Harper’s environmental deficit is out of sight

by Barry Weisleder

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he had to prorogue (suspend) Parliament for three months in order to “re-calibrate” his minority Conservative government. What he meant by that became depressingly clear in the 2010 federal budget presented on March 4.

In it the Conservatives vow to freeze or scale back operating budgets, which entails cutting federal services and jobs, and possibly cancelling negotiated wage hikes. The only federal department that will see an increase is the military, which in 2008 was promised an annual 2 per cent boost. While there’s no new money for job creation, workers will pay higher employment insurance premiums. Absent is any aid for seniors living in poverty, any national child care programme, or any boost for social housing construction – indeed, the latter will be cut. Air travellers will shell out more in security charges on round-trip flights.

In sharp contrast is a $47 billion tax break for business. Tory Finance Minister Jim Flaherty bragged to MP s that Canada will have “the lowest corporate income tax rate in the G7 by 2012.” No wonder Ottawa has record-high deficits and debt. In the play book of capitalist governments, red ink is just a convenient excuse to cut public services, de-regulate business and make working people pay for the global crisis we did not create.

But the worst news was in the fine print. Budget 2010 is overwhelmingly negative on the environmental front. It contains no action to fight climate change and no efforts to create green jobs. Instead, its primary focus is on facilitating and accelerating the operations of the oil and gas industry.

In a dramatic move, the Budget takes environmental assessments for energy projects away from the Environmental Assessment Agency and turns responsibility over to the industry-friendly National Energy Board (NEB) or the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). The close relationship between the NEB and the oil and gas industries, combined with the ability of the Minister of Natural Resources to appoint up to six temporary members, would seriously diminish Canada’s environmental protections. The CNSC has also been criticized for a lack of independence following the politically-motivated firing of former Chair Linda Keen over the medical isotope crisis.

It also fails to renew the ecoENERGY for Renewable Power program which provided a production incentive for renewable electricity of one cent per kilowatt, despite the fact that 90% of wind power development in Canada has occurred since its inception.

The budget confirms that the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science will not receive additional funding to continue its vital research, thus wasting expertise and resources that took years to develop. The Foundation’s numerous projects at universities across the country, which are seen as key to understanding the dynamics and implications of climate change, are already being dismantled. Young scientists, trained at substantial taxpayers’ expense, have begun leaving the country in search of work.

After a one-year increase of $105 million, Environment Canada will have $53 million cut from its budget over three years in a strategic review that includes a proposal to end all Environment Canada reporting that is not required by law.

While it offers no systematic plan to reduce greenhouse gases and effectively ends major federal investment in renewable energy, the Budget does contain a few eco-tokens. It sets aside $100 million over four years for a Next Generation Renewable Power Initiative to advance clean energy technologies in the forestry sector – less than 1/7th of the $750 million that the industry asked for, and too small to make a significant impact. The Budget also contains an additional top up of $80 million for the popular ecoENERGY Retrofit – Homes program, which provides home and property owners with grants up to $5,000 per unit to offset the cost of making energy efficiency improvements.

On the conservation front, the Budget provides $8 million per year to protect the Great Lakes and cover administrative costs pertaining to international waters agreements, but offers no long term action plan to safeguard Canada’s waters and watersheds. It contains no funding to extend the Federal Response to the Mountain Pine Beetle Infestation in British Columbia.

Natural Resources Canada will suffer a $100 million cut over the next three years, making it one of the hardest-hit departments. The Budget also sets aside $11 million to accelerate the Northern regulatory review process for resource projects, in keeping with the Speech from the Throne’s theme of dismantling the “daunting maze” of regulations faced by industry. In addition, a 15% tax credit for mineral exploration was extended for one year.

In terms of the nuclear industry, the budget reconfirms that CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium reactor), the commercial side of Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, will be sold in the course of restructuring and it provides $300 million for operations in 2010-2011, much of which is to cover losses incurred during botched retrofits and repairs to the Chalk River, Ontario facility. Last year’s spending on AECL ended up being more than double what was budgeted, raising questions about what the final figure will be this year.

Finally, the cap on foreign aid spending at 2010-2011 levels will likely impact Ottawa’s willingness to pay its share of the $10-billion-a-year international fund agreed upon at Copenhagen to assist poorer countries in reducing emissions and adapting to the impacts of climate change. Harper’s deadly environmental deficit is soaring out of sight.