As It Happens

Elizabeth May wants to only use Canadian oil — a plan Quebec's Green Party leader can't support

Quebec Green Party Leader Alex Tyrrell says he "could not, in good conscience" support federal leader Elizabeth May's proposal to ban the import of foreign oils.

Alex Tyrrell says oil from the Alberta oilsands 'needs to stay in the ground'

Quebec Green Party Leader Alex Tyrrell, right, takes issue with a proposal by federal Green Leader Elizabeth May, left, to wean Canada off foreign oil. (Chris Wattie/Reuters, CBC)

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Quebec Green Party Leader Alex Tyrrell says he "could not in good conscience" support federal leader Elizabeth May's proposal to ban the import of foreign oil.

May touted her plan earlier this week to "turn off the taps to oil imports" and instead rely on Canadian crude until Canada can wean itself off fossil fuels entirely by 2050.

Tyrrell wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday that Quebec Greens were "not consulted on this controversial position," which he says would "ensure the continuity of tarsands operations for decades to come."

In response, May issued a statement calling Tyrrell's post "factually wrong on several points."

"We do not call for building new refineries. We do not suggest oilsands oil be used in Quebec. We do call for Canadian oil to be used in Canada. We call for an end to foreign imports from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Nigeria and a handful of other sources," she said.

She said that under her plan, Quebec would halt the import of North Dakotan Bakken shale, which she says is dangerous to move by rail and environmentally unsound, in favour of offshore oil from Newfoundland. 

Here is part of Tyrrell's conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off about the party's divisive "Mission: Possible" proposal.

Elizabeth May says there's nothing new about her proposal to ban foreign oil imports and support Canadian fossil fuels instead. So what's pushed you to speak out about this now?

I think it's very important for Greens all across Canada to take a clear position against the Alberta tarsands. It's an oil that comes out of there that is much more greenhouse gas emission intensive than conventional oil.

Why do you think Elizabeth May is not, then?

I think that she's got some considerations about Alberta and that she's taking a somewhat moderate approach — an approach that is far too moderate for a lot of the people within her party.

A processing unit at Suncor Fort Hills facility in Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

We spoke with her, as you know, and what she explains is that ... absolutely her idea is that Canada has to go to zero CO2 emissions by 2050. That's an absolute line she's putting in the sand. But she says, in the meantime, if we have to use fossil fuels as we wean ourselves off of them, then Canada should use its own fossil fuels until that time. So isn't that a proposal that makes some sense given where the other oil would come from?

I think that Canada should really be looking to use the oil with the lowest possible greenhouse gas emissions. And to use the tarsands, since it's a more polluting source of oil, really runs counter to the idea that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible.

It's a somewhat nationalist argument. It's trying to talk about having jobs in the tarsands, when really we should be talking about how to shut down the tarsands as quickly as possible. That oil needs to stay in the ground. It's a scientific consensus.

And especially here in Quebec, there's no social acceptability for new pipeline projects or for even consuming the tarsands oil here in Quebec.

So you would rather take oil from Saudi Arabia than from Alberta?

I think that it's really important to look at the emissions associated with the oil, and conventional oil pollutes less than tarsands oil, and so I think that we should use the less polluting oil.

[May] argues that there is another source of oil in this country and that comes from the east. And so she said in our interview that she is not proposing there be any new fossil fuel infrastructure to bring [Alberta oil] to places like Quebec and Ontario — that the oil from the east, from Hibernia, that product is what she anticipates will be brought into eastern Canada. Do you have a problem with that?

I think that it's really great to see that Elizabeth is sensitive to these criticisms, that she has slightly modified her position. Because just last week when she announced her environmental platform, she was saying that, you know, we will subsidize bitumen upgraders in New Brunswick so that they can use the tarsands oil.

And now this week she's saying that it won't be the tarsands oil that we'll be using Quebec and New Brunswick, that it will be from Newfoundland.

The Hibernia offshore oil platform off the coast of Newfoundland. (HMDC)

Why you think she has modified the position? Do you think it was because of pressure from people like yourself?

I think so, yeah. Because, I mean, of course I'm speaking for myself in the Green Party of Quebec, but also for a huge section of the environmental movement. And over the last few days, we've seen many ... different groups really criticizing very heavily this position that she's taken. 

So that's why people such as myself and other progressive members of the Green Party from across the country are going to be looking to have this policy changed at the next policy convention in 2020.

But the broad headline in Mission: Possible, in this statement, is that she describes how she thinks Canada should be on a "war footing" in order to fight climate change. ... I mean, she has gone to quite a length to support the idea of what you're saying. So doesn't that send the message that she shares the same values as you do?

I share a lot of values with Elizabeth May and I'm definitely in agreement with 90 per cent of the environmental program that she's published. 

But really what I was trying to do by writing on Facebook that I can't in good conscience defend this policy that supports the continued extraction of the tarsands oil up until the year 2050, in which I'll be 62 years old, you know, I really am trying to criticize this specific policy and not the entire Green Party platform.

Have you spoken to Elizabeth May about your concerns?

It's an issue that I've raised in the past. It's not something new. I've raised this going back even a couple of years. But, really, I was not able to achieve anything internally.

And then now with this position becoming more well-known, and with the criticism coming from the environmental groups, I was in a position where I either had to distance myself from the policy or had to defend it — and I chose to distance myself.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited and condenced for clarity.