Are the Conservatives turning green?

- Conservationists tend at best to be suspicious of Conservatives. At worst they regard them as ancient Romans viewed the Visigoths.

Jim Prentice, however, maintains you don't have to be one or the other, and cites himself as a prime example of one who is both.

"I start from the premise that I have throughout my life been a conservationist - a passionate outdoors person," he said in a recent interview during his first Quebec visit since becoming environment minister in the federal Tory government last fall.

"I spend all my extra time in the outdoors. I hike, I ski, and I'm a passionate fisherman. I think I'm quite illustrative of Canadians generally in my regard for the environment.


And he's not just been a spare-time environmentalist. In his pre-political career as a lawyer in Alberta, Prentice successfully represented ranch families in a bid to block oil and gas exploration on their territory in the Rocky Mountain foothills and property owners in a Calgary suburb who slapped Imperial Oil with a class-action suit for polluting the land on which their homes were built.

Prentice's appointment as environment minister was widely taken as a sign that the Conservatives are taking environmental issues more seriously than they once did in that he is generally regarded as one of the top performers in the Harper government since it came to power three years ago. Before this, he served as minister of Indian and northern affairs and industry minister, and in any talk of potential successors to Harper as Conservative leader, Prentice's name figures high on the list.

The Harper Conservatives got off to a bad start with the conservationist lobby with its repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emission. The previous Liberal administration had signed on to the ambitious project, but failed miserably to live up to it. The Conservatives, not unreasonably, took the position that the Kyoto targets were pie-in-the-sky considering that neither China nor the United States had signed on.

Now, Prentice said, the rest of the world is coming around to the view that a new protocol needs to be worked out, something that will be done in the course of this year, culminating in an international conference in December in Copenhagen where it will be formalized.

"We are all in a sense on the road to Copenhagen. Copenhagen is where the world will turn the page on the Kyoto Protocol. We intend to be a constructive player internationally in that process, in dealing with climate change globally, and people will see that."

Previously, the Harper Tories were seen as being in bed with the climate change-deniers of the Bush administration in the U.S. Since Prentice took over the environment portfolio, they have positioned themselves on board with the much more green-friendly Obama administration.

"On the essential issue of climate change the policies, the targets that he (U.S. President Barack Obama) has espoused are virtually identical, in fact, not quite as ambitious as what we have put forward as a government," Prentice said.

During his visit Prentice met with representatives of leading Quebec environmental groups and made a generally favourable impression. Policy differences persist between the Conservatives and local conservationists, but they praised him for being at least a good listener, an improvement on his Tory predecessors Rona Ambrose and John Baird.

"He's a gentleman and also a person who knows how to listen and who asked good questions," said André Bélisle,of the Association Québécoise de lutte contre la pollution atmosphérique. "That's a big change from Mr. Baird, who didn't listen but made all sorts of comments, and Ms. Ambrose who simply didn't talk"

"Mr. Prentice has opened a dialogue, unlike Mr. Baird who was in a more defensive role," echoed Karel Mayrand of the David Suzuki Foundation's Quebec chapter. "He seems like a very intelligent man and he listened with great attention to what we had to say."

One major policy difference is over the Alberta oil sands, which conservationists deplore as Canada's worst environmental abomination. Prentice resisted Bélisle's call for a moratorium on oil sands production until the process can be cleaned up, saying efforts are being made to bring oil sands pollution under control. He cited heavy investment by both the federal and Alberta governments to develop carbon sequestration technology to mitigate the oil sands emissions, blamed by environmentalists as the main cause of Canada's failure to meet its Kyoto target.

But he argues that shutting down oil-sands production is not a serious option given the decline in conventional oil supply and the continuing global demand for oil, which may have declined of late, but nevertheless remains insatiable.

"The fact is that the world is running out of light crude oil, so it's no longer a question whether American consumers, for example, should be buying light crude from one source versus Canadian heavy crude. It's now a question of where they're going to get their heavy crude oil from because that's what's left. There's no walking away from the issue."

Mayrand said he was disappointed that Prentice puts economic prosperity ahead of environmental protection.

"He seemed to have an approach that you first have to create wealth and then invest in environmental programs from that wealth. It's a speech we've been hearing for the past 20 years and in that time the Canadian economy has doubled, yet we're still not rich enough, it seems, to properly safeguard the environment."

Prentice maintains that he doesn't want to put one ahead of the other so much as to put them in balance, but insists that without prosperity, the environment will suffer more than it does now. He notes the current economic slide has resulted in a decline of investment for recycling and wind- power generation projects.

"The protection and advancement of the environment requires a certain level of prosperity. The two are inextricably connected and we have to be vigilant that we strike the right balance. But I'm confident that this is something that as a country we're good at and will continue to be good at."

Hydro-electric development is the government's top priority among non-emitting alternative power sources, along with nuclear power and wind power, in that order. Environmentalists are divided on the merits of nuclear power, but Prentice said it is an area where Canada has significant experience and expertise, not to mention the world's largest uranium production.

"You're clearly seeing as we reduce our dependency on hydrocarbons that the key alternatives will be hydro and nuclear. Wind will be important, but in terms of base load power we're going to depend on hydro and nuclear. We're one of the only countries with a nuclear industry and a nuclear supply chain."

Prentice said his government's goal is nothing short of making Canada the world's leading clean-energy superpower, a goal toward which the country is well under way. He noted that nearly three-quarters of Canada's electricity production is at present derived from non-emitting sources and the objective is to raise that to 90 per cent by 2020.

"By them we'd be the cleanest electricity producer on the planet. Certainly we have a big challenge before us, but we also have a lot to celebrate."


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