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John Robson: Canada’s stark new reality barges in after Warren Buffett pulls out

For years we’ve cheerfully accepted cheerful assurances that 'the environment and the economy go hand in hand' unless you ask awkward process questions.

Oh look. It’s reality. Warren Buffett just pulled Berkshire Hathaway’s $4 billion stake from a $9 billion Quebec LNG project because of “political uncertainty” in Canada, a.k.a. lawless blockades and a regulatory process that’s all maze and no cheese. Suddenly our larky mishandling of public policy has real consequences. We lose money, energy, jobs and hope.
For years we’ve cheerfully accepted cheerful assurances that “the environment and the economy go hand in hand” unless you ask awkward process questions. And cheerful platitudes about Aboriginal reconciliation again wilfully light on details. Or reality.

In 2015 the Liberals promised to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It immediately upset some chumps who feared that UNDRIP would destroy Canada’s identity as a sovereign nation. More gradually it upset a very different group of chumps who hoped it would and were shocked to realize Trudeau and his colleagues never even troubled to understand it because they never really meant to do it.

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Ditto this whole idea of slashing GHG emissions by 30%, 50% or 100%. Yes, 100%. Going to “net zero” by 2050 means cutting them out entirely. Unless the idea is to invent a bunch of carbon-offset jiggery-pokery and pretend. Which it probably was.

Just as the hated carbon tax was also fake. Opponents expended a lot of ammunition on its devastating economic impact and hit nothing, because it was too small to have one. Gas was selling for around a dollar a litre this week in the nation’s capital, where surely politicians occasionally glance out the limousine window and think “Gosh, that price won’t discourage people from using the stuff, will it?” But then it was never really meant to.

As with UNDRIP, some feared the policy of killing fossil fuels, others hoped for it. But most who advocated it, in politics or the press, never took its implications seriously enough even to think them through because it was all make-believe. In our public life very little is now real.

At least, not on purpose. When Teck suddenly threw in the towel on its $20 billion Frontier oilsands mine right before a cabinet decision was due, writing off a billion dollars and a decade navigating the maze, it felt like a reality moment. Until the ministers of Natural Resources and of Environment and Climate Change wrote a surreal letter congratulating Teck, as if not only the consequences of ditching the project weren’t real, the ditching wasn’t either.

 Police serve an injunction to protesters at a rail blockade in St-Lambert, south of Montreal on Feb. 20, 2020.

Of course it was out west, in the hated “tar sands” of Alberta, home of loud vulgar persons. But Buffett just bailed on Énergie Saguenay in Quebec, home of Bombardier and SNC Lavalin, whose possible 9,000-job loss inspired panic in Ottawa that the real loss of 100,000 in Alberta could not. Even though SNC’s threat to move its HQ out of Canada was, once again, not real.

We encounter layer upon layer of unreality here, including denial of the impact on tax revenue of a collapse in Canada’s leading export industry. Last year the finance minister had already turned into Alfred E. Neuman, laughing off the collapse of his budget projections with “Nobody said it was going to be easy” when his boss had infamously said precisely that. But past statements aren’t real any more either.

As for Quebecers, they did not object when their premier said there was no social licence in the province for Alberta’s “dirty” oil even though Quebec has some 12,000 km of pipelines bringing petroleum products to its inhabitants’ cherished pickups and SUVs. They cheered when he squawked about a rail strike causing a propane shortage in a province that haughtily rejected fracking on the theory that fuel appears magically at depots. And that the billions would keep flowing through the equalization pipeline no matter what happened to the industry that generated them.

Finally, remember Yvon Deschamps’ jibe about wanting an independent Quebec in a strong united Canada. Independence, with or without quotation marks, requires a reliable source of energy. And suddenly your big LNG plant, intended to export Western natural gas, is kaput because pop goes the weasel. (As it did on B.C. Premier John Horgan, who supported carbon taxes and fought pipelines, then stood slack-jawed and bitter because gas in his province was expensive.)

There’s even a slice of reality left over for Buffett, whose 2016 letter to investors flirting with alarmism disappointed climate true believers despite calling climate inaction “foolhardy” and saying “It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet.” Boo. Far too tepid. Now he too is discovering Philip K. Dick’s maxim that I’ve often quoted: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, it doesn’t go away.”
Oh no. No indeed. It barges in instead. And here it is.

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