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Oilsands, ecology, and manufacturing

Thomas Mulcair's ill-conceived war on the West backfires.

Dateline: Tuesday, May 22, 2012

by Gillian Steward

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair might as well have declared war on the West.

That's the way it sounded from this end of the country a couple of weeks ago, when he told a CBC radio program that something needs to be done about rapid oilsands development — which he said has artificially inflated the Canadian dollar and thereby delivered a bruising blow to central Canada's export-dependent manufacturing sector.

Mulcair might as well have said that the western resource-based economy is the enemy of the eastern-based manufacturing sector and must be stamped out at all costs.


The environmental argument sounds hollow because Mulcair already signaled that, for him, central Canada's prosperity is more important than Western prosperity.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's team and the western premiers were quick to defend the West's right to profit from its resource wealth. But the ensuing war of words created such a fog it obscured much more fundamental issues.

Westerners do indeed have a right to determine their own economic destiny. But if westerners and other Canadians are to prosper from the oilsands, we'd better heed what our customers are saying or there won't be much of a market for what we have to sell.

There is already strong opposition to Canada's "dirty oil" in the US and Europe. Harper has made bold statements about selling our oil to China if those customers don't want it and Alberta Premier Alison Redford is following suit. She will be going to Beijing next month to attend a Canada-China investors conference.

Right after the recent election, Redford said she was going to attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro. Now, the Alberta environment minister will be going to Rio instead.

But betting on oil exports to China is risky business.

The tarry oil in question is so thick it will have to be diluted before it can flow through a proposed pipeline that would stretch from northern Alberta to the northern reaches of the BC coast. The oil would be then be loaded onto supertankers, which would have to navigate waters that are home to whales, sea lions and other wildlife.

There is plenty of opposition to this vast undertaking from BC First Nations and environmentalists. If the deal with China ever does become a reality, it won't be any time soon.

Concerns about environmental damage and high greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands projects are causing some of our other customers to balk. The shifting sands of the Canadian economy don't matter much to them.

Since his original remarks, Mulcair has been careful to emphasize that oilsands developers are getting a free ride because of the Harper government's lax environmental regulations. There's certainly room for criticism on that front, especially given that Harper's omnibus budget bill will make it easier for governments to speed up environmental impact assessments.

But the environmental argument sounds hollow now because Mulcair has already signaled that, for the NDP, central Canada's prosperity is more important than western prosperity. So any talk of carbon taxes, a cap-and-trade system or tougher environmental regulations will be seen by most westerners as an attempt to stifle oilsands development for the benefit of central Canada.

That's certainly how Westerners saw the environmental argument during the 2008 federal election, when Liberal leader Stéphane Dion ran on a green platform.

The perceived East-West tension enrages Westerners and gives Harper and the western premiers an excuse to circle the wagons. Once the wagons are circled against the forces in central Canada that many people here believe are determined to rob them of what is rightfully theirs, political leaders vow to defend them.

Those politicians then become very popular. It's a tried-and-true strategy for electoral success in the West and Mulcair's remarks played right into it.

Not surprisingly, the first politician to respond was Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. "Resources have been the cure, not the problem," tweeted Wall. "What is his cure? Higher resource taxes. NDP needs to explain."

Wall and his Saskatchewan party have almost decimated the NDP in that province and no doubt Wall wants to keep it that way. So it was smart for him to respond first, since Saskatchewan's economy has turned around almost overnight thanks to its oilsands and other petroleum ventures.

Almost everyone in Canada wants underdog Saskatchewan to succeed — a crucial point that Mulcair and the NDP seem to have overlooked.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald.

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