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Premiers agree on energy strategy with weakened climate change pledges

British Colummbia Premier Christy Clark, left, and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil sign an agreement on shipbuilding at the summer meeting of Canada's premiers in St. John's on Friday, July 17, 2015.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada's premiers reached a deal on a Canadian Energy Strategy, hailing it as a "monumental" document that recognizes the importance of the country's energy industry to the economy but does so in an environmentally sustainable way.

However, the strategy waters down commitments to fight climate change, as the strongest pledge – a promise that all provinces would adopt absolute cuts to greenhouse gas emissions – has been stripped from an earlier draft.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who along with Quebec's Philippe Couillard has pressed for stronger environmental protections, told The Globe and Mail that the final version "is the language everybody could live with."

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She focused, instead, on the fact that until this document was signed, there was no shared goal on energy and climate change among the 13 provincial and territorial leaders.

"This is an issue of a strong economy and strong environmental protection and those two things are not mutually exclusive," she said. "They must be complimentary."

However, this leaves the global warming language in the plan as little more than a series of vague aspirations for a "lower carbon economy."

The strategy was revealed Friday in St. John's at the conclusion of the premiers' annual summer conference. The fact that a deal was even achieved is an accomplishment; when the meeting began two days ago, it was not clear ifthe document — first proposed in 2012 and worked on ever since — could be finalized.

Former Alberta premier Alison Redford initiated the strategy as a way for the rest of the country to help build pipelines that would ship oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries and ports for overseas export. The idea was to open new markets for the provinces, which rely on the United States as their primary customer.

At last year's premiers' meeting in Charlottetown, Premiers Wynne and Couillard, however, insisted the strategy must contain action on climate change.

But Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall pushed back this week, arguing the draft version he read downplayed the pride Canadians should take in an energy industry that provides jobs and equalization payments for the entire country.

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He repeatedly said that oil is not a "four-letter word." He took shots at Ontario and Quebec's position and criticized Alberta's newly-elected NDP premier, Rachel Notley, for her recent statement that Quebec is right to want meaningful action on climate change before endorsing an east-west pipeline. He suggested it means she would give a veto to other provinces if they don't like her energy policies.

She called his statements "ridiculous" and insiders say his views were not supported around the table.

In the end, however, he supported the strategy. He said Friday that one of the sections was improved and now "speaks to the issue of energy self-sufficiency."

The strategy is heavy on environmental rhetoric, but there are no firm promises. One section, for example, says the provinces and territories will "review and explore market-based mechanisms" such as cap-and-trade for cutting emissions, but there is no guarantee any more provinces and territories will adopt these policies.

The strongest environmental language in a draft of the strategy obtained by The Globe earlier this week committed the provinces to "actively pursue absolute GHG emissions reductions." But the term "absolute" was later cut from the strategy.

The distinction is important. Absolute emissions reductions are the international standard, but Alberta uses a different method for setting targets that allows emissions to continue growing. Federal data shows Alberta's emissions have increased 53 per cent since 1990.

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The weak climate language is a defeat for Ontario and Quebec, which have been cutting greenhouse gas emissions and pushing for stronger national action on global warming.

It was not well-received by environmental groups. "The energy strategy was weak and disappointing on commitments on climate change and clean energy," says Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence. "The only way to salvage it is for provinces to take steps to strengthen it by committing to significant climate action, focusing on increasing electricity trade in clean, renewable power, and collaborating on a strong energy-efficiency program."

The new strategy confirms the need for more oil pipelines, commits the provinces and territories to cutting regulatory red tape so projects are approved faster and promises to ramp up overseas exports.

"As energy production expands to meet growing domestic and international energy demands, our country must have the necessary pipelines, electricity systems and other energy infrastructure in place to move energy products, so as to increase Canadian value-added opportunities and to facilitate national energy self-sufficiency and independence," reads section seven.

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About the Authors
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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