If you thought the oil patch firmly favours Canada's federal stance on carbon emissions, think again. Last in a series on greening the oil sands.
Stephen Harper giving victory speech after Conservatives won in 2006. Shortly after, Harper called climate change "the biggest threat to humanity" and backed a cap-and-trade approach to limiting carbon emissions. His government takes a different position now.
On Sept. 11, 2009, Stephen Harper's then-environment minister Jim Prentice called on his counterpart in Alberta, Rob Renner, and then-premier Ed Stelmach.
Prentice intended to pitch the province on the federal government's plan to control Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.
It wasn't going to be an easy sell. Ottawa planned to place clear limits on Canada's carbon emissions. Companies unable to meet those limits would need to buy credits from companies that exceeded their requirements. This would almost certainly impact the bottom-line of Alberta's bitumen and coal sectors, two of Canada's largest sources of industrial carbon emissions.
But Prentice's bureaucrats had prepared him with an answering argument: "We believe that a carefully designed cap-and-trade system will send the appropriate price signals to encourage changes and ultimately help reduce emissions," his briefing notes read.
There is no public record of what was discussed between Prentice, Renner and Stelmach, but two months later Prentice seemed frustrated during a conversation with U.S. ambassador David Jacobson.
According to a leaked diplomatic report on their meeting, Prentice lamented a growing international backlash against Alberta's "dirty oil," and complained that the province was dragging its feet on a solution. "If industry did not take voluntary measures, and if the provincial government did not set more stringent regulations," the leaked meeting notes reported, Prentice had threatened to "step in and press federal environmental legislation."
How serious Prentice was is debatable. By the time he abruptly resigned from politics a year later, oil sands' carbon emissions had grown by six megatons -- equivalent to putting more than one million new passenger vehicles on the road.
In May 2011 Prentice's replacement, one-time news anchor Peter Kent, announced that a national cap-and-trade system was "off the table."
Policymakers have struggled to find a viable alternative. The results show:
Canada now risks achieving barely a quarter of the carbon reductions it agreed to after the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks.
And Alberta's oil sands continue to be perceived as among the planet's great climate violators.
Yet if the Harper government once stood to influence Alberta positively on global warming policy, the opposite may be true today.
That somewhat counter-intuitive insight has emerged after months of research, as one expert source after another told the Tyee Solutions Society that the feds might usefully learn a thing or two from their Alberta counterparts, and even from the producers of "dirty" oil themselves.
Five plans, five misses
Canada's Conservative government has published five separate climate change plans since coming to power in 2006. Its federal Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan's job to pore through each one with an auditor's eye.
"I have a legal mandate to report on Canada's climate progress," he told the Tyee Solutions Society.
Vaughan deals with hard numbers: Precisely how much greenhouse gas reduction will the government's plan achieve? And how close does that get Canada to meeting our declared climate goals?
A report Vaughan released this May revealed a moving target. The Harper government's first climate change plan in 2007 expected Canada's carbon footprint to shrink by 282 megatons between 2008 and 2012. Its latest plan, released in 2011, put that figure at 27 megatons for the same period.
What explains the 90 per cent drop in ambition?
In retrospect, 2007 was an exceptional year in Canadian climate policy circles. Public opinion polls ranked the environment as a number one priority for Canadians. British Columbia announced plans for North America's first economy-wide carbon tax. And Alberta took the groundbreaking step of charging major polluters for their emissions.
That year also saw the release of the Harper government's first official strategy to fight climate change.
The previous Liberal government had ratified the Kyoto Protocol along with 140 other nations. It committed Canada to reduce its carbon emissions by six per cent below their 1990 levels by 2012. It now fell to Harper, who once referred to Kyoto as a "socialist scheme," to keep that commitment.
Initially, the new prime minister appeared to shoulder the task. Speaking in advance of the 2007 G-8 Summit in Germany, Harper declared climate change to be "perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today."
"Canada may be a small contributor to global warming," he added. "But we owe it to future generations to do whatever we can to address this world problem."
Tip-toeing into cap and trade
The heart of the Conservative climate strategy was an embryonic system of cap and trade. It put a modest market price ($15 per ton) on carbon emissions, the first step that business people, greens and climate policy experts have all called crucial to a low-carbon transition.
What Harper himself lauded at the time as a "practical, affordable and achievable" climate strategy, would force every major industrial facility in the country to reduce its carbon intensity (the ratio of emissions to production) by a certain amount each year, a target that varied for each operation.
Do-gooder companies that exceeded their targets would be given credits, which they could sell to laggard companies that hadn't. Those laggards had the further options of purchasing carbon offsets, or paying $15 for each ton of carbon emitted over their target. That public revenue would go into a clean energy technology fund, and the $15 per ton price would rise along with Canada's GDP.
In short, it was a system much like the one Alberta actually implemented that year (minus the rising carbon price). Critics called the federal plan "feeble" and full of "loopholes."
The federal environment commissioner was forced to agree. Even fully operational alongside other programs in Harper's climate strategy, Vaughan concluded that the nascent cap-and-trade system, "would not be sufficient to meet the government's Kyoto Protocol obligations."
Yet the plan would have brought Canada a step closer to accounting for greenhouse gas emissions as a valuable commodity -- a treatment that oil sands majors Cenovus and Suncor support alongside most Canadian environmental groups.
A quiet death
By 2009 the federal climate strategy, its "Regulatory Framework for Industrial Greenhouse Gas Emissions," as it was known, had survived two major revisions. Advisors estimated it would achieve 85 per cent of the government's short-term carbon reduction goal.
Then in 2010, the framework simply expired.
The circumstances of its demise are hazy. In June of 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed historic climate legislation that committed America to a national system of cap and trade. Most observers expected the Senate to do the same.
Harper faced a dilemma. His government could soldier on with the nascent cap-and-trade system it had spent the past three years fine-tuning to be the heart of its climate strategy.
Or it could kill that system and wait to see what the Americans would do.
It was in that moment of policy limbo that Prentice travelled to Calgary to pitch Alberta on some form of cap-and-trade (whether the Harper government's own, or the more fully -ledged U.S. plan is unclear), coming away empty-handed.
Making less of more
Four months later, in January 2010, Prentice was back in Canada's oil capital, this time to announce a new carbon reduction target for Canada.
Negotiated a month earlier at international climate talks in Copenhagen, it was the same target the U.S. had officially adopted two days earlier: a cut of 17 per cent below 2005 emission levels, accomplished by 2020.
Presented as progress, the new goal was actually a decisive step back from the country's Kyoto commitments.