It’s too easy being Green

April 29th, 2006
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Mr. K. has written extensively below about the possibility of Preston Manning seeking the premiership of Alberta. There are certainly ideological reasons that would make a Manning candidacy attractive to us. Both of us have had our lives directly affected by Manning’s political career and we should be clear that we were willing past participants in Manning’s enterprise, largely for ideological reasons.

This history is what causes us significant concern about Manning’s current policy statements, which envision some form of “green” conservatism. The concept is similar to the merger of the Social Credit and Progressive Conservative streams of conservatism proposed by Ernest Manning (with ghost co-author Preston) in the slim volume, Political Realignment (1967). It also reinforces inclination to Manning’s “Big Thinking”, his vaunted penchant for visionary proposals.

But in a recent interview with Ken Whyte in MacLean’s, Manning revealed some rather unsettling opinions about the nature of conservatism and the free market, reinforcing doubts we’ve long had about his true ideological convictions.

First, he referred to certain landowners in southwestern Alberta as rock-solid conservatives who “love the land”. In reality, it’s quite a stretch to call groups like the Pekisko Landowners conservatives, as they seem only supportive of economic activity if it’s outside their back yard. As we have written in the National Post, they have increasingly opposed oil and natural gas activity, which has created jobs in the region for almost 100 years. They also ignore the negative environmental impact of ranching and see the grazing lands they lease from the province as their birthright. If their demands were indulged, the province would lose hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in economic activity, including royalties that fund the schools, roads and hospitals that those same anti-oil landowners routinely rely upon.

Similarly, Manning asserts that we “cannot continue using a (valuable) fuel like natural gas” to extract bitumen from the tar sands. Well, in fact natural gas will be used if it is economically advantageous to do so. And it will no longer be used when it costs too much to do so. We don’t need a political sage determining the moment when the valves should be shut off.

Manning’s concern, disturbingly, echoes the opposition of some environmentalists to the MacKenzie Valley pipeline because its natural gas throughput will allegedly be used to extract “dirty” bitumen. Manning betrayed an at-best technocratic, at worst sinister view of government’s rightful role in determining what business should and should not be doing with a freely traded commodity. It’s fully in keeping with his longstanding fondness for demanding sweeping overhauls of entire sectors – the reforms to be designed by himself, of course.

Worse, Manning’s statements were a classic example of an idea becoming passé pretty much the instant it enters the conventional wisdom. In fact, the oil sands industry has been working on alternatives to natural gas as a source of heat, steam and electricity for at least five years – when natural gas was still $3 per thousand cubic feet.

Several major such oil sands projects are in the works. One will draw hydrogen out of portions of the extracted oil sands barrel. Another will sidestep natural gas by partially burning the oil sands themselves underground. Others will lever the natural gas use by cogenerating electricity for sale in southern hungry markets. And then there’s the nuclear idea – flawed, perhaps, but definitely something other than natural gas. In short, the industry is already using and developing alternative extraction methods simply to hedge against future high gas prices.

What was Manning doing, then, other than striking a fashionable pose? Beats us. Sounding green is easy. Some of the decisions Manning would face as premier would pit some hard facts and urgen priorities against the easy assumptions his recent statements reveal.

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