While the provinces do well in managing the inherent conflict between the energy sector and the environment, Canada hasn’t done as well, a panel of former politicians and experts at the Canada 2020 conference agreed Friday.

Diana Carney, a member of the Canada 2020 advisory panel, asked why politicians can’t just tell voters about ‘unburnable carbon,’ a term to denote fossil fuels that cause climate change.

“The real damage is being done by governments who project the view that we can have our cake and eat it too,” said Carney, an author of a Canada 2020 report on a carbon tax.

The answer came swiftly from University of Waterloo sustainability adviser David McLaughlin: Alberta would never swallow it.

“If we didn’t produce any oil in Canada, you’d still see Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, other new oil shale, other locations, all of them are going to be making investments,” said Brenda Kenny, another panelist and president of Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

McLaughlin, a commentator on sustainability and a former head of the defunct National Roundtable on Energy and the Environment, which the Harper government shut down, said that in the global negotiation following the Kyoto Protocol, Canada repeatedly aligned its emission cut targets with its southern neighbour. But now, with the Environmental Protection Agency initiating new rules for coal plants this past June, the U.S. looks increasingly likely to meet its targets for the year 2020 while the federal environment department here sees Canada missing its 2020 goals by at least half.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, whose own province has had a bumpy relationship with the resource industry, emphasized social and cultural familiarity with different resources as something that defines the regional decision to support or not support development.

“Quebec has a hydroelectric culture, we’re the best in the world for hydroelectric,” said Charest. “On oil and gas, there is no intuitive knowledge.”

As the current Philippe Couillard government, and the Parti Quebecois and Charest governments before that, have struggled with opposition to shale gas, pipelines and oil tankers, the trick has been to point to a strategic interest, said Charest. In the case of pipelines, the idea was to play up the benefit for the province’s two under-served refineries, he said.

“If there’s a crisis and there’s no refinery on your territory and you don’t have the ability to refine, then it’s a different story,” said Charest.

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