Canada’s pipeline plans run afoul of its climate goals

Environmentalists on both sides of the border are gauging Canada’s commitment to the Paris Agreement.


Last October, many environmentalists let out a sigh of relief at the news that Canadians had elected a new prime minister: Justin Trudeau, a dashing former teacher and snowboard instructor. For nearly a decade, they had watched in dismay as his predecessor, Stephen Harper, muzzled climate scientists and gutted environmental laws. With Trudeau in charge, the whole country looked greener. There were plans for a new nationwide carbon tax, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, and a goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Just this week, Trudeau announced a freeze of offshore leasing in Canada’s Arctic waters for at least five years. During last year’s Paris climate negotiations, the new prime minister boasted, “Canada is back, my friends.”

But a rash of approvals for new fossil fuel projects has left many of those hopes dashed—alongside doubts about Canada’s ability to meet its climate goals. In late November, the Canadian government announced long-awaited decisions on three major oil sands pipelines, approving two of them—Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3, while rejecting Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, citing its proximity to the fragile Great Bear Rainforest and the overwhelming opposition from local communities and First Nations groups.

The oil industry Alberta's tar sands emits roughly 70 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. Recent approvals for new pipelines will help expand production by allowing the landlocked oil to reach Canadian ports, but will not conflict with the country's efforts to combat climate change, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Shell/Flickr user

For Trudeau, the mixed pipeline decisions reflect an effort to find balance between environmental protection and economic growth. Alberta’s tar sands account for roughly three percent of Canada’s economy and a large chunk of its exports, helping fund programs such as government provided health care. Though the new pipelines will allow Canada’s carbon-intensive oil industry to expand, they will not, Trudeau insisted, compromise its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement.

“We believe they prove that responsible resource development can go hand in hand with strong environmental protection,” Trudeau said, announcing the decision. In support, he cited Canada’s plan to phase out coal-powered electricity by 2030 and Alberta’s pledge to cap tar sands emissions at 100 megatons per year.

The initiatives are part of Canada’s recently released “Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change,” the country’s implementation plan for meeting its pledge to lower greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.

In his statement announcing the pipeline approvals, Trudeau said it was “inconceivable that a country would find billions of barrels of oil and leave it in the ground while there is a market for it.” But allowing the oil and gas industry—the largest source of Canada’s emissions— to grow “puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the economy to pick up the slack,” says Dale Marshall, the national program manager for Environmental Defense, a Canadian nonprofit. With the new pipelines, he added, Canada will be hard-pressed to meet its emissions reduction target by relying on less certain carbon reduction strategies such as buying forestry credits and investing in cleaner public transport.

Even though Alberta has promised to limit tar sands emissions at 100 megatons per year, the potential addition of the blocked Keystone XL pipeline—which Trudeau supported and President-elect Donald Trump has promised to resurrect—means there may be financial pressure to use it to full capacity. Fully exploiting the new pipelines will “stress the credibility of the emissions limit,” says Ed Whittingham, executive director of climate and energy policies at the Pembina Institute, a Canadian think tank.

Meanwhile, the tar sand projects aren’t the only carbon-intensive industry primed for expansion. In September, the federal government gave conditional approval for a $27 billion new liquefied natural gas (LNG) project at the mouth of the Skeena River in northern British Columbia. According to climate change experts, it could become the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, based on an expected increase in fracking and other processes related to LNG processing.

The impacts of two new oil pipelines will extend south of the border, too. According to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the pipeline approvals will create carbon emissions equivalent to 105 coal-fired power plants. Transporting all that oil will mean 1,005 new tankers and barges traveling through North American waterways, putting coastal environments like Washington’s San Juan Islands and Puget Sound at increased risk of an oil spill.

For those concerned about the environment, the new initiatives under Canada’s climate change action plan are certainly an improvement from Harper’s unabashedly anti-environment stance. Still, according to Environmental Defense’s Dale Marshall, the new prime minister had the opportunity to depart from his predecessor on two fronts: fully committing to global climate change agreements and moving Canada away from its oil and gas affinity. “He’s only done one of those things,” he says. 

Sarah Tory is a Paonia-based correspondent for HCN. She tweets

High Country News Classifieds