Canadian federal budget misses mark — by a mile

I want to bang my head against my computer monitor, I really do, but it would be difficult to write this post with blood splatters on my screen.

Canadians got the details of their 2008 federal budget today and, well, let me just say that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is consistent. New subsidies for the coal, oil and nuclear industries and new handouts to major automakers. No mention of climate change. No extension of incentives for renewables. The cancelling of incentives for buying energy efficient vehicles. Dismissal, once again, of a carbon tax.

I think I’m going to throw up. We’re screwed.

Now, you could say that the promise of $300 million to help Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. finish its latest Candu reactor design, or the promise of $250 million to the oil and coal guys to help with carbon capture and sequestration research, is a decent chunk of change aimed at carbon mitigation. You could also argue that $250 million going to the auto industry for research into more fuel-efficient cars is also “green.”

But let’s start with the nukes. Atomic Energy of Canada, according to most optimistic estimates, could be fully privatizated for $600 million if the government decides this year to go through with it. So what we have now is $300 million of taxpayer’s dollars — half of AECL’s total commercial value, if you’re generous — going towards completion of a nuclear reactor that might not get sold anywhere unless Ontario can be coaxed into buying one. This, you could argue, is money thrown into the reactor core. Poof! Gone. And even if AECL does make a sale and is itself sold, the buyer walks away with a $300 million injection. Name one venture capitalist willing to invest that much — or anything — in nuclear?

Oh, wait a second. Some of that money is going into improving safety at Chalk River. Hmmm… I thought that was already done. In fact, a recent Toronto Star story — citing experts — say there’s not much more you can do to improve safety of the NRU medical isotope reactor. So claiming this money will improve safety is simply theatre aimed at winning political points after the government mishandled the isotope crisis.

Now let’s move to $250 million for CCS, in this case a clean-coal project in Saskatchewan. I fail to understand why government must pay to clean up the mess of industry. Couldn’t a carbon tax effectively deal with this problem? What CCS investment does is two things: encourages the use of coal for electricity generation and the exploration of oil through enhanced oil recovery. In isolation, this investment delays real action because the CCS stuff being funded today won’t have any impact for a decade, likely two. In the meantime, we’ll continue to burn coal and extract oil from the ground at record rates because, hey, CCS is coming so we’ll all be okay. Comforting.

And the automakers? Seems every month I hear about new funding being thrown their way aimed at green, energy-efficient vehicle manufacturing. But there doesn’t appear to be any conditions, and targets, as part of this funding. Also, it ignores the fact that the technology is already here. Research is nice, but what we need is deployment. Meanwhile, the federal government refuses to validate the safety of low-speed electric vehicles on low-speed public roads, despite the fact that 40 U.S. states allow them. Oh, and the incentive for buying these fuel-efficient vehicles is gone. Now that makes sense.

What’s common to all three? Money being thrown at existing industries to help them cope with a changing world they’re not willing to adapt to at their own expense and without a bit of kicking and screaming. Fair enough. Perhaps there is justification to toss them a bone. But what about the emerging opportunities? The next GMs and Fords? We’re so focused on keeping dinosaurs alive that we’re ignoring the potential of those Neanderthals swinging clubs, making wheels and using tools. We’re also ignoring the technologies that exist today, are affordable, are relatively easy to implement, and could easily be promoted through creative revenue-neutral tax policies.

This is where the Harper government is most hypocritical. It doesn’t want to provide too much help to new, emerging clean-energy technologies and companies because it believes these technologies and companies should be able to compete on their own in the marketplace. At the same time, it gives hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the same old group of energy guys who, in most cases, aren’t the ones that truly need the helping hand.

Leadership. Vision. A sense of urgency. Not here. Not from the Canadian government.