Thursday, 18 September 2014

Prentice the Pipeline Saviour Will Get Nowhere

In the dying days of the fall 2011 Ontario provincial election campaign, Dalton McGuinty, the incumbent premier at the time, and his brain trust made a conscious and deliberate decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville.  The government was gunning for its third majority victory, and in its electoral calculus the four suburban seats in play surrounding those plants were indispensable.  Residents of said ridings were said to be strenuously opposed to said plants, even the real Erin Brockovitch came to one of their meetings, but they generated little to no opposition outside of them.  Population growth in the GTA has demanded new energy sources, plain and simple; that is why the plants were under construction.  Somehow the executive call got made to cancel them, without any public debate, when they were already being built.  A camera was placed on the site as construction continued for weeks after the projects were officially cancelled, by the opposition PCs; presumably they gained little benefit from it as they lost the 2014 election by a landslide.

Today this has all been forgotten.  In fact, lawsuits have recently been served to two members of the provincial legislature by Mr. McGuinty for publicly insinuating that he was involved in the cover-up (only his chief of staff at the time is under investigation.  A good example of a chief of staff's relationship with his boss is the character Doug Stamper in the Netflix series House of Cards) and he is back in Toronto officially registering to lobby Queen's Park for Desire2Learn, a Kitchener-based tech company looking to make some hay in the school system.  Talk about a triumphant return after running away to Harvard to lay low for a few months talking to super-elite American students about, I don't know, how stupid and ignorant regular people are.  I mean a billion dollars.  Only in Ontario, people.  Martha Stewart went to jail for $40,000, Conrad Black for maybe $6 million.  Neither of them have materially suffered since being made examples of by the justice system, but for the man to face no consequences or reprisal for a massively stupid and costly decision he clearly had a hand in -  and if he didn't then who was in charge?? - reflects very poorly on my home province indeed.

Lord knows the province has enough on its plate - high structural and social costs, factories closing, a poorly executed green energy strategy it has backed away from - and a massive chasm opening up between soaring and unaffordable Toronto, where everyone wants to be, comfortable, civil-servant economy Ottawa, which is boring and does just fine, and a bunch of aging, declining, economically depressed buttholes, whose realities, John Chen's nascent turnaround of Blackberry notwithstanding, are neither experienced nor appreciated in the province's two major centres.  Kathleen Wynne has been given the thankless job of turning around what McGuinty couldn't with his auto-bailouts and green energy schemes - so far her bright idea is to impose a new pension scheme on the province because people in Ontario are too dumb to realize that a financed Cadillac Escalade today is the difference between Cheerios and Whiskas in your seventies.

Alberta's previous premier had different sorts of problems.

Alison Redford's $45,000 flight to Nelson Mandela's funeral was the domino that turned the country's national media, and probably the segment of the province's population that follows politics closely (lower than elsewhere - gotta go to work!) into a fearsome cyclone of piranhas that totally destroyed her political career.  The stuff was just too juicy, too caricatural, and too much like tabloid fodder, in the sense that it just kept coming, to ignore (Okay, there were no crack pipes or drunken stupors, but we HAVE to start talking about something else, people!). Empty seats surrounding her bought for privacy. A fleet of government aircraft with her daughter and her friends in tow. A secret private penthouse being constructed in a government building in Edmonton.  A chief of staff making more than Stephen Harper's and Barack Obama's chiefs of staff.  Alberta has an image and a reputation - straight-shooting, blue-collar, and goddamn it, small government, and this stuff just didn't jive. So she went and hid out in Palm Springs for a month (it shows you how high a regard the elites that govern us hold us when our country is full of big open space and they feel the need to lay low in the States) and now no longer sits in the Alberta legislature.

But Alberta has a different set of problems as a province,too, although they are significantly more enviable than Ontario's.  Population growth is explosive.  Unemployment is low, and there are worker shortages everywhere.  Average weekly wages are sky-high, and the province generated the lion's share of the whole country's economic growth in 2013.  Not only are there the obvious issues of building all that new infrastructure and ensuring the communities are developed in a smart way with long term planning and vision (neither of which is likely occurring at this time), there is that festering energy issue.

Crude from the oil sands trades at a discount to crude from the rest of the world for a bunch of arcane economic reasons that are not the focus of this column.  That issue is focused on by the business press because it is related to the main issue, which is that the oil from the bitumen that is strip mined in the tar sands cannot be brought to market fast enough, or at least not if anyone want to significantly expand oil sands production, which of course all of the companies operating there do.  That's the easy problem.  Then there is the more inconvenient matter of the oil sands being an incredibly capital-intensive, but especially a carbon emissions-intensive, enterprise, and a growing number of governmental and non-governmental actors on earth recognizing the danger and the folly in continuing to carry on incredibly carbon emissions-intensive work given what we know about climate change.  The posture of Alberta's provincial and Canada's federal government has ranged from the delusional (look, we're getting really serious about reducing emissions - ha ha ha) to the current position which seems to be something along the lines of everybody just f--- off already.

It's hopelessly stuck in the mud.  Governments in the US and BC where the three proposed pipelines need to go are considerably more hostile towards them than the Alberta government, mainly I suspect because these governments and their constituents do not derive their livelihoods from extracting bitumen.  The world is going to move away eventually from gas, from cars, from all that - it's only a question of by force or by choice, and there seems to be a groundswell gaining consensus that we can't just keep pretending this problem doesn't exist.  It must be incredibly painful in Alberta to come to grips with the fact that despite this oil wealth and a ten gallon Stetson full of bluster, you are not in control of this situation.

In comes Jim Prentice, who was chosen as Alison Redford's replacement.  A formal senior minister in Stephen Harper's government holding portfolios such as Industry and Environment, he left to be a bigwig at a major Canadian bank and was tapped as a negotiator for one of the pipeline companies as a large part of these proposed pipeline routes pass through aboriginal land claim snafus and things of that nature.  With typical pathetic Canadian adulation (minister, banker, executive - this guy's going to get the job done!), Prentice was acclaimed in the Globe and the Post for the last two days as the guy who's got what it takes to defend Canada's moneyed interests and make them OK to the world.  Somehow convincing the world's population that it needs the oil sands more than it needs to worry about the oil sand's environmental record and potential fallout, that hey, we really are cooking up some hare-brained schemes to store carbon in the ground, because we cannot just go on generating the carbon with impunity even though that is exactly what we are doing and exactly what we plan to keep on doing, that yes a few thousand natives living downstream have really high cancer rates but hey, look at all this money were making, and we are going to convince everybody to let the pipeline pass through now after years of bad-mouthing them as enviro-fascists and without paying them off.

Good luck Jim.  I'd lend you my magic wand but I think I leant it to Harry Potter to play Quidditch.  Today I predict you will be as stuck in the mud as Kathleen in a few months time, though I'm sure you're both very nice in real life.  And Scotland will separate from the U.K. tomorrow.

Because there's the reality we wish we were dealing with.  And the reality we are actually dealing with.  And in 2014, that just keeps getting messier and messier.

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