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What Does Canada’s Election Mean for the Fate of the Tar Sands?

Conservative Party Takes Control of Government

At first glance, the ‪re-election‬ of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a serious setback to those on both sides of the border who are battling expansion of the Alberta tar sands and trying, at the very least, to improve environmental standards in what Environmental Defence Canada has called "the most destructive project on earth." Following the federal election on Monday, May 2, Harper was returned to office with the first majority government the country has seen in seven years with 167 seats and more than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

Photo courtesy David Dodge, The Pembina InsititueSyncrude's tar sands processing facility and upgrader in Alberta, Canada.

Under the last government, the Conservative Party’s minority-controlled parliament meant that any issues related to tar sands mining would face scrutiny from the other three parties in parliament — who together held more seats than the governing party. Now, with a majority government, the political oversight of the tar sands and the fate of controversial projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline proposal rests largely in Harper's rather oil-centric hands. (Read “Tunnel Vision”, Johnson’s article on the pipeline in the Journal’s Spring 2011 issue)

The bulk of Harper's staunchest supporters reside in the province of Alberta, home to the Athabasca tar sands, which has provided the region with a major economic engine since Suncor commenced the area's first operation in 1967. Under Harper's leadership, subsidies to the area from all levels of government are approaching $2 billion per year. In addition, the country has become an environmental pariah on the international stage. Garnering Fossil of the Day awards six days in a row during the recent climate talks in Cancun, Mexico is just one example.

MP Peter Kent, the Conservative Party's environment minister, has openly stated that he considers the Tar Sands "ethical oil," rationalizing that it doesn't come from Iran, or Saudi Arabia, where funds could be used to support terrorism. This is a theory espoused by Ezra Levant, a lawyer and author of books on right-wing politics including Ethical Oil.  The same Levant who, as a member of the Canadian Alliance party (a predecessor to the Conservative Party of Canada), actually stepped aside in his own Calgary Southwest riding to allow the party leader —yes, Stephen Harper — to run. (read “Crude Conundrum”, Journal editor Jason Mark’s take on “ethical oil”)

Environmental Defence Canada severely criticized Kent's comments, and threatened to go door-to-door in Kent's riding of Thornhill, Ontario leading up to the election. "The job of the Environment Minister is to protect the environment, not to provide taxpayer-funded public relations help to the tar sands industry," said Gillian McEachern of Environmental Defence when Kent made the claim last February. "The citizens of Thornhill are now in a unique position to send that message."

The result? Kent was returned to office by overwhelming numbers, garnering more than 60 per cent of the vote. 

Under Stephen Harper's regime, the Canadian government also does extensive lobbying in the United States and the European Union to pave the way for tar sands oil in new markets. Near the top of the list is the massive, 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Alberta straight through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The fate of the project is currently in the hands of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. As of April 15, the US Department of State is seeking public comment on the supplemental draft to the Environmental Impact Statement, with a deadline of July 15. 

This could be seen as terrifying stuff for the environmental movement both in Canada as well as the United States and beyond. It should be noted that Canada is now the number one supplier of foreign oil to the United States, much of which comes from the Alberta tar sands.

But all is not lost. The election did provide some silver lining for environmentalists.

For one, Elizabeth May has become Canada's first Green Party member of parliament (and the first in North America outside of Mexico) following her election in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands in British Columbia. In a prepared statement, May said, "I want to thank the voters of SGI (Saanich-Gulf Islands) for choosing respect, for choosing a positive vision for Canadian politics. Together we will make history and change Canadian politics."

In addition, one cannot discount the performance of the New Democratic Party under leader Jack Layton, who will lead the official opposition in parliament for the first time in party history after taking 30 per cent of the popular vote and winning 102 seats — both party milestones. One of the major planks in Layton's campaign was putting an end to federal subsidies to the tar sands, as well as establishing a cap-and-trade emissions plan to pay for billions in new green initiatives. Although the NDP under Layton did not form the government, his success could be taken as a sign of Canadian support for more progressive environmental programs from the federal government. Whether or not the governing party chooses to listen remains to be seen.

With regard to the Northern Gateway pipeline, a number of MPs advocating for an oil tanker ban along the West Coast of British Columbia — including MP Joyce Murray — were re-elected, signaling some significant support for the ban, which, if enacted, would go a long way to scuttling the project.

"The results of this election show that an oil tanker ban for BC's north coast is strongly supported and played a key factor in some ridings across the province," says Nikki Skuce, Forest Ethics senior energy campaigner. "British Columbians want a coast free of oil spills."

Ron Johnson
Is based in Toronto, Canada, where he is an editor for Post City magazines and contributes to The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, The National Post and the London Business Times.

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