Harper, Dion, and The End of Oil

September 1, 2008

“In 1990 Ontario premier David Peterson decided to call a snap election less than three years into his mandate. This proved to be his greatest mistake. Many voters saw the early election as a mark of arrogance, and a sign that Peterson’s Liberals had become detached from the electorate. There was no defining issue behind the campaign, and many believed that Peterson was simply trying to win re-election before the economic downturn reached its worst phase.” (Wikipedia)

From the sound of things Canadians are headed into a fall election and if there is a defining issue in the campaign other than Harper’s desire to hang onto the keys to 24 Sussex for a few more years, it will have to be Stephan Dion’s Green Shift Plan. Harper has dismissed it as “crazy” and a “tax grab,” and he will no doubt continue to do so if only to disguise how out of position the Federal Conservative Party is in the run-up to this election.

For centuries historians have accused the Quebecois of trying to be more French than the French. I fear the same applies to the pro-Republican Harper government. While Karl Rove wannabe John Baird attacks his opponents incessantly, Harper can’t fail to notice that even the most adamant of the American governing party are quietly softening their stand on the environment. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger joined the Democratic house majority to enact carbon dioxide controls in 2006. John McCain is the new presidential nominee, and in 2003 he narrowly failed to get a carbon tax plan of his own through the U.S. Senate. Bush and Cheney may stay away from the Republican Convention in order to allow the Party some distance from their disastrous record. Cancelled by Ronald Regan in 1988, CAFÉ regulations are coming back to end the slide of auto makers into high profit, fuel-wasting vehicles. The trend is toward conservation and cleaner air and Harper’s taking Canada in the wrong direction using arguments already repudiated by his mentors to the south.

This week I read The End of Oil, by Paul Roberts. In the book he lays bare why the United States was unable to enter the Kyoto Accord, even when faced with strong pressure from its allies. The answer lies in 900 elderly coal-fired generating stations which produce much of the base power on which the U.S. economy relies. 44% of the grid is fed by stations exempt from pollution controls. Only 6% of U.S. electrical power comes from cleaner coal-gas facilities. Those old generating stations are exempt from air quality standards and the coal they use is dirt cheap. Every hour of every day they crank out electricity at 2 cents per kilowatt hour. The cleaner plants need a price of 6.5 cents per KWH to be financially viable, so unless laws are passed, there is no business incentive to use them. Bush won his second term with the support of the coal-producing states, big oil and the Detroit auto makers, so no such laws made it past the lobbyists, but it now seems as if the logjam of vested interests and inertia may be breaking up.

The utilities executives expect legislation to control carbon emissions. They are ready for the laws, but can’t act until they know the standard. With the Republicans jumping for shore, Harper looks to be the only one left on the ice floe.

Even worse, in 2004 Roberts painted the Alberta Tar Sands project as a worst-case scenario for oil extraction because of the enormous cost to the environment of this form of oil. In the last month some American mayors have spoken up, planning to ban oil-sands fuel from their cities because of the global damage it causes. Harper’s fate may well be tied to that of a few hundred ducks found poisoned in an Alberta pond.

“The argument that taxes on oil or carbon emissions would ruin an economy is fundamentally false. First of all, I don’t think such a step is going to have that much of an impact on the economy overall. Second of all, if you don’t do it, you can be sure that the economy will go down the drain in the next 30 years.” Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve

Stephan Dion’s Green Shift plan simply reflects changes which have already occurred in Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Belgium. Harper’s reactionary position leaves him so much in jeopardy that his only alternative is to get an election over before Bush and Cheney leave office.

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