In an effort to build public trust, the Canadian government announced last week that is going to change the way it reviews natural resource projects, thus delaying final decisions on two major oil pipeline projects.
Photo by Mark Klotz
Leading up to his election last October, and again at the Paris climate summit in December, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked big about tackling climate change and had environmentalists ready to sing his praises. But just a few months after his election there was already trouble brewing.
The trouble, as has been the case in Canada for years, begins and ends with the Alberta tar sands. Or, specifically, the oil industry’s desire to get approval for some pipeline, any pipeline, that would move tar sands crude to the seaside and on to foreign markets, thus allowing the tar sands mines to expand exponentially.
The question that continues to dog Trudeau is a simple one: How can Canada be a climate leader while continuing to push for the expansion of what is considered the most destructive environmental project on the planet.
Right now there are two tests looming for Trudeau.
The first, American company Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project that would allow for the transportation of 900,000 barrels of crude per day by twinning its existing pipeline from Alberta to the Westridge marine terminal in Burnaby, British Columbia. Final hearings for the project are underway in Burnaby, as are protests.
The second, Enbridge’s Energy East project, which involves repurposing an old gas pipeline and building a new one to carry 1.1 million barrels per day of tar sands crude 4,600 kilometrs from Alberta to Eastern Canada.
Both projects are designed to feed markets hungry for oil outside Canada.
Trudeau’s continued support for pipeline projects has been making environmental groups nervous. On Wednesday, January 27, in an open letter to the Canadian parliament, 75 environmental groups from Canada and the United States expressed their opposition to “new fossil fuel energy infrastructure such as pipelines and tar sands projects” and urged Trudeau to stick to the commitments made at the Paris climate summit to limit global warming to 1.5 C.
“Canadian decision makers have the opportunity to be real climate leaders in the clean energy era — but they must accept the science to do it: there is simply no room for major new pipelines in a safe climate future,” says Steven Guilbeault of the Montreal-based environmental group, Équiterre. “The science is demanding we keep the carbon in the ground and start the [green energy] transition. That is a reality that our premiers and the prime minister need to embrace.”
Looks like the government is getting the hint.
The same day the open letter was sent, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna announced that the federal government was introducing new rules for environmental reviews that would put all major resource projects through a “climate test” to take greater account of environmental impacts as well as of the views of First Nations.
They said that no current projects would get a free pass.
“Simply put, if we’re going to attract the investments we need to sustainably develop our energy resources, then we have to better engage Canadians, conduct deeper consultations with Indigenous peoples and base decisions on science, facts and evidence,” Carr said in a speech announcing the new measures. “Without the confidence of Canadians, none of these projects will move forward.”
The new measures will also require an assessment of each project’s downstream greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to helping inform the federal government’s final decision on resource projects, this would “help inform our national climate change plan with provinces and territories,” Carr said.
As a result of the announcement, the federal government’s final word on Trans Mountain will be delayed to the tune of four months. Energy East will also be assessed based on the new measures, which means the project will be delayed an additional six months.
“With these measures, I’m optimistic that we can begin to rebuild the public’s trust while maintaining certainty for industry and ensuring a thorough process that is fair, transparent and responsible,” Carr said.
Environmental groups said they would continue to hold Trudeau to his Paris pledge, which would make it very difficult for him to approve any pipeline projects that would result in an expansion of the tar sands.
“A climate test on pipelines is only meaningful if it respects the commitment to 1.5ºC that Prime Minister Trudeau made in Paris, and that would mean taking pipelines and tar sands expansion off the table. There’s no such thing as a climate friendly pipeline,” said Cameron Fenton, 350,org’s Canadian tar sands organizer. “The science is crystal clear: In order to prevent catastrophic climate change, fossil fuels, and especially tar sands, need to stay in the ground. Any ‘review’ that concludes you can build more tar sands infrastructure is nothing more than a greenwashing exercise.”