Week Three: That which shall not be said

First off, how do you think the environment has been covered in the media as part of the Canadian election so far? I’m curious about what I’m missing in other parts of the country, or what is slipping under the radar in terms of national coverage?

As such, in this week’s links to additional stories (below), I’ve tried to emphasize regional stories and media interviews with candidates that I hope will be of interest. Other links will take you to more stories about Canada’s place in the world, more pipeline politics, and more questions about the absence of science from the debates so far.

The absence of science, rhetorical reliance on anecdotes, or emphasis on the economy side of the economy-environment balance, is particularly noticeable when we look at coverage of the one idea that apparently can’t be said or spoken of in this election: Leaving (some of) Alberta’s oil in the ground.

A little over a week ago, Toronto-based NDP candidate Linda McQuaig raised just this notion during a CBC debate you can find here (if you are watching the embedded video, you’ll find her comments at about 4:45). As this follow-up CBC story shows, the idea that some of Canada’s oil should be left behind is in line with studies showing that holding back from fully exhausting all oil, gas, and coal reserves could contribute to holding the line on climate change.

  • Here is a link to the relevant journal article.
  • In the televised debate, McQuaig additionally references former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed’s positions on (slower) resource development. Useful supporting material for this reference includes this story from 2006, Lougheed’s economic argument shared with the CBC in 2011, and Andrew Nikiforuk’s meditation upon Lougheed’s lasting resource development legacy published in 2012.

McQuaig’s comments immediately sparked an equivalence between resource extraction and economic management from the Conservative Party candidate also taking part in the debate:

Rempel, an incumbent MP, posted more tweets in the days following, including these examples:

Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper built on McQuaig’s comments to argue, “there is absolutely nothing mainstream about the NDP on economic policy issues”:


Of course, this kind of partisan response is to be expected… At best, perhaps it helps voters begin to come to grips with differences between parties, though more obviously it’s a kind of partisan cheer leading free of nuance or a more detailed discussion as to how emissions can be gotten under control.

More interesting, then, are media responses to McQuaig’s argument, which was later contextualized by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

Take, for example, this excerpt from Regina Leader-Post columnist Murray Mandryk:

[…] this comment […] was coming from a star NDP candidate who might very well become minister of the environment or economy in a Mulcair NDP government.

So it seems fair game to question McQuaig on exactly what she means when she says “proper review process for our environmental projects like pipelines” or what the NDP means by “sustainable development” seem fair game.

Could it mean a moratorium on future oilsands development, which would include the untapped oilsands in northwestern Saskatchewan?

Could it mean a federal NDP government tax on oil that could hurt both oilsands and conventional drilling, or horizontal drilling critical to Saskatchewan’s Bakken Play?

McQuaig and Mulcair owe provinces like Saskatchewan and Alberta an explanation.

Mandryk lays out what is at stake for western Canada should oil sands development be curbed and asks for more discussion and a clearer explanation still of what an NDP government would look like. Graham Thomson, a columnist for the Edmonton Journal, pushes this question further, concluding no government has so far shown its plans for sustainably marrying economic development to emission reductions:

Her comments might go over well with voters in downtown Toronto, but they’re falling flat in Alberta. And they’re playing to fears that armchair socialists in Central Canada would happily shut down the oilsands given half an excuse.

This brings us to one reason the federal NDP hasn’t done well in Alberta and why a strong showing for the NDP in some provincial ridings has rarely translated well in the same areas federally.

The federal NDP is seen as being anti-oilsands and anti-pipeline in a province filled with workers who anywhere else would be card-carrying NDP members, but who are afraid an NDP government in Ottawa would slow down the pace of energy development and put them out of work.

More problematic, however, is the assumption in other media responses that McQuaig couldn’t and shouldn’t talk about curbing oil sands development. That, in particular, a so-called star candidate can’t start a discussion that strays from safe political party positions of continuing energy development and finding new routes for moving resources. These are considered the mainstays of the Canadian economy such that outlining potential alternatives can be uncritically dismissed. Take, for example, this excerpt from a Calgary Herald editorial:

It’s extraordinary that someone like McQuaig could seek public office while holding such views about Canada’s energy sector. It is curious that there was no talk of mothballing Ontario’s automobile manufacturing industry, given that the bulk of energy greenhouse gas emissions are caused by the burning of fuel, not during extraction and processing. McQuaig is all too typical of an increasing number of Canadians who think they can enjoy transportation, computers and a warm home without actually producing energy. It’s an odd breed of naiveté that seems to be gaining ground — much like the notion that you can make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that extracting Canada’s bituminous oil is not a thing like breaking a few eggs.

But that is truly beside the point. The point is what comes next, as we already saw in the above tweets from Rempel and in a story last week about a Liberal candidate for Burlington, Ont. retracting her tweet about “landlock[ing] Alberta’s tar sands.” Candidates will, unsurprisingly, be expected to streamline both their present and past views, parrot safe party platforms, and take care not to accidentally open up a new discussion in media interviews. Voters might consider, however, what kinds of conversations will be lost in this process.

Regional stories

Although Canada’s northern-most regions are hardest hit by climate change, the Iqaluit-based representative for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic Program says the region is being overlooked in political debates about the environment, the economy, and needed infrastructure: “Issues affecting Nunavut left off the election agenda”

Related: “Harper rallies Nunavut faithful behind closed doors”

In British Columbia’s Interior, where long hot dry spells (and forest fires) can be punctuated by wicked storms, local federal candidates in Kamloops, B.C. openly talk about the impacts of climate change: “We ask the candidates – What will you do as MP to prepare infrastructure in Kamloops for the next super storm to hit the city?”

In Cold Lake, Alta., the Liberal candidate for the riding that represents much of Canada’s oil sands relays the party message on pipelines: “Candidate Q&A with Liberal Kyle Harrietha

In Quebec City and other parts of Quebec last week, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair was “dogged by protesters” seeking further answers on his position on the Energy East pipeline.

Meanwhile, this campaign video from Équiterre “gives a voice to belugas concerned about their future.”

And, the Ontario Energy Board weighed in on the Energy East line last week, noting the prohibitive monetary and environmental costs of any oil spill. This Q&A from The Toronto Star highlights potential impacts to drinking water for North Bay, Ont.: “North Bay mayor echoes concerns about Energy East”

In New Brunswick, a letter to the editor published in the Sackville Tribune-Post highlights a group of young people’s refusal to have their support taken for granted in the absence of a dedicated climate change/environmental platform: “Country’s political leaders faltering on climate action”

Why Canada’s election matters outside Canada

Other pipeline notes:

Interactive Incident Map screen capture August 17 2015

But talking about pipelines doesn’t necessarily mean we have science covered…

This opinion piece, published in The Star last week (and drawn to my attention by a good friend), points out why hard questions about science need to be asked during this election–for example, why has funding for scientists, for research, and for monitoring, been curbed in different ways? Why can’t federal government scientists talk about their research?

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