Breakenridge: Pipeline obsession has sabotaged green group’s goals

It appears increasingly likely that Alberta’s unpopular carbon tax only has a few months to live, so it comes as little solace to see a sudden burst of enthusiasm from the very environmental groups that played a hand in its probable demise.

The group Environmental Defence last week released a report that it claims shows how Alberta’s carbon tax “is consistent with a strong economy.” The group also applauds how the revenue generated by the tax has supported energy efficiency programs as well as infrastructure such as Calgary’s Green Line.

The report, though, fails to note how Environmental Defence has undermined the government that introduced this program that they are so fond of. It also fails to note how the group has helped to cripple the very cause of carbon pricing.

Environmental Defence is one of several organizations that has adamantly opposed not just the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, but any and all new pipeline projects — everything from Energy East to Keystone XL to Line 3.

Whatever kind words such groups may have for either Alberta’s carbon tax or the forthcoming federal versions, they have made a very deliberate decision to prioritize pipeline opposition above all else. Pipeline opponents probably have much to crow about at the moment, but these are pyrrhic victories.

The cause of pipelines is far from lost, as bleak as things may seem at the moment. It’s entirely possible that two years from now groups like Environmental Defence will be lamenting the demise of the federal and Alberta carbon tax plans as well as the progress on projects like Trans Mountain and Keystone XL.

There is no reason why new, state-of-the-art pipelines cannot co-exist with meaningful policies that put a price on carbon emissions. There may have been naivete and ideological impulses behind the design and execution of the Alberta NDP’s carbon tax strategy, but there is some logic behind the concept of a carbon-tax-for-new-pipelines trade-off.

The problem for the idea was that it was never going to clear the purity test of hard-line environmental groups. They care not for whatever political backlash there may be against carbon taxes or against inaction on major energy infrastructure projects. All that matters is that pipelines get blocked.


Blocking pipelines, however, does nothing to address demand. The latest forecast from the International Energy Agency shows global oil demand — now approaching 100 million barrels per day — continuing to rise in 2019. Carbon pricing, on the other hand, does address demand.

Moreover, the inability to add more pipeline capacity means an ever-increasing reliance on railways. The amount of oil being transported by rail is already at record levels, and the Alberta government’s plan to purchase new rail cars means we’re going to keep setting records for the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, though, anger and resentment continue to grow in Alberta and the policies that have contributed — or perceived to have contributed — to our frustrating status quo have only become more politically toxic.

Alberta’s premier made a dramatic break from the federal climate plan earlier this year, but she is still saddled with her own. Had progress actually been made on Trans Mountain, that carbon tax would not have been such an albatross around her neck. As it stands now, it is a considerable — and possibly fatal — political liability.

It’s hard to see what Environmental Defence hoped to accomplish by releasing this report. The NDP is hardly going to cite the endorsement of one of the groups that has sabotaged its aspirations, and very few Albertans are in the mood to be taking any sort of policy advice from groups that are actively campaigning against our energy industry.

If, a year from now, Alberta has a government that has abandoned carbon pricing, a population that is even more supportive of building pipelines, and continued increases in oil-by-rail, then groups like Environmental Defence will only have themselves to blame. This is their legacy.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays 12:30-3:30pm on 770 CHQR rob.  Twitter: @RobBreakenridge

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