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John Ivison: Peter MacKay's energy policy needs some refining

Conservative Party leadership candidate Peter MacKay speaks at an event in Ottawa, Jan. 26, 2020.
Conservative Party leadership candidate Peter MacKay speaks at an event in Ottawa, Jan. 26, 2020.

Polling data in the wake of the 2019 election indicated a Conservative brand that is in trouble. “Out of date”, “bigoted”, “narrow-minded” and “skeptical” were the words most commonly associated with the party in one Abacus Data survey . The responses helped explain why the number of Canadians who would consider voting Conservative fell to a new low, behind the Liberals and NDP.

Peter MacKay has recognized that the next Conservative leader needs to grow that pool of accessible voters, hence his application for permission to participate in this year’s Toronto Pride parade.

But while MacKay has made clear he plans to refresh the Conservative brand on social issues if elected leader, he has been more opaque when it comes the climate file.

His leadership rival Marilyn Gladu contends that the policy brought forward by Andrew Scheer at the last election “didn’t resonate” with Canadians and that to win the next one, the Conservatives have to offer voters a “credible offering”.

But MacKay seems to have no such misgivings. In an interview at the weekend, he said he was less than 24 hours into a leadership campaign, “so I’m not going to pretend I have the answers”.

But he said he remains unconvinced about the merits of a carbon tax. “We’re now somewhat down the road of carbon pricing in B.C. and we’re not seeing an impact as far as a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or a curbing in the tendency to use fossil fuels,” he said.

MacKay said his starting point is that Canada is not a major polluter.

He reiterated Scheer’s position that Canada could make a major difference in addressing global warming if it could get its “highly regulated and affordable” liquified natural gas to countries like India, China and Pakistan, displacing the use of coal to generate electricity in those places.

“Instead, and perversely, we are bringing oil and gas in large volumes into this country from countries like Iran, like Saudi Arabia, like Venezuela, like Algeria,” he said. “These are countries to which we are philosophically opposed in terms of human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law. Yet arguably we are enabling the worst regimes in the world, bolstering their economies by buying their energy, when we have it under our feet. It’s like owning a bread store and buying bread.”

It’s a logical position for an aspiring Conservative leader – the number of party members convinced about carbon pricing is rising but they remain in the minority, according to one poll. However, many of his claims need a reality check.

On B.C.’s carbon tax, while it has helped make gas more expensive – an average $1.38 a litre in Vancouver on Tuesday, compared to $1.10 in Toronto – it has contributed to a 17.4 per cent drop in fossil fuel consumption since it was introduced — although critics say that is largely down to cross-border gas shopping. Total fuel consumption has risen at roughly half the rate of Canada as a whole since the tax was introduced.

MacKay’s contention that Canada could make a difference to global warming levels if it had the infrastructure to export its energy overseas is irrefutable. But his claim that Canada is a low emitter is not. While it is true our annual emissions are a very small portion of the world’s total, our per capita emissions are higher than in most countries. The global average of emissions is 4.8 tonnes per person – Canadians emit 15.6 tonnes per capita, just behind Australians (17 tonnes) and Americans (16.2 tonnes).

While getting Canadian oil and gas to Asian markets would be good for Canada and the planet, it would not contribute to our Paris emissions targets, which are based on reductions that take place inside a country’s borders. Many Conservatives would point out that Paris sucks. Perhaps, but it’s the only plan we have right now.

Does it mean a MacKay led Canada would stop energy imports from the United States

MacKay’s claim that we are bringing in oil and gas from countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Algeria is half right. Most of our imports come from the U.S. – over 60 per cent for crude; 98 per cent for gas. For the remainder, we brought in light crude from nine other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Algeria, but that amount is falling – down 12 per cent last year – and none of it came from Iran or Venezuela.

The reasons we import oil are clear – Quebec and Atlantic Canada has most of the refining capacity and many of those refineries do not have access to western Canadian crude.

The bread shop analogy might appeal at a nativist level but does it mean a MacKay led Canada would stop energy imports from the United States, a move a protectionist White House might see as provocative?

Now he’s a few days into his campaign, the leadership race front-runner might want to refine his energy policy. He should let the markets solve the question of foreign oil and focus on the supply bottlenecks that stop them from operating efficiently.

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