Joe Oliver Draws Criticism For Calling Canada a “21st Century Energy Superpower”

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is attending the East Coast Energy Conference this week, where he said: “Canada is emerging as a 21st century energy superpower – unmatched in reliability, responsibility and potential.” His comments bring Canada’s attempt to situate itself at the centre of North American energy security to the forefront.

The statement was made while addressing relations between Canada and the U.S., the world’s largest trade partnership exchanging $700 billion annually, according to a press release put out by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

“As the global middle class grows, so too will global energy demand. Canada can meet that demand: we have solid economic fundamentals and unprecedented energy wealth,” Oliver said.

Mark Jaccard, professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management, says the title "energy superpower" means little more than Canada’s reliance on fossil fuel exports.

“Presumably it means that a country receives significant revenues from energy exports,” he told DeSmog Canada. “Linking this reality to the word ‘superpower’ might best be described by adjectives such as hubris and hype.”

Jaccard added that Canada’s rush to become an energy superpower “is like trying to become a major exporter of…social harms” because fossil fuels are the “primary cause of catastrophic climate change.”

“The leading independent scientists and economists with expertise in the climate issue would agree on this,” he said.

Federal Green Party leader and B.C. MP Elizabeth May also reacted strongly to Oliver's comments, saying, “there isn’t much in Joe Oliver’s statement that passes any kind of sniff test for veracity.”

Canada’s policies on oil development, especially in the oilsands, amounts to “putting all our eggs in the bitumen basket,” May says.

There’s a carbon bubble, she said, referencing the work of economist Jeff Rubin, “and Canada’s economy is going to tank if all we’re doing is associating ourselves with the oilsands.”

A real 21st century energy superpower would have a much more balanced energy portfolio, according to May.

“You want to have a diversified economy. You want to be investing in renewables. You want to have the latest technology in solar and geothermal and tidal. You want to be as energy efficient as possible,” she said.

“I really can’t say strongly enough that, even if you leave out the environmental downsides of our policies, and leave out climate as a concern, these are not the policies of an energy superpower.”

‘Responsible Resource Development’ Campaign

Oliver highlighted the success of the Harper government’s "responsible resource development plan," which is celebrated by government and industry as strengthening environmental protection while streamlining resource development. Opposition parties, environmental organizations and First Nations criticize it for weakening crucial environmental legislation and environmental assessment procedures to expedite energy development.

The plan includes the elimination and weakening of Canada’s environmental legislation through omnibus budget Bill C-38 and millions of dollars spent on energy-sector advertising.

NRCan budgeted $9 million in 2012-2013 for sleek advertisements that showed Canada’s resource development in a positive job-friendly and environmentally sensitive light.

A NRCan spokesperson told DeSmog Canada the responsible resource development advertising campaign “serves to inform Canadians of the importance of responsible resource development by providing specific facts about measures taken by the government to protect the environment and grow the economy.”

NRCan's advertising budget for 2013-2014 is $8 million.

In addition, the government launched an international stakeholder and outreach campaign to "build prosperity for Canada" designed to “raise awareness that Canada is a secure, reliable and responsible supplier of energy and other natural resources,” NRCan said.

The international campaign is designed to challenge “misinformation” and ensure “a fact-based public dialogue about the development of Canada’s natural resources.”

The total advertising budget is $24 million for two years. The U.S.-targeted Go With Canada website is a part of this international campaign.

Screen shot from the Go With Canada website.

Credibility Gap

A government-commission study led by Leger Marketing found the taxpayer-funded "responsible resource development" advertising lacked some credibility with audiences in early 2013. Focus groups raised criticisms regarding “the lack of ‘hard’ facts” in the ads, the Leger study says.

According to NRCan, the plan “has strengthened environmental protection, made reviews of major resource projects more timely and predictable and provided greater certainty for investors.”

Yet critics of the plan are concerned the Harper government’s efforts to speed up the pace of energy development projects and supporting infrastructure like Enbridge's Northern Gateway oil pipeline and tanker project are being done at the expense of the environment — an expense the advertising campaign is meant to conceal.

“They’ve spent a lot of taxpayers money to tell taxpayers and ordinary citizens how lucky we are to have such bad policies,” May said.

“We’ve had television advertising to tell us that, thanks to Stephen Harper, we’re going to have double-hulled tankers. The slightest bit of reality check from anybody would uncover that for decades the world international standards have prevented the conception of anything but double-hulled tankers. There hasn’t been a single-hulled tanker anywhere near Canadian waters for decades because there are very few left in the world and none are used by responsible shippers. So, again, the arrogance behind the propaganda machine.”

NDP Treasury Board critic Mathieu Ravignat expressed concern at the government’s ads’ similarity to those produced by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Canada’s largest oil and gas lobby body.

“If you put the ads next to each other — the government ads and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers ads — what’s going on is damage control,” he told the Canadian Press. “We’ve got an industry which doesn’t have the best reputation, we’ve got a government helping part of the industry in order to sell itself as responsible.”

The NRCan press released states “Canada is taking significant action to reduce its GHG emissions.”

As DeSmog Canada recently reported, Canada has no current climate legislation and, according to Environment Canada, is not en route to meeting is emission reductions targets under the Copenhagen Accord.

The press release also says “the long-term trend for greenhouse gas emissions per barrel in the oil sands is downward, falling by 26 per cent between 1990 and 2011.” That may be true, but it fails to take into account the growth in oilsands production, making the sector the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

Canada’s reliability as an energy producer collapses when you consider the country’s oil exports within the context of a warming world, Jaccard says. The danger of resource development in Canada doesn’t have to do so much with the local effects of production, he said, but global emissions.

Climate change “swamps” any other concerns, he says.

With files from Indra Das.

Image Credit: Government of Canada

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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