Chris Hall: Can net-zero and the energy sector co-exist?

Chrystia Freeland says there’s nothing inconsistent about the federal government’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while promoting a thriving oil and gas sector on the Prairies.

The deputy prime minister admits there is no national concord yet on how to reconcile the two.

“I do not think that today in Canada that we have yet achieved a true national consensus on how we get to ambitious action on climate and have a strong robust economy,” she said in an interview on The House.

Freeland insists Canadians recognize that the two goals are compatible.

“And I truly believe we can do both.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland reflects on how the government is preparing for the possibility of coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, and whether it’s possible to develop oil and gas projects when the government is also promising to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 11:13

The Liberals’ climate plan came under renewed scrutiny earlier in the week when Teck Resources abandoned its plan to build the  $20.6-billion Frontier mine in Alberta’s oilsands.

The project faced considerable economic challenges. But many observers focused on another factor raised by company CEO Don Lindsay in his letter announcing the decision.

More than a decade ago we endorsed carbon pricing. We’re not apologetic for it. We’re not reconsidering it. We believe in it.– Goldy Hyder, president of the Busines Council of Canada

“Global capital markets are changing rapidly and investors and customers are increasingly looking for jurisdictions to have a framework in place that reconciles resource development and climate change, in order to produce the cleanest possible projects,” he wrote. “This does not yet exist here today and, unfortunately, the growing debate over this issue has placed Frontier at the nexus of much broader issues that need to be resolved.”

Lindsay didn’t assign blame. Politicians were more than happy to do it for him.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney blamed the federal government. So did Conservartive MPs. Liberals insisted Kenney’s hardline stance in favour of the project — and his dire warnings about the likely effect of a rejection on public sentiment in favour of Alberta’s separation from Canada — were to blame.

Freeland was more nuanced in her interview with The House. She pointed out that companies in this country — including those in the energy sector — are already cutting their emissions, even as governments fight over a carbon tax.

“For Canada to have any hope of achieving our climate targets, we need the oil and gas sector to be involved,” she said. “We need our country’s leading emitters to be part of the solution.”

Canada is committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Teck committed to the same goal.

But there’s no political agreement over the federal price on carbon — the main policy vehicle chosen by Ottawa to reach that goal.

“Let’s just say there’s a hardening taking place on the left and the right,” Goldy Hyder, president and CEO of the Business Council of Canada, said in a separate interview with The House.

“Something’s got to give. In the case of the business community, more than a decade ago we endorsed carbon pricing, We’re not apologetic for it. We’re not reconsidering it. We believe in it.”

But Hyder said Canadian industries can’t wait forever for a coherent plan to reach those goals. He said he believes this country has come to a defining moment as it looks to the future of its energy sector — a moment that calls for the same Team Canada approach that Freeland used in mobilizing support for the new NAFTA agreement.

“We need business. We need labour. We need provinces and the federal government to come together to figure out what we are going to do to protect our national interest here,” he said. “I think that exact same moment … has arrived on this question of how you square the circle between the economy and the environment.”

He added that any working climate plan that reduces emissions has to recognize the importance of the Canadian oil and gas sector, and the fact that it’s subject to some of the strictest regulations and standards in the world.

“We’re speaking out much more aggressively today because we’re concerned by what we see, which is a hardening of positions, a use of the courts and other (tactics),” he said. “There’s an urgency here.”

Freeland also compares the current squabbles over climate strategy to the original debates over free trade with the United States — at a time when her mother, Halyna Chomiak Freeland, was running for the NDP in Edmonton-Strathcona in 1988.

“And one of her main issues was opposition to free trade,” she said. “Fast forward to today, and we now have a strong national consensus across the country, and across parties, that trade is the right thing for our country. And it was every bit as divisive an issue.”

For now, Hyder and other business leaders just want politicians to get on with the work — because until they do, there’s little hope that future natural resource projects like Teck’s Frontier will fare any better.