NDP’s position is considerably more nuanced than Sun News would make it out to be.

“Our position is that it isn’t a good project for Canada because we feel it sends jobs to the U.S. instead of looking at ways that we could create jobs, and look at doing value-added with our raw and natural resources here in Canada,” says Leslie.

“But ultimately, it’s a U.S. decision. So we don’t have a position like ‘yes’ versus ‘no’, because it’s up to the Americans to decide for themselves if they go forward with this project.”

And the NDP, it turns out, aren’t even opposed to pipelines as a concept. Leslie says they would like to see a Canadian east-west pipeline so that bitumen from the prairies could feed the unmet refining capacity in Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and B.C.

But apparently, as far as Sun News is concerned, that fairly neutral stance on Keystone combined with a desire for a made-in-Canada pipeline project is the same as conspiring to make Alberta wither and die, and not marching in enthusiastic lockstep with Harper on every single issue counts as treason.

Of course, all this hand-wringing over Keystone occurred before the Pegasus pipeline split apart and flooded an Arkansas suburb with Alberta bitumen, and Canada’s pipeline discourse with irony. All of a sudden, being perceived as the party opposed to pipelines — even if you aren’t — might not be such a bad place to be.

According to David McGrane, a political scientist from the University of Saskatchewan, being the pipeline-skeptical party will probably play very well in Quebec, where the electorate is typically more concerned about environmental issues. And even though not being hawkish on Keystone could hurt the party in Saskatchewan and Alberta, it’s worth the risk.

“It should be job number one for any NDP leader to hold on to that Quebec base. Sixty seats in Quebec is worth a lot more than the one or two seats they could pull out of Saskatchewan,” says McGrane.

Going forward, McGrane says the NDP can maximize their appeal by balancing environmental concerns with a commitment to jobs and the economy. To do that they have to be known as the party of sustainable development.

“The idea of the NDP is a very clear one, and that is that, ‘Yes, we want economic development and yes we want economic growth but it has to be done in an environmentally sustainable manner,’” says McGrane.

And according to Leslie, the NDP is working on an energy strategy for the country that is “triple bottom line” –that is, it will be focused on the environment, the economy and social sustainability.

Cam Broten used the same soundbite in a recent interview with Prairie Dog. Expect to hear it a lot in the next few years.

Currently, with the Harper government cutting back on environmental regulations, defunding scientific research and muzzling scientists, Leslie says it’s impossible to have confidence in the safety and sustainability of the oil sector.

“Our environmental assessment process in Canada has been completely gutted. The Conservatives didn’t introduce amendments to the Environmental Assessment Act — they repealed it and introduced a new act,” says Leslie.

As a result, the oil industry is no longer having to prove itself by passing a rigorous environmental approval and monitoring process, and without those checks in place, they lack the “social license” that gives the public confidence in their operations.

It’s no wonder then that the Americans are losing their appetite for tar sands oil when it’s become synonymous with dirty energy. That’s the real obstacle for the Keystone project. Canada’s shoddy reputation on the environment has turned the Americans against us.

“That is our federal government’s fault. That lies at the feet of Stephen Harper,” says Leslie.

In other words, with a president in the U.S. who’s declared climate change a top priority, and with the Arkansas pipeline spill a graphic reminder of the costs of slipshod energy industry monitoring, being a rogue state on the subject of environmental science and regulation is making us a pariah among our former friends.

It seems Harper’s “drill, ship, sell, and damn the consequences” approach to resource management is what’s really putting projects like the Keystone pipeline in jeopardy.

So instead of trying to divert attention by pointing fingers at Mulcair, Sun News and the Conservative party would do well to look at their own leader when they’re hunting around for villains and traitors.