A few days before Bill Morneau announced the federal government’s plan to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline and take charge of its expansion, my morning newspaper displayed the collision of forces behind this decision. On one page of the newspaper was a story about the pipeline’s expansion, and on the facing page was a story about cities on B.C.’s coast planning to build seawalls and abandon low-lying land to cope with rising ocean levels caused by global warming.

Maybe the contrast was the choice of a clever editor, or maybe it was chance, but it revealed the dangerous double standard our society is straddling. Like a heavy smoker who wakes every day to a hacking cough but refuses to face the health hazards of cigarettes, Canadians wake every day to the consequences of burning fossil fuels but refuse to reduce our emissions. While the Justin Trudeau of the Paris Climate Accord was telling us we should quit, Bill Morneau just bought us another carton of smokes.

"While the Justin Trudeau of the Paris Climate Accord was telling us we should quit, Bill Morneau just bought us another carton of smokes," writes Kevin Taft

It’s a fact of politics that governments often hold contradictory positions. We want more trade with China but don’t want to give up sovereignty. We want higher public services but lower taxes. Governments can fudge these contradictions, sometimes forever, because taxes, public services, money, trade, and nation-states all exist as social constructions. Our national borders, currency, health care system, and human rights can all be changed with the stroke of a pen.

Global warming is an entirely different kind of issue. While there are plenty of social concerns around the Trans Mountain pipeline, including the rights of First Nations and provinces, at its foundation the pipeline matters most because it is part of an industry that is dramatically, dangerously, and permanently changing our physical world through global warming.

Once they are gone, no stroke of a pen will bring back our disappearing glaciers, our submerging coasts, or winters cold enough to stop pine beetle infestations. Some double standards are downright dangerous; a government can fudge its promises but it can’t fudge the laws of physics behind global warming.

By reinforcing the oil industry the federal government is facilitating an increase of oil sands production, which pushes up Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide, which is the biggest driver of global warming, accumulates in the air for centuries. The carbon dioxide we produce today will be breathed by our grandchildren’s grandchildren, who will be coping with a hotter and hotter planet because of it. Regardless of political realities, the physical reality is that global warming is intensifying and accelerating, and fossil fuels are to blame.

Something else is intensifying and accelerating too: the transition away from fossil fuels. While Bill Morneau uses taxpayer money to buy and expand pipelines, governments and corporations in much of the rest of the world are investing heavily to make oil obsolete. About seventy per cent of Alberta’s oil and bitumen ends up as transportation fuel. Every major carmaker on Earth is transforming their vehicles to electric power within the decade. Electric utilities are rapidly converting to wind and solar energy.

There is no doubt we’ve prospered from fossil fuels, but as Councilor Charlene Aleck of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation said to a meeting of Kinder Morgan investors, “While we respect the foundation that fossil fuels have given us, they and the pipelines that carry them are on the wrong side of history now.” Either she is right, or our planet is headed for disaster.

With the pipeline decision the Trudeau government is trying to straddle more conflicting issues than it is safe for any government to straddle: Canadian taxpayers versus American shareholders; emission reductions versus expanding oil production; protecting the coast versus more tanker traffic; a melee of disputes involving the federal government, provinces, and First Nations; and much more. More than anything, this decision is about the future versus the past, and Bill Morneau has made a big bet on the past.

There is a different way forward: the federal government could build a bridge to a carbon-free future, closing the renewable energy gap that is expanding between Canada and the rest of the world. On its current course Canada is unlikely to meet the commitments to reduce emissions it made in the Paris Accord, so it is time to change course.

Instead of a Crown corporation investing billions of dollars in a pipeline, imagine a Crown corporation investing billions of dollars in renewable energy partnerships with provinces, First Nations, and communities across Canada, and billions in energy efficiency programs. Instead of hundreds of jobs building a pipeline we’d create thousands of jobs installing solar panels and wind farms; instead of pitting Canadians against each other we’d bring communities together; and instead of increasing emissions we’d drive them down. Instead of clinging to a fading past we’d embrace the future.

These steps would reduce the painful straddles that are throwing this government and country off balance. The Trudeau government, which once looked so solid, needs to remember that governments that straddle too many issues have a tendency to fall.

Kevin Taft is the author of Oil’s Deep State, published by Lorimer in 2017. He is a former MLA from Edmonton and leader of the Official Opposition in Alberta.

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Comments

You neglect to point out with suitable emphasis that our very lives and lifestyle in the profligate industrialized west/global north depends on cheap and abundant energy to a scale unimagined by any prior generation. And it cannot be provided by renewables alone, no, only fossil sunlight has done it. (See Rees, or Jancovici, or Stern or Schellnhuber for that.) Seems like living off our ecological capital is the only way complex industrial consumer society can function. A more truthful and trenchant essay Mr Taft would have been to splain that our government is unwilling to be the first to level with the people that we can't have a livable climate and jobs and growth. Growth is out. As soon as some major public leader says this, the whole house of cards will start collapsing.
It occurred to me today when I read this eerie news of Canada buying a 65 yr old pipeline for $4.5B plus $15B to upgrade and put it into service, that Justin's speech at Paris Climate Summit was a conniving version of 'make Canada great again'. He promised, 'Canada is back', and I took the bait, we're going to return to some fabled past era, Pearson's probably, and Justin would lead us there. A massive machiavellian lie, more artful than any Trump could fabricate.
On the whole, a very commendable effort to get Canadians to 'kick the butt habit'. Thank you.

It's true that fossil fuels, first coal and then oil and natural gas, are the only way that industrial civilization has been powered to date. I don't see where that makes it logical to claim it's the only way it can be done. Any time I've seen anyone analyze seriously how much wind and solar power could be used, it always seems to come out to "Way more than we need".
There was a time in the 19th century when the only way lighting had ever been provided on a really large scale was with whale oil. Clearly someone claiming that was the only way it could be done, would have been mistaken.
There are other reasons that not doing endless economic growth (not to mention reducing the world population) is almost certainly a good idea. But I don't think the lack of available energy is one of them.

Even whale oil was not sustainable, for the whales.

And what is in the way of renewables is having them WHEN you want them, which is usually at the same time for everyone.

Trudeau has just proclaimed that renewables cannot be done. It's a kick in the teeth he's given social democracy. The question is if he's right or if there's another reason he did it.

Is there an economic case for making climate change worse instead of better?
Is there an economic case for putting Canada's emissions targets out of reach for decades to come?
Is there an economic case for degrading our life support systems?

If so, there is something wrong with our economics.
An economic case can be made only if we discount the costs.
Voodoo economics.

If we have billions of tax dollars to throw at the fossil fuel industry, we have billions of dollars to invest in renewables. If we have billions of tax dollars to increase emissions, accelerate climate change, and boost fossil fuel pollution, we have billions of dollars to reduce emissions and invest in our sustainable future.
The only question is when we start. How much longer do we delay and obstruct?
Wealth that degrades our life-support systems is illusory.
When you're in a hole, stop digging.

There's an economic case . . . for the small number of wealthy people who make most of the profits from oil. For elites, the big virtue of fossil fuels over renewables is precisely that the money they make is quite concentrated, so windfall profits go mainly to those same elites, in great big gobs that leave them plenty of money for brib . . . ah, campaign contributions, and lobbyists. But that is also precisely what makes them not much good for the actual economy. Alberta's oil patch generates some employment because there's just so much money in it that some spills over to actual people, but per dollar it's abysmal at generating employment compared to renewables, which tend to be more decentralized, spread the money and profits out more to the general public.
Unfortunately in a dollar-driven "democracy", if you have two sectors worth the same amount of money, one which gives less employment and less prosperity gives its top dogs more cash to buy governments with than one which provides more employment and more prosperity. That's why the fresh vegetable lobby has never been very strong, for instance.

This.

Excellent article...
I wonder what it will take to loosen the leech like clinging to the old paradigm of those in power positions - before the natural immune system of this planet has to produce re-balancing conditions that will rip everything loose for all of us...

Not for the .1%.

Great article. I urge everyone to look at Canada's budget (2015-2106).- 25 Billion for the Military - 10.3 Billion for Public Safety and a mere 1.5 Billion for Environment and Climate Change and 1.4 for Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Canada is obviously more interested in fueling the war machine (the biggest user of fossil fuels) than addressing the seriousness of climate change or providing clean water and resources for Indigenous communities. While I believe Canadians are nice people, we should stop traveling around the globe with the Canadian flag on our. backpacks because really we don't have much to be proud of anymore. I believe that Canada is failing on many fronts and we as responsible engaged citizens need call out the federal government in all it's deceit and hypocrisy.

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