Paul Wells on the strange truth about energy policy

Maclean’s political editor on oil-sands oil and the pitfalls of policy discussions during a campaign


harper mulcair carousel

We (and by “we,” I mean “I”) keep insisting that candidates in an election campaign talk about the issues. And then, when they do, it’s almost always too horrible to contemplate.

Take Linda McQuaig. The author and journalist is running for the NDP in Toronto Centre against Liberal Bill Morneau, a former chairman of the C.D. Howe Institute and one of Justin Trudeau’s star candidates. On Aug. 7, McQuaig was on CBC’s Power and Politics show, discussing the previous evening’s big Maclean’s National Leaders Debate. “I think the point,” McQuaig said, “is that a lot of people recognize that a lot of the oil-sands oil may have to stay in the ground if we’re going to meet our climate change targets.”

A lot of things started to happen at once. The show’s host, Rosemary Barton, cut in: “Are you suggesting that’s what should happen?”

McQuaig held firm: “A lot of that oil may have to stay in the ground.”

Michelle Rempel, the Calgary Conservative on the panel, was grimly satisfied. “See? Look at this.” This was the NDP attitude, Rempel said: “ ‘I want to tax this. I want this oil left in the ground.’ ”

Eventually, McQuaig was able to answer Barton’s question. Should the oil stay in the ground? “Some of it may have to. We’ll know that better once we properly put into place a climate-change accountability system of some kind. And we’ll know that better once we have a proper review process for our environmental, you know, projects like pipelines.”

Eventually, McQuaig realized the conversation had strayed from the important topic at hand, which was the outstanding work of the previous evening’s debate moderator. “I didn’t say I want this oil left in the ground,” she said at last. “I said we have to have environmental standards.”

Yeah, too late. For a few days, McQuaig played a guest-starring role in Stephen Harper’s campaign speeches. “The NDP is consistently against the development of our resources and our economy,” Harper said in Ottawa. “They would wreck this economy if they ever got in.”

Her campaign manager, Cim Nunn, told the Toronto Star that McQuaig was not apologizing, but that she would dig no deeper. “There was no real separation between what she said and party policy, but it’s fodder for folks in Alberta to misconstrue things.” Nunn said New Democrats want “the tar sands’ opportunities” exploited, but only “in a way that ensures that development and sustainability go hand-in-hand.”

At last, we’re clear. Oil-sands oil “may have to stay in the ground,” says an NDP candidate, and her campaign manager agrees. But she doesn’t “want this oil left in the ground.” And he agrees with that, too! Today’s NDP: It’s a big tent, unless you don’t like tents.

As for Thomas Mulcair, he does mention the importance of making polluters pay and “internalizing the cost” of pollution, but these days, as he tries to sell the NDP to its growth market—a centrist electorate that’s skittish about social democrats—he doesn’t sound much like the sort of guy who’d be leaving any oil in any ground. “Getting our resources to market is critical,” he said in the big Maclean’s debate. Last week, he was back in Toronto with Andrew Thomson, a former provincial NDP finance minister in Saskatchewan, now running in the Toronto riding of Eglinton–Lawrence. Thomson pronounced himself “a strong supporter of our resource-based economy.”

Add up the NDP’s statements on the energy and the environment, then, and they sum to zero. Mulcair, a former Quebec environment minister who won the NDP leadership by blaming the “tar sands” for a “Dutch disease” that was hollowing out Ontario’s manufacturing economy, now calls for oil-based exports that drive oil-based jobs.

And Harper? “I’ll say what I’ve said to people across the country,” he said at the big debate. “A carbon tax is not about reducing emissions. It’s a front. It is about getting revenue for governments that cannot control their spending.” The Conservative leader is always warning about the dangers of other parties forming governments. But that cost is more credible if the incumbent’s policies provide tangible benefit. Harper’s tireless advocacy of oil exports has not led to the approval of any important new pipeline project. You could almost say that, thanks to him, oil’s getting left in the ground.

Related: Stephen Harper, oil’s worst enemy?

In fact, that’s his policy. He and his G7 colleagues promised, at their June meeting in Germany, to bring an end to the carbon-based economy by the year 2100. It’s nearly the most meaningless promise in history, but if it means anything, it means any oil-sands oil still in the ground in 85 years would stay there. And even if you only count the oil that’s retrievable using current technology, there’s at least 170 years’ worth of oil down there.

So Harper’s policy is to leave oil in the ground. And Mulcair’s is to get it to market. In their search for the legendary median voter, neither party offers much to the voter who was hoping for some clarity on a major issue. If you’re voting on energy and the environment in this election, to some extent, you’ll cast your vote, hoping the party you support is lying. Conservative supporters hope that when Harper promises to shut down the carbon-based economy, he doesn’t mean it. NDP voters hope that when Mulcair promises to revive the oil patch, he’s kidding. Two more months of campaigning to go.


Paul Wells on the strange truth about energy policy

  1. Paul, you were doing so well. At the debate you were scrupulously fair and non-partisan; perhaps because it had a broader audience. Here, not so much in my POV.

    Here’s the thing: when you write a column about Harper’s real problems and cite angry Conservative guy, you fail to give your readers any context. Mr. Trudeau — a man who wants to become PM — shouted the very same words in the HOC last year, to a sitting member. Why does that not reflect on him, but a stranger’s words somehow reflect on the Conservative brand?

    Here in this column it’s about the oil sands and yet nowhere is there mention of the double-speak on this same issue Mr. Trudeau has been voicing.

    So, given the above, I’ll take this and that, as purely opinion pieces supporting the Liberal party – and not news.

    • This is an opinion piece, it’s not “news” nor is it meant to be, and since it mentions neither the Liberal party nor the Bosnian labour movement, you’re free to take it as supporting either.

      • Re: “This is an opinion piece…”

        Come on Paul, don’t be coy – which party do you support? After all you do make it clear which one you oppose. Like Elizabeth15, everybody knows that your “opinions” omissions point the way to how you are leaning right now.

        Still I think, like Coyne in the last election, you are hedging your editorial bets for a while, trying to figure out whether the neo-liberal Conservatives or the neo-liberal Liberals, have a better chance of stopping a surging NDP.

        In the meantime excepting an occasional whack at Harper, I expect you will tread water by gradually cranking up a nuanced ‘Anybody-But-NDP’ “opinion” campaign. Here is why:

        I think that during the MacLeans debate, you and your MacLeans spin-masters, got the offal scared right out of you – by your own live polls! That’s why you then suppressed those polls. Here is a reminder:


        Your poll suppression does not really upset me. I think your censorship is poor strategy for both neo-liberal parties. I think you are helping to prevent NDP supporter complacency on election day. And that could prove to be a good thing. For me.

        I am just making the point, that the legitimacy of your and MaclLan’s “opinion” was undercut when you censored your own polls. That censorship will make your eventual editorial support for either the Liberals or the Conservatives, a far less relevant “opinion piece”.

        About as relevant as your snide reference to the “Bosnian labour movement”.

        • The link probably does not work for you.

          I am looking at a screen-shot of red and black graph. It is on a facebook page that is not mine and I guess it is not open to the public. I am sorry the link does not work for you.

          The Macleans question posed is:

          “You’ve seen the debate , now who do think is the best choice for Prime Minister?”

          the graph bars indicate 12% for Stephen Harper, 27% for Justin Trudeau, 11% for Elizabeth May and 50% for Thomas Mulcair. To be fair the poll indicates it had about 7 minutes remaining.

          I participated in that and other poll questions, and my recollection is that Mulcair and Trudeau were very close on the issue of who won the actual debate. On about four more questions dealing with specific policy questions Mulcair was far ahead of the other leaders.

          (I’m getting an inkling of what it must have been like to post to Pravda in the Soviet Union.)


          • MacLeans has always had a Liberal bias and, as a result, I don’t believe the validity of any polls they conduct. I watched the debate without any bias towards any party and believe it was close to a draw. In fact, Harper was the only one who appeared to use facts to refute what the others said against his government. And when MacLeans pans to Seneca college and then a pub of young people the Liberal bias is really exposed.
            The young and academics all have very naive, socialist liberal views because they have not participated in the real world.

    • Wells has for years been harangued in the comments section for being the supporter of one party or another depending on the allegiance of the commenter. I think you’re reading too much into this.

      If the NDP do win I’ll be curious to see how long it takes for the true believers to sour on them and feel betrayed. And I say that as someone who will likely end up voting for the NDP candidate in my riding.

      • Well, should the NDP form government, it’s guaranteed someone will be disappointed. If the NDP governs from the centre, the true believers will treat Mulcair like they did Rae; if the NDP governs from too far to the left, many swing voters who voted NDP based on Mulcair seeming like a centrist will feel betrayed.

    • You know what’s even worse than his Liberal-by-omission subliminal messaging? When you read his columns backwards, you often find phrases like “Satan loves you” and “the devil is your saviour”.

  2. A glance at the Aug 8 edition of The Economist shows some interesting figure of where the carbon emitters REALLY are.

    The world’s big carbon emitters are the following (from The Economist , August 8, 2015, pp21-22) in billions of tons per annum (2013, Sources: EDGAR,EPA,ETA)):
    China 10.3, United States 5.3, India 2.1, Russia 1.8, Japan 1.4, Germany 0.8, South Korea 0.6, CANADA 0.6, Brazil 0.5, Indonesia 0.5, Saudi Arabia 0.5, Britain 0.5 and all other sources 10.5

    So I agree with how I read Harper ; until the most egregious emitters clean up their act (and skies) why should Canada risk its fragile economy?

    • Oh dear, this is shocking.
      Who could have imagined that a country with 40 times the population of Canada would be emitting, 17 times as much carbon?

      Canada is one of the most egregious emitters.

  3. The Conservatives don’t have the problem of individual candidates speaking out.
    For the most part, they say nothing and do not give interviews.

    Catch 22, isn’t it? Say something, have it misinterpreted; say nothing, have it misinterpreted.

    And folks wonder why we have the politicians we do.

  4. Obama just gave Shell the permission to drill for oil in the US Arctic, which is much more environmentally hazardous than Keystone XL in a whole host of ways, including carbon emissions.

    The media doesn’t tell that story though, because it doesn’t fit the Obama-is-green mythology they are trying to promote.

    If there is oil that should be left in the ground…

  5. Paul, I laughed at this. You rarely fail to make me laugh. You did slide over something that is near and dear to my heart. In my opinion, politicians should discuss policy goals but I do not think they should be prescribing how they are going to take us there. As a retired senior policy analyst with the feds, I thought it was our job to analyse policy goals and provide advice to Ministers. Getting oil to market and deciding how much needs to be left in the ground only comes after you have figured out your environmental, tax, royalty and other policies. Industry will then decide if oil sands investment is worthwhile or not.

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