For years, Conservative politicians from Alberta have used Quebec as a punching bag for their populist pandering. Last week, just a day after Jason Kenney’s years-long campaign against Quebec’s place in the federation culminated in an equalization referendum, the punching bag finally punched back.
In a speech delivered to Quebec’s national assembly, Premier Francois Legault announced that “the government has decided to definitively renounce the extraction of hydrocarbons on its territory.” It’s hard not to see the timing of this announcement as a rebuke of Alberta’s equalization campaign and the anti-Quebec rhetoric with which it was so visibly marbled.
Environmental activists quickly heralded Legault’s decision to ban fossil fuel development in Quebec as a major breakthrough in the fight against climate change.
Caroline Brouillette, the national climate policy director for the Climate Action Network Canada, said it was “the result of YEARS of organizing and a signal for other provinces, Canada, and the rest of the world.” Catherine Abreu, the founder and director of Destination Zero, also decided that the decision merited an all-caps response. “This is HUGE,” she tweeted.
But is it really? Quebec, after all, has never produced meaningful volumes of oil or gas, and it’s been clear for some time that it never will. Yes, they have reserves in the ground and could theoretically develop them, but Quebec has shown no inclination whatsoever to do that so far. It has already indicated it’s prepared to go to court to fend off lawsuits from owners of the oil and gas licences it has granted, at a potential cost of anywhere from $500 million to $3 billion. Its pledge to continue not producing oil and gas, then, is a bit like a lifelong vegetarian publicly swearing off bacon.
My colleague Chris Hatch argues this isn’t quite the nothingburger I’m making it out to be. “Quebec is actually making a stand here and leaving money on the table,” he writes. “Unlike British Columbia, the government has already rejected proposals for a liquefied natural gas industry.”
But unlike British Columbia, Quebec’s proposed LNG terminals wouldn’t be shipping gas produced in the same province. Instead, they’d be exporting western Canadian gas — a substantial difference when we’re talking about money being left on the table, given Quebec’s government wouldn’t benefit from royalty revenue the way B.C.’s does.
Hatch writes that “Quebec joins a growing list of governments eschewing fossil fuel development,” and includes the names of Denmark, Spain, France, Greenland, Ireland, Belize, and Costa Rica on it. But that list accounted for fewer than 280,000 barrels per day of production in 2020, which is a rounding error on a rounding error in a global market of nearly 100 million barrels per day.
California, which Hatch also mentions, has proposed a ban on new oil drilling within 3,200 feet of schools, homes, and hospitals, a decision that will surely accelerate the decades-long decline in its oil production. But California will still produce oil for many years to come, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledges notwithstanding.
Opinion: Quebec's pledge to continue not producing oil and gas is a bit like a lifelong vegetarian publicly swearing off bacon, writes columnist @maxfawcett.
This isn’t to suggest these sorts of political pledges have no value in the global fight against climate change. But it’s important to remember where that fight is actually taking place, and how these performative announcements might play on that battlefield.
Andrew Leach, the University of Alberta professor who chaired his province’s Climate Change Advisory Panel back in 2015-16, warned about the potential implications of Quebec’s announcement in his own province.
“With respect to climate change, we've spent three decades with commitments to near-business-as-usual framed as progress and used to shame jurisdictions trying to make tough choices and/or to frame their efforts as meaningless or insufficient,” he tweeted. “It's frustrating as hell.”
It’s also dangerous.
The victory climate activists are declaring in Quebec could easily prove to be pyrrhic, given the obvious risk of blowback in Alberta — and potentially in Ottawa.
The heaviest lifting on climate has to happen in the West, and it requires a certain level of public support for it to happen. Handing an increasingly desperate populist premier a live political grenade is likely to result in a lot of unnecessary collateral damage — and no meaningful progress when it comes to the war against climate change.
This is where the prime minister has to step in. Legault clearly has no interest in protecting the national unity of Canada or advancing its shared climate goals, and Kenney isn’t far behind him there. Justin Trudeau, on the other hand, should have those two items at the top of his political agenda. And while both Legault and Kenney would happily light the country ablaze if it helped them get re-elected in their own provinces, Trudeau has a responsibility to put these sorts of fires out.
That’s why, when it comes to the results of Alberta’s equalization referendum, which saw a 58 per cent “yes” vote on the government’s anti-equalization question, the prime minister needs to tread carefully. No, they don’t compel him to capitulate to Alberta, and they certainly won’t give Kenney anything in the way of leverage. After all, fewer than 25 per cent of eligible Albertans actually supported the government’s position, which is about where the UCP is polling right now.
But if Trudeau wants to deliver on his climate plans and promises, he can’t afford to have Alberta pulling with all its might in the other direction. That’s even more likely now that he’s appointed Steven Guilbeault, a longtime Quebec environmentalist, as his new minister of environment and climate change.
That means he needs to call Kenney’s bluff here and deliver additional federal dollars to Alberta in areas where it probably doesn’t want to spend them. Maybe that’s more financial support for cleaning up abandoned wells, and maybe it’s funding dedicated to developing new low-carbon sources of energy. Either way, by giving Alberta a superficial win on fiscal reform and equalization, he can help avert a much more important loss on climate.