First published in the Toronto Star Feb 7 2016
By Jason MacLean
Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr recently announced new interim regulations for oil pipeline projects currently under review by the National Energy Board, including Trans Mountain and Energy East.
The new regulations stipulate that oil pipeline decisions will be based on science and traditional Indigenous knowledge; the views of the public, including affected communities and Indigenous peoples; and the direct and upstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that can be linked to pipelines.
During their press conference announcing the new regulations, Ministers McKenna and Carr repeatedly intoned that “Canada needs to get its natural resources to market in a sustainable way.”
According to the ministers, this depends on restoring Canadians’ trust in the government’s regulatory processes. “We believe it is important and, in fact, essential to rebuild Canadians’ trust in our environmental assessment processes,” Minister McKenna said.
But therein lies the problem.
Subjecting Energy East to an environmental assessment – a “climate test” – that is rigged from the outset in favour of the project’s approval will do little to rebuild most Canadians’ trust. Just the opposite, actually.
This tension was palpable during the media Q&A following Ministers’ press conference. A reporter asked Minister McKenna how her ministry’s assessment of a pipeline’s GHG emissions could be complete if it ignores a pipeline’s downstream emissions, the emissions arising from the combustion of the foreign-exported oil.
The seemingly unflappable Minister of the Environment and Climate Change momentarily stumbled, answering – incorrectly – that the government’s assessment will consider all of the emissions arising from a pipeline. Catching (if not quite correcting) herself, she immediately reiterated that the government’s review will consider the direct and upstream emissions of pipelines.
While this is a notable improvement on the NEB’s steadfast refusal to consider either the upstream or downstream emissions of oil pipelines, the problem remains that most of the GHG emissions arising from a pipeline are downstream emissions. An environmental assessment that arbitrarily excludes downstream emissions effectively exports, not only Alberta’s bitumen crude oil, but also its ultimate emissions.
That is both bad science and bad foreign policy.
In terms of science, peer-reviewed analyses demonstrate that in order to have a better-than-even chance of keeping global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, at least 85% of Alberta’s remaining ultimately recoverable bitumen must remain in the ground. In one model, the percentage rises to 99%.
No oil pipeline that will expand the extraction of Alberta’s unconventional oil sands can pass a scientifically valid climate test because any increase in unconventional oil production is incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This is the scientific standard that must be applied to the Energy East project proposal if the government’s assessment is to be trusted by Canadians.
Arbitrarily excluding an oil pipeline’s downstream emissions is likewise bad foreign policy. Canada was an outspoken member of the “ambition coalition” at the recent Paris climate change negotiations. Thanks in no small part to Canada’s leadership, article 2(1)(a) of the final agreement encourages parties to “pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”
Article 4.4 of the Paris climate change agreement further stipulates that developed countries like Canada should “continue taking the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets.” Approving a pipeline because the bulk of its emissions will arise downstream, beyond Canada’s borders, would violate both the letter and the spirit of this historic agreement.
Sustainability is not a magic word, and process is no panacea. No amount of talking to Canadians while ritually incanting the term sustainability can make up for the inconvenient but nonetheless scientific evidence that what remains of Alberta’s sweet crude must remain in the ground. If Canada is to become known, not for its resources, but for its resourcefulness, it must embrace this fact and imagine a future beyond oil.
Jason Maclean teaches Environmental Law at Lakehead University