Environment Minister Catherine McKenna won't sacrifice national unity for environment

For the second time in a week, the federal environment minister has suggested the Liberal government is prepared to tap the brakes on its aggressive climate change agenda in the interests of national unity.

Canadian and U.S. environment ministers play up Arctic co-operation

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy (right) speaks to reporters as Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna looks on, April 7, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

For the second time in a week, the federal environment minister has suggested the Liberal government is prepared to tap the brakes on its aggressive climate change agenda in the interests of national unity.

Catherine McKenna appeared Thursday at a town hall-style meeting with Gina McCarthy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where the two women sang each other's praises and touted continental environmental co-operation.

McCarthy said bilateral relations have never been better for cross-border climate action, citing the apparent kinship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Both women played up mutual promises to reduce methane emissions and work co-operatively in the Arctic. And they played down contentious issues on climate policy, whether between the two countries or within their own borders.

"In three years I hope that I can look back at this and say that all Canadians stayed with me," McKenna said during a question-and-answer session with the room full of academics, students and advocates.

"Sometimes we get into very unhelpful discussions where we have different groups pitted against each other, and that results in paralysis and inaction — and it's extremely unhelpful."

McKenna says she'll continue talking "every single day" about the merits of pricing carbon.

Shaking off oil

She's also committed to the transition to a low-carbon economy, but acknowledged the diversity of views and economic realities across the country.

"We can't have everyone in the oil sector lose jobs," said the minister, speaking on a day when Canada's oil and gas industry reported it is facing the biggest two-year capital spending decline in its 70-year history due to crashing world prices.

"You know what? I will become the environment minister that has no power. That is just the reality."

McKenna noted that Canada "didn't get into fossil fuels overnight and we're not going to get out of them (overnight), but we absolutely need to go in that direction."

Last week at a panel discussion hosted by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute, McKenna made a similar point about moving too fast and losing the crowd.

National unity an issue

"I don't want this to be a national unity crisis," she said at the time. "I get nervous about the way the conversations sometimes go, that it's east versus west."

The Liberals have been facing hard questions about new oil pipelines and international market access for Alberta and Saskatchewan oil and gas almost from the day they took office last November.

President Obama announced shortly after Trudeau's cabinet was sworn in that he was rejecting a cross-border permit for the long-running Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which would have carried Alberta bitumen to Gulf Coast refineries and ports.

To keep the planet inhabitable, Obama said at the time, "we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them."

Cutting carbon

His top environmental agency bureaucrat was far more circumspect Thursday in Ottawa.

McCarthy wouldn't bite when asked about the great Canadian pipeline debate, nor did she have much to say about the U.S. Congress lifting a four-decade-old ban on American crude oil exports. She said every country needs to take its own path forward.

"The goal for all of us is to continue to look at how you reduce carbon pollution, no matter what your energy system looks like," said McCarthy.

"It is not a goal of shutting anything down or keeping anything in the ground. It's all about whether you can reduce the carbon pollution that is fuelling climate change."


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