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Environment gets short shrift in Tory budget

OTTAWA - Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's latest federal budget dedicates all of five pages to "conserving Canada's natural heritage" — with measures such as resurfacing the Trans-Canada Highway through a national park and building more snowmobile trails.

Critics cite the absence of the words "climate change" in the 400-plus page document as evidence that the government has "just given up on the environment."

The Conservatives have certainly moved a long way from their 2007 federal budget, which dedicated 17 pages to various environmental initiatives after invoking a "global imperative to address climate change."

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq took to Twitter on budget day to promote the 2014-15 spending plan, although she never once mentioned the environment, let alone climate change.

"Our Gov continues to support the development of transportation infrastructure, which will help economic development in the North," was one typical tweet from the minister.

In an email Wednesday, Aglukkaq said the budget is "building on our record of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by expanding the eligibility of tax incentives for clean energy, which will support the economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

"Our government is committed to protecting both the environment and our economy," the email continued.

The Harper government's enthusiastic promotion of natural resource extraction, particularly oil and gas, is a point of pride for Conservatives.

But despite having spent about $25 million over the last two years advertising its "responsible resource development" slogan, there was no money in Tuesday's budget earmarked for enforcing environmental stewardship.

A three-member panel on tanker safety delivered a report in November to the government that made 45 recommendations, including increased resources for the coast guard, Environment Canada and Transport Canada to help improve Canada's preparedness for oil spills from tankers and barges.

The budget says only that the government is "carefully reviewing" the recommendations.

The spending document did commit $28 million over two years to help the National Energy Board review pipeline proposals, and it extends a $13-million per year tariff break to offshore oil and gas drilling units.

Jim Prentice, the former Conservative environment minister, was in Ottawa on Wednesday delivering a speech to the Economic Club of Canada.

In a round table with The Canadian Press before the speech, the CIBC senior vice-president said Canada needs to start preparing now for negotiations on energy and the environment with a new U.S. president in 2017.

"I think it's important that we be far-sighted and recognize we're in the energy business — and since we're in the energy business, we're in the environment business," said Prentice.

While careful not to criticize his former Conservative colleagues, Prentice said action must extend beyond building domestic pipelines and consulting with First Nations.

"If we do all that and have some well thought-out environment policies relating to carbon emissions, then we'll be taken seriously at the (negotiating) table," he said.

But carbon emissions are not an explicit part of the government's 2014-15 policy framework.

The budget, however, does include more than $400 million to "protect and preserve Canada's rich natural heritage."

Most of that money, $391 million, goes to Parks Canada over five years for infrastructure improvement and is heavily back-end loaded. Projects include cash for the Trent-Severn canal in eastern Ontario and money to pave the Trans-Canada Highway through B.C.'s Glacier National Park.

There's also money for a recreational fishery partnership and $10 million for snowmobile trails.

"You're scraping —scraping! — when you have to put snowmobile trails under the environment section to beef up your environmental credentials," said Megan Leslie, the NDP environmental critic.

"It's clear to me that the Conservatives have just given up on environment altogether."

Liberal environment critic John McKay said the Conservatives have made "a calculation that those who are concerned about the environment will never vote for us anyway, so who really cares?"

McKay said the Conservatives have been "magnificently successful" in playing down environment policy.

"The irony at this point is that they have so ignored and degraded the environmental file that they're actually putting business interests at risk, for instance the Keystone (XL) pipeline," he said.

The oil and gas industry can't get social licence for its projects because the public doesn't believe its government is minding the store, he added.

"When you have a cheerleader instead of a regulator it's actually contrary to your best interests."

Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada said the government obliquely recognizes the cost of climate change and unbridled development by providing hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief for floods and train crashes — but then fails to "connect the dots."

"I'm gobsmacked on how they can blow the entire 2013 reserve on cleaning up after the Alberta floods and Lac-Megantic, and then throw more money at speeding up pipeline approvals" in the 2014 budget, Stewart said.

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