Ever since 2011, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a majority government for his right-leaning Conservative Party, America’s polite northern neighbor has become an enemy of things like global climate agreements, environmental regulations and science in general.
To many Americans, Canada seems like a bastion of progressive ideals – a peace-loving nation with universal healthcare and strict gun laws. But on energy and the environment, the Great White North has been a bit of a letdown, particularly since Harper took the reins. But his dreams of turning Canada into an oil-producing superpower have snagged on Obama’s hesitation to approve construction of Keystone XL, which has become something of a bi-national irritant.
In the lead-up to Canada’s federal election on October 19, environmentalists on both sides of the border are hopeful for change. If one of the two main opposition parties – the center-left Liberals and the more leftist New Democratic Party (NDP) – nudge out Harper’s Conservatives, it could spell big changes for Canada’s climate change policy, although the effects on tar sands and Keystone are likely to be a bit more complicated.
But first, a primer on Canadian politics. Canadians don’t vote for the Prime Minister directly. Instead they vote for a Party representative in their riding (like an electoral district) and the leader of the Party with the most votes wins. To understand why this election matters to Canadians – and why Americans should care – you have to understand the man who has ruled Canada since 2006. At 56, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an authoritarian, uncharismatic leader with a helmet of gray hair and a power base in oil-dependent Alberta. Harper has aggressively pushed for tar sands development, championing Keystone and a host of other pipelines and energy projects – while downplaying or outright ignoring their potential impact on climate change.
On top of gutting environmental laws to expedite new energy development, the Harper government now limits public participation in the hearing process for proposed projects to those “directly affected.” Documents obtained by the Guardian revealed Canada’s police and intelligence service have identified nonviolent environmental protesters – including people who oppose Keystone and fracking – as potential terrorists. In 2012, natural resources minister Joe Oliver blamed “environmentalists and other radical groups” for killing “good projects” and using funding from “foreign special interest groups.”
While Obama has made climate change a priority, Harper has simply stopped funding or disbanded much of the Canadian government’s climate research, and barred federal scientists from discussing their research without political approval. Echoing his Republican counterparts south of the border, Harper once described the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist scheme” before pulling out of the agreement altogether in 2012. Since then Harper has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 but so far, Canada is falling short of its commitment.
How much a change of government would shake up the transboundary energy landscape is difficult to say, but Harper’s opponents have made big efforts to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives’ much maligned environmental record.
In a recent interview, Thomas Mulcair, the head of the NDP, attacked Harper for a comment he made to Obama back in 2011 in which he called U.S. approval for Keystone a “no-brainer”: “Since when do you say that to the leader of a close ally like the United States?” said Mulcair. Still, he has shied away from outright opposing tar sands development, the largest source of Canada’s rising emissions and an important contributor to Canada’s economy.
In contrast to Mulcair, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has expressed “steadfast” support for the pipeline, but has also pushed ambitious new clean energy proposals, like the idea of a “North American energy partnership” to harmonize environmental and emissions rules.
Both Trudeau and Mulcair have pledged major overhauls of the federal approval process for energy projects to give the public more say. They also want Canada’s federal regulator, the National Energy Board, to take a project’s climate impact into account when deciding whether it’s a good idea. That could spell trouble, or at least major delays, for proposed pipelines currently in the queue.
“There is no longer a choice to be made between what’s good for the economy and what’s good for the environment,” said Trudeau. Mulcair was more blunt, claiming that, “we will not approve any project…under Stephen Harper’s flawed process.”
None of that means Canadians are necessarily ready to overthrow Harper. The Conservatives are still widely regarded as the best economic managers and the NDP has slipped from first to third place. According to the latest polls, the Liberals now have a six point lead on the Conservatives, but a real victory is far from assured. Unless the Liberals gain more ground, given the electoral structural, they could end up with a weak minority government.
Still, the race is tight and recent disruptions in provincial elections indicate that anything can happen. In May, the NDP won a surprise victory in Alberta, Canada’s most conservative province, ending the Conservatives’ 44-year run. That’s a bit like Bernie Sanders winning the governorship of Texas.
Ultimately though, the outcome of the election will likely play less of a role in the tar sands’ fate than economics will. Already, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has said she opposes Keystone and with the U.S. market awash in cheap crude, Harper’s argument that Americans need Canada’s oil no longer holds, says Stephen Blank, a Senior Fellow at the Collaboratory on Energy, Research, and Policy at the University of Ottawa.
“They don’t want to fold up the tent quite yet,” he says. “For the moment, though, talk is cheap.”