Beyond Yoga Mats and Organic Carrots: Oil Sands, Federal Budget & Cleantech At Toronto Green Living Show (Part 2)
By: Meirav Even-Har, Toronto
Part 1 of this article on the Green Living Show provided highlights from the Business Forum on clean tech investment in Canada. Although clean tech represents far more than innovation in renewable energy, the Business Forum panel focused on the question of how Canada can move beyond harvesting fossil fuels - specifically, Canada's oil sands. The discourse wasn't congratulatory: pollution abatement for mining and extraction was candidly discussed.
A day later, at another panel presentation, the question of Canada's future energy production was discussed. This time, the focus was on the 2012 Canadian federal budget and the implications for oil sands production. A different context, audience and speakers, but the dialogue was just as fruitful and important to business. Here are the highlights.
Background - how the oil sands made their way to the federal budget?
The Canadian government budget introduced on March 30th had a good measure of transparency when it came to the feds' vision of environmental resources. While the word "sustainability" was absent from the large document, the disdain for environmental groups was clearly present. Specifically, the budget calls for an expedited project approval timeline for projects deemed to be of national significance. It also calls for the removal of federal involvement in the approval process. It also allocates additional money to the Canadian Revenue Agency (the Canadian equivalent to the IRS) to provide oversight on charities-specifically, to increase transparency on charities' political activities, including funding from foreign sources.
Highlights from Panel - The Federal Budget Blueprint: What's Really at Stake
When asked about the budget, Dr. Rick Smith of Environmental Defence expressed his outrage over what he termed "an unprecedented attack on environmental protection and smear of environmental charities." Toby Heaps of Corporate Knights noted that a positive spin on the change could mean good news for quicker clean tech project development. But while the budget provides funding for innovation spending, it is done at the direction of the federal finance minister, which might not do so well with venture capitalism and corporate investors. All and all, the clean tech industry was not as big of a winner as oil and gas.
What does this mean to oil sands development? Quicker project approval and little-to- no federal involvement in the approval process. This includes projects such as the Northern Gateway Pipelines review, currently taking place. At the heart of it all is Canada's desire to expand oil sands markets. After the stalling of the Canada-US Keystone XL pipeline project, the United States may be proving to be a difficult market. Asia, however, has both demand and willingness to accept Canadian crude.
Shorter approval times may be good news to the provincial governments whose support for some projects has been overturned by federal environmental agencies. Surprisingly, this may not be such good news for business. Stephen Hazel, an environmental lawyer, noted that we could expect litigation from Canada's First Nations if there is insufficient consultation due to the two-year time frame. First Nations' constitutional rights place a duty to consult on governments, and if that is infringed, it will ultimately "hurt" the engagement process. In other words, a rushed consultation process may create an environment of dissatisfaction and resentment toward companies. Years of strategic engagement with First Nations and NGOs may be undone for the sake of quicker timelines.
Dr. Smith concluded that the environmental debate is not in trouble in Canada. Rather, it is gaining stronger ground. As growing number of local governments, citizens and business work to shift to a more sustainable society, one wonders why the Canadian government is still stuck in the past. I'm sure we'll revisit the topic at next year's Green Living Show.
To read Part 1 of this article about learnings from the Business Forum click HERE
Image: Green Living Show Banner (By Meirav Even-Har)