Oil and gas is “gorilla in room” on feds’ climate change policies: Environment Canada

Published by Postmedia News on Jan. 28, 2012.

OTTAWA – The oil and gas industry’s greenhouse gas emissions are the “gorilla in the room” for Canada’s environmental policies, a senior Environment Canada official has told his superiors in newly-released correspondence.

The observations were made by Mike Beale, an associate assistant deputy minister, in an email sent to Deputy Minister Paul Boothe and other senior officials regarding a conference being organized jointly last year by the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental group, and a major oil and gas company.

After being called by an official from Royal Dutch Shell regarding the April 2011 conference in Banff, Alta., that was to focus on “less controversial” aspects of the climate-change debate, such as energy efficiency and transportation demand management, Beale felt compelled to state what was missing.

“I had to point out – nicely – that the initiative seems to sidestep the gorilla in the room of emission reductions from O&G (oil and gas), but that otherwise, it seems like a great idea,” wrote Beale in the Jan. 20, 2011 email, released to Postmedia News through access to information legislation.

Ed Whittingham, the executive director of the Pembina Institute, praised Beale for raising questions about the event, but noted that it was only one aspect of his own group’s efforts to engage with businesses on climate change.

“We were looking for ‘no regrets’ recommendations. And by no regrets, (it means) it’s actionable by government, it doesn’t have a huge price tag, and it’s something that both companies and environmental groups can agree is important,” Whittingham said in an interview. “It’s good for Environment Canada to look at these things with a critical eye. I don’t fault them for doing that.”

Whittingham noted that it’s more difficult to get environmental groups and oil companies in the same room to agree on a path forward to address impacts from oilsands development on land, air, water and the climate.

“So, in a practical and pragmatic way, we said: ‘Let’s just put that one aside and let’s focus on areas where we think we can find agreement (such as improving energy efficiency) and then let’s see if that will give politicians room to move because you’ve got this wonderful combination of big companies and national environmental groups asking for the same thing.'”

Successive federal governments have repeatedly pledged to crack down on pollution from the oilsands, considered by Environment Canada to be the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, but have failed to introduce a legally-binding plan.

Shell Canada spokesman Stephen Doolan told Postmedia News in an email that the company has supported national regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and maintains an open dialogue to engage with a variety of interested parties, including Pembina, government representatives and First Nations.

About a dozen groups were invited to last year’s conference from the environmental community and the business world, including Environmental Defence, Forest Ethics, Suncor, RioTinto and GE Canada.

Although they did not reach an agreement, Whittingham said he believed the environmental groups and industry are making progress on their dialogue and should soon be able to submit a joint proposal for all levels of government to consider implementing.

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