The epic news conference in mid-April where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced C$2.4 billion in job creation funding for the country’s oil and gas workers, but not the $30-billion bailout the industry had demanded, was the second-worst moment in a very bad week for the fossil fuel lobby.
Far worse was the damage the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) inflicted on itself.
After the association issued a 13-page letter to Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and seven other Cabinet ministers, demanding more than 30 different cuts to the climate, environmental, and safety regulations governing the industry, the details entered the public sphere.
The “crass attempt to exploit a global pandemic,” in the words of one veteran climate advocate, gave Canadians an unmistakable view of the fossil lobby’s “radical agenda” on everything from climate regulation to oil train safety, from species protection to the transparency of the federal lobbying process.
Some of the greatest hits on CAPP’s wish list included:
- Postponing plans to strengthen Canada’s paltry, Harper-era greenhouse gas reduction targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement, including legislated five-year targets for cutting carbon, the federal Clean Fuel Standard, and scheduled annual increases in the federal floor price on carbon;
- Cancelling efforts to speed up the introduction of safer tank cars to carry crude by rail, and postponing implementation of new rail security guidelines for dangerous goods;
- Deferring federal methane regulations for another year unless Ottawa can somehow arrive at equivalency agreements with the provinces in the midst of a global health emergency;
- Deferring legislation to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;
- Delaying legislated reforms to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act;
- Cancelling monitoring of tar sands/oil sands facilities under the Migratory Birds Act until 2021, and postponing new requirements under the Act;
- Deferring site visits, inspections, and audits and limiting reporting under the federal Fisheries Act;
- Suspending filing requirements under the federal Lobbying Act until July 31.
First Do No Harm?
Most of the list had nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet CAPP tried to attach its demands to a guiding principle of medicine that dates back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: First, do no harm.
“Couching it all in human health terms is despicable, because so many of these measures will make Canadians less safe and more unhealthy, with greater air pollution, less rail safety in communities, no monitoring for methane, no monitoring for other pollutants,” said Dale Marshall, national program manager at Toronto-based Environmental Defence.
“After Lac Mégantic, they want to delay the timeline for bringing in safer rail cars. Think about that for a second,” he added. “A number of ideas in there would just not fly under normal circumstances, and they’re using a global pandemic to push a radical agenda—let’s call it for what it is.”
The overall effect can’t possibly be what CAPP intended. The letter paints a picture of a lobby group so self-interested, so inward-looking, and so utterly persuaded by its own PR messaging that it can imagine no approach to economic stimulus more creative or constructive than continuing deregulation and lavish subsidies for an industry entering its sunset.
Never mind that Canadian petroleum producers have been on the ropes since the oil price crash began in 2014, or that the crash keeps getting worse. That continuing subsidies from federal and provincial governments have salvaged relatively few fossil industry jobs, but produced an estimated $31.76 billion in dividends to shareholders. The fossil lobby’s only political play is still to convince the rest of us that the only path to salvation—for our economy, or even for our health—runs through its own members’ coffers.
One Crisis Doesn’t Postpone the Other
Unfortunately for CAPP, that’s precisely the kind of pretense the experience of a global pandemic has burned away. The Prime Minister’s response at his April 17 news conference was forthright: “Just because we’re in one crisis right now doesn’t mean we can forget about the other one—the climate crisis that we are also facing as a world and as a country,” he told media.
If the stakes weren’t so high, for the country’s immediate economic recovery and its longer-term climate and energy future, it would be almost amusing to imagine the reaction when CAPP’s wish list landed on the eight Cabinet ministers’ desks. The ministers and their staff must have wondered: With the economy imploding, oil prices crashing, climate regulation accelerating, fossil fuel investors running for cover, and the whole energy sector in rapid transition, this is all they’ve got?
“I frankly don’t understand the mentality of people who put forward these kinds of proposals, so it’s really hard for me to put myself in their place and know what they’re thinking,” Marshall said. But “the demands always fall into the same two categories: cut our taxes and royalties, and cut regulations. That’s their solution to anything. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. There’s such a lack of creativity and forward thinking around things that could actually improve their environmental performance, lead to jobs, and improve the recovery of certain oil and gas companies.”
CAPP Hurts Alberta First and Worst
Ironically, the regions and communities that CAPP would claim to be protecting are hurt first and worst by its stunning lack of vision. Trudeau got that right when he explained the $1.7 billion Ottawa is investing to begin tackling an inventory of 343,000 orphaned and abandoned oil and gas wells—and create 5,200 badly-needed fossil sector jobs in the process.
“Cleaning them up will bring people back to work and help many landowners who had these wells on their property for years, but haven’t be able to get them taken care of and the land restored,” Trudeau said. “Our goal is to create immediate jobs in these provinces, while helping companies avoid bankruptcy and supporting our environmental targets.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney agreed, calling the announcement a lifeline for blue collar workers in western Canada’s oilfield services sector. The federal funds “can’t go to things like bonuses or dividends, or anything except actually doing the work,” he said Friday. “This will allow for a surge of well reclamation and completion work, all across the province, we hope starting immediately.”
What Trudeau and even Kenney are recognizing, but CAPP seems not to grasp, is the distinction between fossil shareholders and executive lobbyists and the scientists, engineers, skilled tradespeople, and oilfield service workers who pay the price when the industry fails to look out for their future.
Increasingly, the people who built the fossil sector with their bare hands want to secure that future, and Albertans as a whole are increasingly receptive to a more diversified provincial economy. All of which puts CAPP and its 13-page letter ever farther out of touch, not only with the national and global reality, but with the communities it claims to represent.