10/22/2013 05:46 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Mother Nature Is Unimpressed by PM's Speech from the Throne

Mother Nature seems to be a little out of sorts these days. In excruciating detail, the IPCC documents her unhappiness with anthropogenic (a.k.a. man-made) activity. She is even giving some early warnings directly to the PM and his Minister of the Environment. Mother Nature is not impressed and neither are Canadians.

The Environment got "lucky" in the 2013 Speech from the Throne (SFT): it was mentioned twice. Mother Nature must be impressed. In the section entitled "Resource Development," the environment gets a look in: "Our Government believes, and Canadians expect, that resource development must respect the environment. Our Government's plan for responsible resource development includes measures to protect against spills and other risks to the environment and local communities."

Apparently, the environment's only relevance is its relation to the extraction of Canada's "abundant natural resources," which is, of course, the core of the problem. Woe betide an environment that gets in the way of resource development; and if the environment takes a dim view of toxins, spills or noxious gases, Mr. Harper promises "to make the polluter pay" and "increase liability insurance."

That's a little like slamming the barn door after the horse has left. The principle of polluter pay sounds fine, but will it be applied to GHG emissions? Will it apply to leakage from tailings ponds? Will oil and gas companies be able to buy liability insurance to cover off chronic releases into the air and water, or is this just more of an appearance of doing something when, in fact, doing nothing at all?

Mother Nature seems to be a little out of sorts these days. In excruciating detail, the IPCC documents her unhappiness with anthropogenic (a.k.a. man-made) activity. She is even giving some early warnings directly to the PM and his Minister of the Environment.

This summer, a "once in a hundred years" flood went directly through the Prime Minister's own riding. The Minister of the Environment would have to be blind not to notice the melting polar ice caps and rising waters on the edge of her own Arctic riding. Mother Nature is not subtle. Even a Conservative Prime Minister can comprehend that something is wrong.

The Speech from the Throne is deafeningly silent on moving Canada toward a post-carbon economy. There is no mention of tax equivalency treatment between carbon and renewable-based energy generation and not a hint of a target for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions save for one self-congratulatory sentence: "Our Government will ... (b)uild on its record as the first government to achieve an absolute reduction in greenhouse gases emissions by working with provinces to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sectors while ensuring Canadian companies remain competitive. Never mind that its claim to an "absolute reduction" is absolutely not true (see chart below), and further that any achievements are entirely attributable to the recession and the efforts of individual provinces.

The Premiers of B.C. and Quebec must be particularly irritated to have the PM claim credit for all their "heavy lifting." The PM has no emission deal with the oil and gas industry and we have "no good answers" to the critics opposed to Keystone XL who are concerned about GHG emissions. It is doubtful that patently false statements in a Speech from the Throne satisfy their concerns.

The final duplicity is in the phrase "ensuring Canadian companies remain competitive." Putting aside for the moment just what constitutes a Canadian company these days, the irony is that the Harper Government has not pursued a rigorous GHG regime and therefore Canadian companies are being handicapped in achieving market access. A multi-trillion dollar asset is useless unless it can be brought to market cheaply, efficiently and safely. The need for Keystone XL is obvious, but the Harper Government resolutely refuses to address the environmental cost of production.

The phrase "climate change" was not mentioned at all in the Speech and that tells you all you need to know about economic mismanagement on an extraordinary scale. Mr. Harper is not serious about GHG emissions from the oil sands and President Obama knows it, the environmentalists know it and the world knows it -- and because he is not serious, he jeopardizes the very same Canadian companies he wishes to be competitive!

So, the PM goes to New York and tells the President that he won't take no for an answer. How is it a winning strategy to blow off the President of the United States and embrace the Tea Party nutters?

The PM's petulant outburst reflects his belief that Keystone XL is pretty-well dead and so he is desperately pursuing alternatives. The Northern Gateway, long considered to be "Plan B," is mired in mistrust among the aboriginal nations affected. Kinder Morgan may be an alternative, but it too needs a serious environmental review. Plan C, the Mackenzie Valley pipeline is approved, but has no market uptake.

With the North, South and West in various stages of contraction or shutdown, the PM is looking East, Plan D. It is never easy to plan and construct a pipeline, but reversing the flow of a line that has existed for 30 years and largely operated safely should be a relatively easy project. Unfortunately, it too is turning from a "no brainer" into a "cliff hanger."

The City of Toronto submitted a clear and cogent brief on its reservations. It, like others, expresses concern about the absence of maps, proximity to dense populations and watersheds, spill response times and adequate liability insurance among other things. Getting the 'social license' for a project is as important as getting the permit.

Enbridge's reputation for sensitivity to environmental issues was not enhanced by the Kalamazoo spill and from public pronouncement to date; they appear to have learned little or nothing. Most people would agree that getting access to Alberta crude in the East would be a good thing as would shipping it South via Keystone XL. Unfortunately, Line 9 is in danger of becoming a Keystone redux -- and unfortunately once again, we see no indication from the PM that the issues raised by the City of Toronto and others will be addressed.

Another economic opportunity is in danger of being blown because we have a PM who fundamentally does not understand the inextricable linkage between the environment and the economy.

Mother Nature is not impressed and neither are Canadians.

John McKay is the Liberal Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Guildwood and the Environment Critic

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