Fallacy Friday: Why did green groups endorse Alberta NDP’s plan to increase tar sands production and build pipelines?

When Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley announced her government’s plan to combat climate change late last month, it was widely perceived as bold and ambitious. Hailed by green organizations across Canada and embraced by many in the business community, the plan seemed to be a major breakthrough on the contentious issue of tar sands extraction.

But the unholy alliance of oil companies and environmental advocates should have been a clue that all was not as it seemed.

To be sure, there’s a lot to like about the NDP’s plan. The total phasing out of all coal-burning plants in the province over the next fifteen years is laudatory, as is the government’s commitment to dramatically increase sustainable energy generation in Alberta.

But Alberta doesn’t have a bad rap on climate issues because of its coal plants or dearth of windmills. By far the single greatest source of Alberta’s greenhouse gas emissions is the oil and gas industry, and for any Albertan climate plan to be effective, it would have to successfully tackle this well-financed behemoth. However, the initial hype surrounding the Premier’s announcement of a cap on tar sands extraction is looking increasingly misplaced under closer scrutiny.

The fact that a cap had been imposed at all was, the government and its boosters insisted, cause for celebration in and of itself – “one of the first times that an oil jurisdiction has placed a limit on growth,” gushed Greenpeace campaigner Mike Hudema. “The days of the infinite growth of the tar sands are over and investors should take note.”

Caveatting that the significance of the cap “cannot be overstated”, Hudema did also point out that, from a scientific point of view, the cap’s limits aren’t remotely sufficient. But the size of the cap was obscured in media coverage, partly by the unwieldily scale of the numbers involved. A 100-megaton annual limit was imposed on tar sands production in the province – and if you can calculate, off the top of your head, whether or not that allows for tar sands expansion, and if so, by how much, then you get a lollypop.

Thankfully for those of us who aren’t environmental scientists, the Edmonton Journal did the math – and it’s not exactly encouraging:

Alberta’s climate plan targets the 28 per cent of Alberta’s greenhouse gases from power generation and transportation (driving), and leaves the 46 per cent of the province’s emissions from the production of oil and gas almost scot-free.

Under Alberta’s plan, oilsands and other oil and gas emissions can grow by 43 per cent and will cancel out the carbon pollution reductions in electrical power and driving. Ordinary Albertans are called upon to reduce their carbon pollution to make room for Big Oil’s expansion of oilsands emissions and profits…

Alberta’s new climate plan stands in the way [of meaningful climate action]. Cutting Canada’s 1990 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 would leave 118 MT [megatons]. That’s only 18 MT above Alberta’s oilsands cap of 100 MT. If allowed to stand, oilsands emissions would take up 84 per cent of Canada’s total emissions in 2050. Canadians would have to just about shut down all other oil uses — such as driving to work — so Alberta’s oilsands output can grow.

In other words, Rachel Notley and the NDP have proposed – with much boastful fanfare – a climate action plan which is miserably inadequate. The level of emissions it allows is totally inconsistent with the ambitious level of emissions reduction our planet needs in order to avert the worst-case climate change scenarios.

A cynic might see it as little more than a publicity stunt, designed to give Alberta a greener image and allow big oil companies to sell themselves as environmentally responsible, all while business goes on as usual in the tar sands.

Indeed, while the days of infinite growth may be over, the tar sands can do quite a bit of growing under the NDP’s climate plan, as this National Post graph shows:

The tar sands will be allowed to produce three times as much CO2 in 2020 as they did in 2005 under the Alberta NDP’s “ambitious” climate change plan. (Image credit: Gigi Suhanic/National Post)

One glaring question in all of this, for me at least, is: Why have so many “green” groups been so enthusiastic about this plan? Why, indeed, were they enthusiastic participants in the backroom deal-making that led to this plan?

The Financial Post yesterday published a piece discussing the role of four major environmental orgs – Environmental Defence, Forest Ethics Canada, the Pembina Institute, and Equiterre – in helping to negotiate and promote the province’s inadequate cap on tar sands growth. (Yes, yes, I know, it’s the Financial Post, so a few tablespoons of salt may be in order.)

The article, built around an interview with Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, advances the narrative that the climate plan was a breakthrough compromise between the environmental movement and Big Oil. The only problem with this narrative, though, is that the green orgs involved seem to have gotten a raw deal:

The deal allows an additional one million barrels a day of oilsands production, and was endorsed by those involved as a compromise between industry plans for unlimited growth and pressure by green groups to stop development altogether. In return for the cap green groups are expected to back off on their opposition to export pipeline plans.

See, everybody gets something! The oil companies get to increase production and build pipelines, and the green groups get…hey, wait a minute! What the hell did they get? An end to industry plans for “unlimited growth”? Those were never realistic plans – the speed with which the international oil divestment movement is growing, gaining respect even from central bankers and venture capitalists, makes that patently clear. Honestly, it looks like environmental organizations are literally walking almost empty-handed.

But at the same time, they’re also bragging about the deal they got – or at least, David Gray is:

Gray said he approached Alberta’s new NDP government soon after its election in May after it became clear they were considering making serious moves on climate change policy.

“We were more than happy to help them track toward something that could get support from elements of the environmental community as well as the business community, and that is what happened,” he said…

Gray said the agreement means his group is changing “our messaging around our climate campaign to reflect our support for what Alberta has done.” However, he said his group will switch back to its previous tactics if the province doesn’t deliver.

“Elements of the environmental community” indeed – the article quotes an outraged organizer from 350.org who denounced the deal and vowed to keep fighting pipelines until the last one is defeated, and I’ve seen a lot of anger about this perceived betrayal circulating among my activist friends and acquaintances on social media.

Obviously, I’m not in a position to conclusively answer the question of why environmental organizations would be willing to endorse this deal, given that it works against two long-held goals of the Canadian environmental movement, stopping pipelines and shutting down the tar sands. However, I have a few educated guesses.

First of all, climate-focussed organizations have for the last decade been relegated to the sidelines when it comes to policy discussions. The Harper government in Ottawa publicly dismissed them as foreign-funded radicals, and even subjected many of them to politically motivated audits. They were branded a threat to national security by the RCMP. Meanwhile, in Alberta, the Progressive Conservative dynasty of the last forty-plus years was entirely beholden to Big Oil and profoundly uninterested in taking serious action on climate change.

For groups like these to suddenly have a seat at the table, to be able to influence the path of negotiations, to make demands and have them met, must be wildly exhilarating.

The second, and more specific, explanation I have is a fallacious tendency of thought which is all too common in the current political landscape – the fallacy of the middle ground. There is a tendency among many political actors to extol the virtues of compromise – a tendency which we can see in the Post article quoted above. We have two divided entities occupying two extreme positions – the oil industry, with its plans for unlimited growth in the tar sands, and green groups, who want to shut down the tar sands altogether. Surely the most reasonable solution is to meet somewhere in the middle?

In some cases, this would be true, but in this case, if the goal is to avoid catastrophic global warming, then any compromise on the part of the green groups is counter-productive. It can’t even be logically justified as incrementalism. A miserably inadequate cap won’t inherently lead to a further tightening of that cap; on the contrary, having worked so hard to give the public the impression that this deal represents a major breakthrough, climate organizations may find it difficult to gain traction in their efforts to impose further restrictions.

It may be true that this deal is better than nothing, but this isn’t even a particularly interesting counter-factual. Is this deal better than the one which would have emerged from negotiations in which environmental organizations took a hard-line no-compromise approach? In which they had mobilized the climate movement on the streets to agitate for the best deal possible? In which they insisted that the negotiations be moved from out of the backrooms and opened up to include the public, or even a representative cross-section thereof?

The desire to be seen as reasonable, moderate, and practical is a major factor in this fetishization of compromise – but sometimes, holding hard to your radical position is what is needed. If you need to reduce emissions, then reaching a “compromise” which allows emissions to increase isn’t a win, or even a draw; it’s a loss. And furthermore, these particular organizations (who by no means have the authority to speak for the broader environmental movement on this) have also negotiated away all the leverage they may have had when it comes to pipeline opposition.

These environmental organizations cut a terrible deal in Edmonton. The government of Alberta should be put on notice that these groups do not speak for the environmental movement as a whole, that any proposed pipelines will still be fiercely opposed, and that the goal of shutting down the tar sands will be pursued until it is achieved.

Fallacy Friday is a weekly discussion of logical inconsistencies, definitional ambiguities, and other unreasonableness in news coverage. You can reach me at matt@thealfalfafield.com or leave a comment below.

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