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Easy on the east

It's not immediately obvious why tankers off the west coast are bad, but drilling offshore on Newfoundland's coast is chill.
Spot the difference. (ggw /

We all know politics is the art of the possible. Perfection isn’t for the real world. We aren’t surprised when tradeoffs and the occasional compromise creep into government policies.

Nor do we require elected members of government, even at the ministerial level, to be experts in their portfolio areas, although we expect them to avail themselves of such expertise as needed.

Nevertheless, Canadians have every right to expect at least some degree of consistency within and between government proclamations, policies and practices, and a high degree of fairness in their administration.

One area that’s both important and prominent can’t avoid at least some compromises. That’s the tradeoff between energy and the environment.

On the one hand, we could ignore the environmental issues, continue producing and consuming large amounts of cheap, carbon-based energy, and avoid considering the major negative impacts this could have.

Or we could put the environment first and immediately start banning the use of carbon-based fuels. The longer-term environmental effects would be positive. But the short-term impact on the economy, industry and individuals could be devastating. Britain and China learned just that when they tried to eliminate coal-generated electricity before having alternative energy sources in place.

Neither of these two extreme scenarios is viable. At least for now, a solution will have to be found somewhere in between that’s seen as consistent and fair.

The federal government has been concentrating on reducing the production and use of carbon-based energy, especially in Western Canada. This has often taken the form of putting roadblocks up to inhibit the development, production, transport and export of oil and gas.

This comes at a cost to Alberta – the primary producer – and to all actual and potential energy users. Many bristled at Canada’s oil sands being called dirty when its production is cleaner and safer than just about any other oil produced anywhere.

They’re frustrated by the lack of infrastructure, such as sufficient pipelines and liquefaction plants for natural gas. And they’re puzzled by limitations on oil tankers on the West Coast but not elsewhere.

Still, these actions have been accepted as a price to be paid for long-run environmental improvement.

Then came the thunderbolt.

The federal government has approved a $12-billion deep water oil project, Bay du Nord, off Newfoundland and Labrador. Apparently, merely moving oil in tankers is far too environmentally dangerous in the Pacific. But drilling for and producing 200,000 or more barrels of oil per day and then moving it from the site poses no dangers in the Atlantic. We’re assured that all the environmental impacts will be handled.

That ignores, of course, the impacts that occur when that oil is actually used.

Environmental experts like Christopher Bataille at Simon Fraser University say that we should use new technologies and building methods to reduce our demand for carbon-based energy, not produce more.

The claim that the war in Ukraine increases the need for energy for our European allies is valid. If Canada had the pipelines and ports in place to get more of our oil and gas to tidewater, we would have been able to reduce their dependency on an unreliable supply of Russian energy.

And if Western Canada is a little far from Europe, we could be delivering more energy to the United States, freeing them to export more across the Atlantic.

Another minor issue is that the Bay du Nord project won’t produce oil until around 2030. One certainly hopes that issues around energy use, Russia and Ukraine will be settled by then.

And haven’t we been told that by 2030 we will have made giant strides in weaning ourselves off carbon-based energy and not be in the market for more?

Can Western Canadians be forgiven for thinking they will have to bear all the economic costs of dealing with climate change while those in Eastern Canada see their economy benefit from potentially polluting activities?

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.

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