Since 2007, when what was then known as Canada’s New Government introduced the Regulatory Framework for Air Emissions, the Conservative government has had a fairly consistent approach to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions policy: it’s relied on some regulations, sometimes combined with carbon pricing, as part of a sector-by-sector regulatory approach, with the ever-present promise of more regulations to come.

Eight years after this initial plan, we seem no closer today to seeing federal policy cover the growing emissions of the oil sands, the natural gas and refining industries, or the large and growing source of GHGs known as the emissions-intensive and trade-exposed sectors. As the Prime Minister’s former director of communications Andrew MacDougall said, “If something is essential to the government’s agenda and losing isn’t an option, the entire team puts its shoulder to the wheel until victory is achieved. If a policy isn’t critical, it can be abandoned if the going gets too tough.” Had greenhouse gas policy for the oil sands and other major emitters been seen as essential to the government’s agenda, it would be implemented today.

To understand how we got to this point, it’s worth looking back at where we’ve been. Imagine, if you will, a policy that would, for oil sands plants starting operations in or after 2012, “effectively require putting into place new carbon capture and storage technologies to prevent the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” Zero-emissions oil sands.

This was not the policy of a fringe, left-wing party. This was part of the Turning the Corner Plan, released in early 2008 by the government of, well — you know who. But that’s not all. The same policy would have also required a 33 percent reduction in GHG emissions intensity relative to 2006 levels by 2020. The proposed policy would have initially allowed firms to comply by paying into a fund, as is now the case in Alberta, but this option would have been removed after 2017. The Turning the Corner Plan would have been the Alberta system, with teeth, and it would have imposed compliance costs on oil sands producers far beyond the realm of anything being talked about today. But those were the times in 2007 and 2008.

Later in 2008, the Prime Minister gave a speech in London, UK. Read today, his words are almost shocking. Midway through the speech, he turned to the question of climate change. “Despite the commitments our predecessors in government made under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise completely unrestrained from the early 1990s onward,” Harper noted. His government would not “repeat our previous error.” Canada would, he said, “set targets that are achievable.”

At the time of his London speech, the Prime Minister was aware the road would not be easy. “Our targets are ambitious, but they are realistic,” he said, before committing to, “in a relatively short period of time restrain and reverse the growth of GHG emissions…lower Canada’s emissions 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020 and aim for a reduction of 60 to 70 per cent by 2050.” The government backed down a bit from these commitments years later, at Copenhagen, in pledging to reduce emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, a target we are not on track to meet.

The government’s bold words and ambitions were never matched with proportional actions. Despite a short foray to examine a North American cap-and-trade system, the Conservatives have not strayed too far from their earliest policies in their efforts to bring greenhouse gas policies to major industrial emissions. As promised, renewable fuel content standards and vehicle emissions performance standards harmonized with the US have been imposed, and a ban on incandescent light bulbs, while delayed, is slowly but surely removing these bulbs from our shelves. The government also delivered promised regulations that have effectively made coal-fired power plants financially infeasible to build. All of these were elements of the Turning the Corner Plan. The key elements missing from that plan are a framework for emissions for oil and gas, as well as emissions regulations for the emissions-intensive and trade-exposed sectors, which together have emissions larger than the oil sands today, without new policies, these emissions are projected to grow.

Zero-emissions oil sands was part of the Turning the Corner Plan released in early 2008 by the government of — well, you know who.

In 2012 and 2013, the government seemed poised to bring in regulations on the oil sector that would likely have included a pricing component similar to that proposed in Turning the Corner and to the regulations implemented in Alberta in 2007. (I worked on these regulations at Environment Canada in 2012-13.) While the federal government never publicly released a proposed framework, details obtained through access to information requests show an Alberta proposal to require a 40 percent reduction in emissions intensity and a Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers counterproposal for a required 20 percent reduction — approximately what would have been required of these facilities under the Turning the Corner Plan (ignoring the part about carbon capture and storage). Facilities that could not accomplish these reductions would have the opportunity to pay a fee that would go to support deployment of new technologies (the fee would have been $20 to $40 per tonne in 2020) – again, similar to what would have been required under the Turning the Corner Plan, although this financial compliance option was to have expired by 2017 under that original plan. It’s fair to say that this new approach was weaker than, although not particularly different in design from, the Harper plan of 2007 (which was not really that different from the Martin/Dion plan of 2005).

The plans for this new (or not-so-new) regulatory approach seem to have died on the drawing board sometime after I left Environment Canada in 2013. The clearest sign of its demise was a purported letter from the Prime Minister to the Barack Obama administration stating that Canada would not act alone but would act together with the US — a line that became the go-to excuse for government inaction on oil sands GHGs until oil prices crashed. Now we’ve seen another excuse. According to the Prime Minister, low prices make it “crazy” to impose regulations on our oil and gas sector without US action.

Over the course of the Prime Minister’s time in office, oil prices have gone from the $50s to the $140s, down to the $30s, back above $100 and back to the $40s, and today they sit at around $50. We’ve had proposals for regulations, cap-and-trade and regulations again, but it seems that no policy that would restrict GHG emissions from the oil sands can get to the finish line. Why? It’s not prices, and it’s not the oil and gas lobby. It is due to one thing:  a prime minister who, to use MacDougall’s words, hasn’t seen fit to instruct “the entire team [to put] its shoulder to the wheel until victory is achieved” and a policy is imposed.

Stephen Harper is happy to see these difficult policy choices pushed to a later date. In so doing he will have us make exactly the mistake he said we wouldn’t make again — promising aggressive action and not delivering it. When the world meets in Paris in late 2015, Canada will likely still not have policies imposed on its oil sands sector and, despite the oil price crash, we will still expect emissions to increase far beyond our Copenhagen commitment. Will the world again be willing to take the word of a prime minister, whoever it may be, who says we won’t make the same mistake three times? The good news is that the speech is already mostly written, and recycling is always a good thing, right?

Andrew Leach
Andrew Leach is currently on leave from his role as an associate professor at the University of Alberta. In 2015, he chaired Alberta's Climate Change Advisory Panel.

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