A radio ad aiming to counter misinformation about a federal climate policy highlights a difference of opinion between two Liberal MPs.

The ad, paid for by Environmental Defence and running in New Brunswick, defends the federal government’s clean fuel regulations and debunks Premier Blaine Higgs’ assertion they are to blame for the price of gasoline shooting up by about seven cents. It was first aired July 26 and will run until Aug. 15.

The ad begins by acknowledging the price of gas has increased but places the blame on Irving Oil and Higgs, a former Irving Oil executive: the former for not investing in upgrades to its oil refinery to make cleaner fuels and the latter for striking a deal with the oil company allowing costs to be passed onto consumers.

Jenica Atwin, MP for Fredericton, was quick to applaud the radio ads in a Facebook post on July 27.

Screenshot of a July 27 post on Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin’s Facebook page. Screenshot taken by Canada's National Observer on Aug. 4, 2023

In a phone interview with Canada’s National Observer, Atwin said the ad is about “setting the record straight” and “giving people alternative information that's not coming from the industry itself or a provincial government who likes to, you know, bend to the industry.”

Effectively communicating often complex climate policy to the public is a challenge the Liberal government has had to contend with. Atwin thinks there is room for improvement.

“We need to make sure that all caucus members are clear on the details, are clear on the path and then can help bring their constituents along, rather than muddying the waters … with some of these disagreements that are happening,” said Atwin.

“We need to make sure that all caucus members are clear on the details, are clear on the path and then can help bring their constituents along, rather than muddying the waters … with some of these disagreements that are happening,” said Atwin.

Saint John-Rothesay MP Wayne Long, on the other hand, characterized Environmental Defence’s ad as an “attack campaign” and called the environmental organization an “extension of the Green Party,” reported the Telegraph-Journal, a Saint John newspaper covering both local and provincial news. Long declined multiple requests for comment from Canada’s National Observer.

The MP’s comment about Environmental Defence is “completely absurd,” said Keith Brooks, programs director at the charity.

Environmental Defence is a nonpartisan registered charity. We don't have a political affiliation with any party at all,” he said.

Brooks and Atwin both noted the provinces and industry — including Irving Oil — were consulted on these clean fuel regulations “for many years.”

“People can be critical of policy choices, but I think when people are misleading or directly using misinformation and disinformation, that's something that's problematic,” said Brooks.

“We just call it like we see it. And we're dedicated to fighting to protect the environment and fighting climate change,” he said.

Long has publicly criticized one of his own government’s climate policies before.

Last month, Long told the Telegraph-Journal, which is owned by Postmedia, that his government did not listen to Irving Oil’s concerns about the impending clean fuel regulations. Long reportedly blamed the federal government for penalizing the company and suggested a price increase could have been avoided if the federal government had worked out a solution with the oil company.

The forthcoming clean fuel standard will require companies that produce and import fuels — like gasoline and diesel — to gradually reduce how much carbon is released during production, processing, transportation and consumption of their products over time. To comply with the clean fuel regulations, an oil refinery could invest in carbon capture technology or blend more ethanol into their fuel, for example.

The New Brunswick government has said a roughly eight-cent price increase for gasoline and diesel is needed to help oil companies offset the cost of the federal clean fuel regulations. In a news release, Higgs said the province allowed its Energy and Utilities Board “to factor the impacts of the Clean Fuel Regulation into its maximum retail pricing formula,” so businesses won’t suffer when refineries have to pass costs onto them — instead, those costs can be borne by consumers.

Environmental Defence says those costs should be borne by industry and noted the federal clean fuel regulations haven’t even taken effect yet: refiners have until July 2024 to comply with the federal rules.

An emailed statement from the Department of Environment and Climate Change reiterated this point, saying: “The regulations have no impact on gas prices until next year, there is no reason for Irving to increase prices this year.”

The Irving Oil refinery directly employs 1,500 people and is located in Long’s riding. Irving Oil is part of J.D. Irving Limited, a conglomerate that falls under the Irving Group of Companies umbrella, owned by Arthur Irving, who is 436th on Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index at a net worth of over US$5 billion: almost 80,000 times the median household income in the United States.

The Irvings are by far New Brunswick’s most wealthy and powerful corporate family: Irving-owned stores sit at key corners in many towns and cities, and in Saint John, the company operates Canada’s largest oil refinery, a stone's throw away from an Irving-owned pulp mill. The company did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Irving “give(s) so much to our region, I certainly don't want to take away from that,” said Atwin. However, “for a provincial government to have funded radio ads saying that we're fighting the federal government on your behalf with a second carbon tax … it's just unnecessary, and it's irresponsible,” she said.

“There was an increase to the price on pollution April 1, but actually gas in New Brunswick is 20 per cent cheaper this year than it was last year,” said Atwin. “So this idea that these environmental initiatives that are so critical at this point are the reason that people are feeling the financial pinch in every other sector is just not true. And it's not helpful.

“I had hoped that we could have been more united, you know, as a Liberal caucus, as a Liberal New Brunswick team, as far as what the facts really are.”

At the same time, Atwin called Long “a dear friend” despite sometimes finding themselves on opposing sides of issues. “It is what it is with Wayne. I have no hard feelings.”

‘A bit of a maverick’

Long’s support for Irving and criticism of the federal government did not surprise Don Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

“Wayne Long has long — no pun intended — been an outspoken MP. He's been a bit of a maverick from Day 1,” Desserud told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview. Back in 2017, Long supported a Conservative motion to extend consultations on proposed tax changes affecting small businesses. The Conservative motion failed and the Liberal government disciplined Long by kicking him off two committees.

Long’s sometimes adversarial approach is “not unusual for a Saint John MP” and “tends to sell well” in the riding, said Desserud. And, of course, the Saint John MP’s defence of Irving Oil is straightforward from a jobs perspective, he added.

The impact of a dissenting parliamentarian on a party “really does depend on the profile of the person and where they're speaking from,” explained Desserud. A former cabinet minister criticizing their government would likely be taken seriously, whereas a New Brunswick backbencher who won’t be running in the next election is less concerning, he said.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is at the helm of a relentless campaign against the carbon price, and Desserud says Long’s dissent could possibly hurt the Liberals if Poilievre points to it as evidence the Liberals are falling apart. However, Desserud “can't imagine he would be able to use that as a wedge” effectively because Long is not in the Liberals’ inner circle: that is, he has never held a position in cabinet.

Also, Long’s reputation as a maverick means “if you're the Liberals, you get to shrug it off, say, ‘Oh, that's just Wayne being Wayne,'” added Desserud.

Atlantic premiers push back

Atlantic Canada’s premiers have presented a united front against several climate measures. In May, the Atlantic premiers came together and asked the federal government to delay the clean fuel regulations. They have also been vocal opponents of the carbon tax.

The four premiers — from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador — put out a statement saying federal clean fuel regulations, which came into effect July 1, along with the carbon tax, place an unfair burden on the region. Companies still have a year to start complying with the clean fuel regulations. The premiers said the regulations should not be implemented “until a plan can be developed to address the disproportionate impact of the regulations on Atlantic Canadians.”

Hours later, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said the clean fuel regulations are critical to Canada’s emissions reduction plan. At the time, he noted refineries in Atlantic Canada are reaping “whopping new profits and have the ability to be part of the solution.” Between 2019 and 2022, the margins of refineries in Atlantic Canada went from just over 10 cents per litre to almost 50 cents per litre, he said.

The next month, the premiers came together and started a campaign called “Fight the Federal Gas Hike,” which includes a website where they encourage people to send letters to Atlantic Canadian MPs “urging the federal government to rethink the implementation of the Clean Fuel Regulations.”

The call from the premiers follows a heated debate in the region around the federal carbon tax.

When asked about Long’s comments, Environment and Climate Change Canada acknowledged there are “unique regional challenges for different parts of Canada” and pointed to the department’s $250-million Low Carbon Economy Fund stream to assist modest-income homes in switching from home heating oil to efficient and affordable electric heat pump, $120 million of which was earmarked for Atlantic Canada.

Cloe Logan and Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Alternative headline: "Some, but not all, Liberal MPs are on Irving payroll."

I urge short-term-thinking politicians objecting to a small price increase now to contrast that with the cost of climate disasters in future, if we continue our current stalling and inaction. The time frame might be years away (but not that many, as we are seeing this year), but the payoff for vigorous climate action now will be enormous.

live in New Brunswick and criticize Irving, u r out of a job. No wonder we r losing trust in politicians and capitalism. The Atlantic Premiers do not know what they are talking about and Irving gets a loan grant to fix an issue they should pay for. Beginning to sound like Alberta. Reduce their taxes so they can shuffle their pollution onto the public taxpayer

Not sure I trust the Irvings or anyone shilling for them.

An accidental bit of irony, perhaps: it's always the biggest-polluting governments hollering about "fairness" when it comes to climate change measures.
How about the "fairness" of those areas piling on the GWGs, that all the rest of us have to "eat", too?
Just so darned many narcissistic sociopaths out there, in places of power, with big mouthpieces.