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From ‘Green Jesus’ to ‘radical pragmatist’: Canada's climate minister evolves

The Climate 202

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From ‘Green Jesus’ to ‘radical pragmatist’: Inside the evolution of Canada's environment minister

When top environmental ministers from the Group of Seven industrial countries met in Berlin in May, Steven Guilbeault was among them.

But for the first time in his long career, he was meeting with the ministers inside the summit, rather than protesting in the streets outside.

“Someone asked me, ‘Is it your first G-7 meeting?’” Guilbeault recalled in an interview with The Climate 202. “I said: 'Well, it depends how you look at it. I've protested a number of them, but it's my first one inside. So it's an adjustment for sure.'”

Guilbeault, 52, has served as Canada's minister of environment and climate change since October. Before entering the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he spent more than two decades as an environmental activist with eyebrow-raising tactics.

In 2001, while working for Greenpeace, Guilbeault scaled Toronto's CN Tower and unfurled a banner that called Canada and President George W. Bush “climate killers.” The act of civil disobedience was meant to put pressure on Canada and America to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It earned him the nickname “Green Jesus” among both fans and critics in the country's oil-rich west.

In April, however, Guilbeault made a decision that might have horrified his younger self: He approved the controversial Bay du Nord offshore oil project, which involves drilling up to 1 billion barrels off Canada's east coast. The decision came two days after the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that warned the world must rapidly phase out fossil fuels to stave off a climate catastrophe.

“I obviously didn't come into politics to approve oil projects,” Guilbeault told The Climate 202. “If I was alone, making the decision for myself, it's not the decision I would have made. … But I'm now the environment and climate change minister for 38 million people.”

The Climate 202 sat down with Guilbeault on Monday at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, where he is meeting with U.S. officials including White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Here are highlights from the conversation:

The case for climate pragmatism

Guilbeault calls himself a “radical pragmatist.” To him, the phrase reflects his pursuit of “radical” policies to green Canada's economy — but also his recognition of harsh realities that complicate his lofty climate ambitions.

“The ideas I promote are fairly radical,” he said. “I am proposing that we overhaul our energy systems, the way we move around, the way we build things, and the way we operate our plants and industries. But there is a part of me that understands it can't happen overnight.”

When giving the green light to the Bay du Nord project, Guilbeault set forth 137 legally binding conditions that the energy giant Equinor must comply with for the lifetime of the project. For the first time, the conditions include a requirement to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“I never said that Bay du Nord was ‘green oil’ or ‘sustainable oil,'” Guilbeault said. “But factually speaking, to our knowledge, it will be the lowest-emitting project of its kind in the world.”

Guilbeault, who is an avid reader of scientific reports from the IPCC and the International Energy Agency, said both organizations recognize that continued oil production is consistent with the more ambitious goal of the Paris agreement: limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

“In a 1.5-scenario world in 2050, we're producing about 25 to 35 million barrels a day — down from 100 million, where we are now,” he said. “So it's a significant decrease in production. But there will still be oil consumed in 2050. And therefore it should be the lowest-emitting oil possible.”

The EV tax credit

Meanwhile, Guilbeault said he will probably press U.S. lawmakers this week on Democrats' plans to provide a $12,500 tax credit for people who buy electric vehicles made in America.

Ottawa has argued that the proposal, which was included in Democrats' stalled budget reconciliation bill, could force General Motors and Ford to relocate major manufacturing facilities from Canada to the United States. Guilbeault warned that it could also undermine cross-border collaboration on securing the critical minerals used in EV batteries, including nickel and cobalt. 

“U.S. decision-makers will have to decide,” he said, “whether they would rather have their nascent EV sector be dependent on critical minerals from Canada or from China.”

Guilbeault said the topic will probably come up when he meets with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) this week. However, he is not meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the most important player in the talks over the spending bill — and a man who might especially appreciate his “radical pragmatist” approach.

On the Hill

Manchin eyes Sept. 30 deadline for reconciliation

After a virtual meeting with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he views Sept. 30 — not the August recess — as the true deadline for reaching a deal on President Biden's long-stalled budget reconciliation package, Erik Wasson reports for Bloomberg News.

Schumer has been pushing to clinch a deal before senators leave for their August break. However, Sept. 30 is when the fiscal 2022 budget resolution underpinning the bill expires.

Manchin added that his top priorities are making sure the bill doesn't worsen inflation, closes certain tax loopholes and lowers energy costs. He also reiterated his support for increasing domestic fossil fuel production.

"From the energy thing, you can't do it unless you produce more. If there's people that don't want to produce more fossil, then you got a problem," Manchin said following the discussion, Manu Raju reports for CNN. 

International climate

Europe braces for gas ‘nightmare’ as pipeline from Russia shuts off

Nord Stream 1, the main natural gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, temporarily shut down Monday for scheduled maintenance, raising concerns over whether supplies will flow again as Moscow continues to use energy as leverage in the Ukraine war, The Washington Post's Loveday Morris, Reis Thebault and Amanda Coletta report.

The key pipeline provides about 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to countries across Europe, despite much of the European Union agreeing to wean itself off Russian gas as quickly as possible. But some members of the bloc, including Germany, are still heavily reliant on Moscow for energy — a growing concern for the country as it tries to build gas reserves before the winter, when demand is at its highest. 

Germany’s economy minister, Robert Habeck, said that if the Kremlin does not turn the taps back on after the 10 days of scheduled work, the country would face a “nightmare scenario” this winter. 

“Everything is possible, everything can happen,” Habeck told Deutschlandfunk radio Sunday. “We have to prepare for the worst.”

The power grid

Extreme heat poses test for Texas power grid

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) on Monday asked customers to conserve energy during the hottest times of the day amid a statewide heat wave, raising concern over whether Texas's beleaguered power grid could handle the record high demand, Matthew Cappucci reports for The Post. 

ERCOT projected that on Monday between 2 and 3 p.m., the statewide grid would be able to generate 80,168 megawatts. During the same window, demand was expected to reach 79,671 MW, leaving very little wiggle room. The Lone Star state avoided rolling blackouts due to voluntary cutbacks from residents, but the calls to conserve energy could become a common practice this summer if the ongoing heat wave continues.

When local demand exceeds capacity, most states and municipalities can borrow energy from a neighbor. But Texas has been energy-independent since the early 20th century, leaving the state reliant on its own grid even in high-demand scenarios. 

The threat of blackouts during severe weather is not new to Texas’s grid. In February 2021, 3.5 million residents were left without power when temperatures dipped to dangerously low levels.

Extreme events

Some of the world's oldest trees are at risk in Yosemite wildfire

A wildfire raging within Yosemite National Park is threatening Mariposa Grove, which is home to some of the biggest and oldest trees on Earth, The Post's Dino Grandoni reports.

The blaze, fueled in part by a climate-change-induced drought, covered roughly 2,720 acres late Monday after doubling in size over the weekend. It poses a risk to the more than 500 mature giant sequoia trees that have inspired generations of trekkers and have attracted tourists from across the globe. 

So far, none of the grove’s named trees — including the 209-foot Grizzly Giant, along with the Bachelor and Three Graces — have been damaged by the flames, according to Yosemite fire officials. The iconic trees can live for thousands of years and grow in only six dozen groves along the Sierra Nevada. 

Although they typically survive low-to-medium-intensity blazes, recent fire seasons have grown to be longer and more intense, testing the trees’ tenacity. Already, three fires over the past three years have killed up to 19 percent of the entire sequoia species. 

In the atmosphere

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