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Elizabeth Payne: Greenwashing won’t sell Keystone pipeline

It’s not easy being green? Don’t tell that to federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

It’s not easy being green? Don’t tell that to federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. The same man who called environmentalists radicals who “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda” is now casually donning a green suit (“This old thing?”) as part of the federal government’s campaign to convince the Obama administration that Canada is serious about climate change.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird was in Washington this month meeting with incoming secretary of state John Kerry to send a similar green-tinged message. The greening of the federal cabinet has nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day and everything to do with trying to spruce up, or at least distract from, the government’s increasingly nasty environmental reputation at home and abroad.

Rebranding might be overstating what is going on, but, even so, the federal government has an uphill climb to convince the world that, as Oliver told The Globe and Mail, “We’re not cavalier with the environment.”

Canada, of course, wants Kerry to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which was derailed by President Barack Obama during his first term in office. Given the number of pipelines that already criss-cross the U.S. (and Canada), that the U.S. needs the energy and that Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman approved the revised path for the pipeline, it makes sense to have a route from the Athabasca oilsands to the United States.

But the federal government has itself to blame for Keystone becoming the environmental lightning rod it did in the first place. It has not made approval of the pipeline an easy decision for anyone who is even a little bit serious about fighting climate change — which is why Obama punted a decision on the pipeline until after the presidential election.

Canada has been working its way toward international pariah status on the environment and that reputation, whether entirely deserved or not, is not going to be easy to shake.

The country’s environmental watchdog has released a worrisome report warning that poor environmental protection is threatening Canada’s economy, and the government has been trying for political points by mocking the idea of a carbon tax — which environmentalists and economists (and many business executives) agree is an effective way of reducing greenhouse emissions.

Nor will it be easy to repair Canada’s environmental reputation when major changes to environmental regulations are tucked into giant budget omnibus bills where they are guaranteed to get less oversight, and when Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions are poised to be 20 per cent higher than the target set by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the 2009 Copenhagen agreement.

Obama recently vowed to make climate change a priority for his second term, saying: “We the people still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

Against this backdrop, it would appear that it is beginning to dawn on the Conservative cabinet that you are more likely to get pipeline approval with honey and genuine concern for the environment than with the campaign of disdain and mockery against the environmental movement.

When he filed his final report as federal commissioner of the environment, Scott Vaughan warned that poor environmental protection is threatening Canada’s economy.

The resource boom, he said, should be matched by a boom in environmental-assessment law. What we have seen is the opposite.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford recently talked about what Canada must do to sell its energy to the U.S. “The United States is Canada’s partner. And now our partner is asking us to change. More than ever, consumers are demanding environmentally responsible products. In refashioning Canada as an energy leader, we must fill their requirements.”

And that will take more than a little government greenwashing.