As the saying goes, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good. So the winds that have been blowing smoke from the terrifying infernos in California and the Pacific Northwest may have a positive impact of putting climate change back on the agenda in Canada after months during which the news cycle has been dominated by COVID-19, the WE fiasco and the Black Lives Matter movement.

It will be recalled that just a bit over a year ago Canada’s House of Commons joined many other institutions in declaring a climate emergency. And climate change figured large in last fall’s federal election campaign, with the Conservatives’ failure to engage with the issue deemed a major cause of their failure to win the most seats.

But, as discussed here, the climate emergency was buried post-election under a national unity crisis as the Conservative-voting western provinces regurgitated Wexit as a defence against federal action to reduce emissions from oil and gas production. Separatist talk intensified as oil prices collapsed and Teck pulled the plug on its ill-conceived oil sands project. And tensions escalated further when the efforts of some northern British Columbia hereditary chiefs to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline led to rail blockades by some First Nations allies across the country.

The pandemic, and the united government response to it, has taken some of the passion out of the backlash that emerged out west following the 2019 election. But it has also drawn public attention even further away from climate change while providing opportunities for an oil and gas industry that only months ago faced negative public opinion, falling prices and an unsustainable carbon footprint.

Public concern declines

As has so often been the case in the past, the environment and climate change tend to be crowded out when more immediate concerns come along. It seems to be happening again. A mid-summer Nanos poll for the Globe and Mail found a marked decline in public concern about climate change. In February, Canadians put climate change near the top of their list of issues. In August only 6.1 per cent of the participants in the Nanos poll cited environment as their main concern, versus 28.7 per cent for the pandemic and 20.8 per cent for the economy and jobs.

The waning of concern about climate change may also be because Canada has so far dodged many of the bullets climate change usually fires in our direction. Events like 100-degree Fahrenheit temperatures in Siberia or inferno-level 54 Celsius (130F) in Death Valley, California, seem less threatening if there are no headlines about fires, floods and hurricanes in this country. Until smoke from the west coast fires began drifting east this week, this summer’s drought in New Brunswick and parts of Nova Scotia was about the worst of it for Canadians.

But while good luck and the pandemic pushed climate change down the issues agenda, the federal government’s economic response to COVID-19 also provided cover for more subsidies to the oil and gas industry. In April, the feds gave $1.7 billion to clean up abandoned wells in Alberta and its two neighbouring provinces, and $750 million for emissions reduction measures, costs that should be borne by the industry. The Liberals also offered expanded credit support for small and medium-sized energy companies through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Export Development Canada (EDC).

In addition, under the emergency wage subsidy (CEWS), Ottawa paid out $747 million from March 15 to July 4 to oil, gas and mining firms. The payments covered the period from March 15 to July 4, even though the price for Canadian crude recovered to pre-lockdown levels by early May.

Looking for more

The industry is using the pandemic to ask for even more – easing of proposed regulations and more financial help through a 100 per cent tax deduction on capital investment, as well as direct federal investment in Husky Energy’s West White Rose project off Newfoundland. The regulatory plan being targeted is the Clean Fuel Standard, which is supposed to come into effect in 2022, with the goal of reducing GHG emissions by 30 million tonnes by 2030. (That’s part of the plan that will still leave this country 77 million tonnes short of our international commitments).

As is customary, the industry is backing up its requests with threats. Tim McMillan, the chief mouthpiece for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said in its current form the proposed clean fuel regulations “will have the effect of shipping jobs and investment offshore.” McMillan’s Atlantic Canada sidekick said something similar in pursuit of public funds for White Rose. “Investment decisions that have to take place here in the next little while may not take place here, but may take place in other countries at our detriment.”

And, of course, the industry has an echo chamber in the oil producing provinces, and the official opposition, something that has not changed with the change in leadership.

Writing in the Guardian a while ago, British writer and climate activist George Monbiot argued that while the pandemic has made industry more than ever dependent on public policy, governments are failing to use their leverage in the public interest.

“Many major industries are now entirely beholden to the state for their survival. Governments have the oil industry over a barrel – hundreds of millions of unsaleable barrels, to be more precise – just as they had the banks over the barrel in 2008. Then, they failed to use their power to eradicate the sector’s socially destructive practices and rebuild it around human needs. They are making the same mistake today”.

The recent begging bowl behaviour of the Canadian industry illustrates Monbiot’s first point. And the Trudeau government’s solicitous response to the industry’s supplications indicates that, unless the smoke from the wildfires changes minds, the Liberals are on course to repeat history.