Quebec Votes 2018

The oil lobby‘s pipeline to the CAQ, part 2

Science or the carbon industry—which does CAQ leader François Legault believe?
Photo: Mike Mozart

This is the second part of an investigative series on the oil lobby, climate change policy, and the Coalition Avenir Québec. This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet. The first part of the series can be found here.

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There is ample cause to look into the activities of the oil lobby. If nothing has been done in Quebec, in Canada, and in most other countries to make the changes needed to stop the warming of the climate, it is not because of the indolence and masochism of the population, but largely because of the influence of this lobby. It has convinced a large part of the population that the situation is neither serious nor urgent.

If the population of Quebec were convinced that children born this year would not make it to the end of century because the planet had become unlivable, they would mobilize. But the people do not believe it, despite warnings from scientists. They do not believe it because influential people and so-called independent researchers say to not exaggerate the dangers.

As director of research at the Montreal Economic Institute (MEI), Youri Chassin, now candidate with the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), could not ignore that the MEI is part of the nebula of think tanks supported by oil magnates such as the Koch brothers, known for pressuring governments to accommodate oil interests.

The real dreamers, however, are those economists who think that the economy can continue to run without radical change.

In fact, Chassin seems to have been inspired by the new climate-skeptic ideology of groups like the Cato Institute, which minimizes the dangers of global warming rather than foolishly denying them. There is no evidence in the current provincial election campaign that the CAQ and its leader, François Legault, are really concerned about climate change.

Measures to reduce the production and consumption of fossil fuels are presented by neo-climate-skeptics as harmful to the economy, costly for the population, and above all premature, since there is no urgency to move on from oil.

Global warming is presented as a very complicated phenomenon, which is a subtle way to get people not to worry too much about it, as they already have many other worries and should focus instead on increases in fuel taxes.

Rather than limiting our dependence on oil, governments should trust the market, which will eventually develop new technologies that can limit greenhouse gas emissions. This mantra is well summarized by the Cato Institute, one of the many U.S. think tanks supported by the Kochs:

Global warming is indeed real, and human activity has been a contributor since 1975. But global warming is also a very complicated and difficult issue that can provoke very unwise policy in response to political pressure. Although there are many different legislative proposals for substantial reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, there is no operational or tested suite of technologies that can accomplish the goals of such legislation. Fortunately, and contrary to much of the rhetoric surrounding climate change, there is ample time to develop such technologies, which will require substantial capital investment by individuals. ­

This is the line of thought that Youri Chassin invariably followed when he wrote about climate, energy, and the environment, his favourite themes. By publishing his columns in the Journal de Montréal, he had the benefit of a public forum. Here are some excerpts from his articles, all available on the MEI website.

Carbon exchange: what are we getting into? July 3, 2014

Like so many good ideas, unfortunately, it’s in the application that the carbon market is a problem. As of January, the price of a litre of gasoline will increase by about 3¢ because of this new tax.

We may think that Quebecers are willing to pay a little more to get around. But we must not forget that Quebec is already among the provinces with the highest taxes on gas. This increase of 3¢ per litre does not seem substantial in itself, but the total hurts when you consider that a family with two cars easily pays more than $1,200 a year in gas taxes.

A green elephant at the PQ, January 21, 2015

In this article, Chassin ridiculed two Parti Québécois leadership candidates, including Bernard Drainville, who proposed “that Quebec become the first economy without oil, the first truly green economy of the Americas.”

Talking about utopian projects with buzzwords was perhaps attractive at one time. But today, while information circulates extensively, these two candidates have not done their homework. Green elephants are pretty in theory, but do not survive in reality.

Surcharge of 3.57 cents at the pump ... for Quebecers only! April 7, 2015

Unfortunately, Quebec is already one of the most tax-heavy provinces in Canada. A family with two cars already pays over $1,200 a year in gas taxes!

As for our companies, they will have to buy emission permits instead of investing in their development. The impact of this additional cost can only lead to a loss of competitiveness for companies located here and a slowdown in the economy, since thus far only Quebec and California have decided to implement this agreement. Without the addition of other partners in this “market,” this initiative makes little sense.

The bananas of St-Jérôme in danger, July 20, 2015

In this article, Chassin ridiculed Montreal mayor, Denis Coderre, and other mayors for their opposition to the Energy East project.

Attempting to stop the trade that passes through Quebec is tantamount to a ransom demand: give us economic benefits, otherwise ... no projects! The problem is, who will pay the highway robbers at our expense in the future?

Will Anticosti become the Newfoundland of Quebec? October 29, 2015

However, there is a great opportunity to enrich the island, its inhabitants, and Quebec as a whole. And this opportunity comes through the exploitation of a bountiful resource on the island: its oil....

Québec has an abundance of energy resources, but efforts to develop the province’s oil reserves have been subject to delays and regulatory obstacles in recent years, in addition to the opposition of activist groups. If Quebec gave the long-awaited green light to the development of its resources, especially oil on Anticosti Island, the economy of Quebec as a whole would be better off.

“Climate” deaths and poverty, November 25, 2015

The Paris Climate Conference starts in 5 days and, inevitably, newspapers are filled with alarming news about climate change….

But do not fall into alarmism….

To think that we are all going to die in frightful storms is more like a bogeyman than scientific reality.

Anticosti, pipelines and oil: the silent majority is pragmatic, February 17, 2016

Even if we want to stop using oil tomorrow morning, it is not yet possible. In these conditions, we must not confuse magical thinking with a reasonable or conceivable option.

The cost of GHG reductions: $600 to $1,800 per Canadian, April 22, 2016

It (greenhouse gas reduction target) is really very unrealistic in the current state of things.

The three amigos promise a lot, June 29, 2016

In the past, many governments have promised more green energy without paying too much attention to the economic consequences for their citizens. In Spain, it was a disaster. Electricity prices skyrocketed, affecting consumers and public finances. German families pay more than $400 per year on average to subsidize green energy....

If the promise of increasing the share of renewable energy means the impoverishment of the citizens of North America, the least we can do is be transparent.

The foreseeable failure of the Green Fund, or how to choose the worst projects, August 8, 2016

Politicians and public servants are not the right people to choose which greenhouse gas reduction projects to fund.

“Not so black” gold boosts our economy, March 24, 2017

Sometimes we tend to forget that oil is not just a source of pollution. As a source of energy, oil allows our society to function. As a source of economic activity, oil allows Quebec’s economy to flourish. Everything is not black when it comes to black gold. There is the word “gold” too.

‘To live without oil is neither urgent nor easy’

A statement by Chassin and his colleague Germain Belzile that “to live without oil is neither urgent nor easy” is a perfect example of the new climate-skeptic ideology, which finds a way to adapt to the undeniable warming of the climate.

Do we believe in science or the oil lobby?

Of course, living without oil is not easy, but it is certainly urgent. It is urgent to take the difficult steps to transition from it. But by repeating that it is not easy, the neo-climate-skeptics unfortunately achieve the goal set by the fossil fuel lobby: discourage people from changing their habits and dissuade them from mobilizing to force governments to leave oil behind.

The sentence appears in a research paper that Chassin and Belzile published in December 2014 to denigrate the proposals of two environmental groups, Équiterre and Vivre en ville, to reduce oil consumption. It’s entitled, “Can we get rid of oil? The costs of an accelerated energy transition.”

Ecologists are presented as dreamers disconnected from economic reality, whose proposals, if adopted, would impoverish Quebecers:

Arguments of economic spin-offs, reduced imports and the creation of green jobs, often invoked to illustrate other advantages of the proposed plans, contradict the basic premise of economic analysis.

Subsidizing a job means forcibly taking taxes from elsewhere in the economy, destroying unsubsidized jobs. In Ontario, for example, every green energy job costs more than $179,000.

The real dreamers, however, are those economists who think that the economy can continue to run without radical change. Climate experts are clear: ongoing climate change is leading us to global catastrophe and an unprecedented economic collapse. Regardless of this reality, Chassin insists on the benefits of oil:

According to them (the environmentalists), the great place that oil occupies in our lives and our economy means that we are “dependent on oil”.

The concept of dependence is misleading though. While the use of oil as a source of energy produces discomfort and pollution, it also produces significant benefits, particularly for the transport of people and goods....

There is no point in demonizing a resource if there are no realistic alternatives, or building projects without considering the costs and the will of the people to take them on.

Chassin insists that the energy transition proposed by environmentalists would lead to a drastic drop in Quebecers’ standard of living.

Trying to speed up this process requires government programs that are always expensive and rarely effective....

Reaching the goal set by Équiterre and Vivre en ville, which is to reduce gasoline consumption by 60% for private transportation, must come by a 100% increase in the price of gasoline. New taxes on gas would have to be added to raise the price from $1.38 to $2.76….

To think that there are savings to be made from a product whose consumption increases well-being and productivity is tantamount to suggesting that we should all fast to save on groceries.

The solution to the problem of global warming — a problem that is not urgent, let us remember — is to let companies develop new technologies. In the meantime, governments should think twice about significantly increasing gas taxes and using these new revenues to subsidize green energy because the vast majority of Quebecers would not want to such a measure.

Technological progress will certainly enable us in the medium term to reduce oil consumption and move to cleaner energies. In the meantime, the costs of proposals by environmental groups to accelerate this transition to greener energy should be more fully taken into account in public debates.

All those who follow the news in Quebec took note of Chassin’s vision of the role of the state, which he posted on his blog three weeks before announcing his candidacy with the CAQ:

If I am so suspicious of state solutions, it is mainly because I do not believe in the myth of a state serving the common good. Already, the idea that there may be a “common good” sounds the alarm. The political game is based precisely on the lack of consensus as to the nature of the famous common good.

There is, however, a common good, the planet Earth, which does not belong to the oil magnates. Decisions must be taken away from their lobby. Two visions clash. Scientists (and the UN, FAO, IPCC, etc.) repeat day after day that it is urgent to break out of a fossil fuel–based economy. Youri Chassin, his colleagues at the MEI, and the whole nebula of think tanks supported by the carbon industry say instead that we can take our time. Does Legault believe scientists or does he believe his candidate Youri Chassin?

Do we believe in science or the oil lobby? This is probably the central question to ask at the end of the election campaign. Other issues, such as immigration, have been the subject of numerous exchanges between the parties; it may be time to move on to another debate, a debate on a real and urgent crisis, the climate, which requires concrete and immediate measures.

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