Canada’s climate commitments in jeopardy as Trudeau approves two major pipeline projects

Environmentalists are not happy about the decision.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
CREDIT: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

On Tuesday, Canada’s Liberal government approved two major oil pipelines that, if constructed, would send one million more barrels of oil a day from Alberta’s tar sands — known in Canada as oil sands — to markets overseas. The move brought a chorus of criticism from environmentalists and indigenous communities, which have fought hard against the pipeline projects.

The move could be a major setback for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who came into power on a progressive platform that included strong climate action. He has spoken out in favor of the Paris climate agreement, and, under his leadership, Canada has announced plans to enact a nationwide carbon tax. But approving two pipeline projects — even while rejecting the Northern Gateway pipeline — will certainly damage his credibility with environmentalists who had hoped Trudeau’s leadership would signal a clean break from the policies of his predecessor, climate-denier Stephen Harper.

During the announcement, Trudeau acknowledged that the decision was bound to upset many across Canada, but argued that the projects were in the best interest of the country and the economy.

“It is a major win for Canadian workers, for Canadian families and the Canadian economy, now and into the future,” Trudeau said.

But environmental leaders across Canada and the United States simply aren’t buying it.

“You cannot keep building pipelines while also saying you are a climate leader,” Jane Kleeb, president of Bold Alliance, said in a statement. “Landowners are tired of being run over by Big Oil and the politicians in their pocket all to get oil to Asia and other export markets. Trudeau should be ashamed today using middle class workers as cover to wreak havoc on our water, climate and property rights.”

Despite the ascension of progressive Trudeau, Canada had already been lagging behind on its emissions reduction targets — set by the environmentally-unfriendly Harper administration — before the approval of these two pipelines. Official figures showed that without “radical measures,” Canada would likely miss those targets. Now, environmentalists fear it is certain that they will.

“Today’s announcement may as well have said that Canada is pulling out of the Paris climate agreement,” Aurore Fauret, Tar Sands Campaign Coordinator with 350.org, said in a statement. “By approving the Kinder Morgan and Line 3 pipelines, there is no way Canada can meet those commitments. Justin Trudeau has broken his promises for real climate leadership, and broken his promise to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The geography of approval — and resistance

One approved project is the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion, which will raise the 53-year-old pipelines carrying capacity by 590,000 barrels a day. The expansion is set to carry the increased oil from Alberta’s tar sands to ports in Vancouver, where it would be exported overseas.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Andrew Breiner
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Andrew Breiner

Gregor Robertson, Mayor of Vancouver, balked at the expansion’s approval, vowing that Vancouver residents would continue to fight the project. Robertson has traditionally been an ally of Trudeau’s, but the approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion looks to pit the two politicians against one another.

“Vancouver will continue to raise concerns about Kinder Morgan’s massive expansion that could bring seven times the number of oil tankers to our waters,” Roberston said in a statement. “I — along with the tens of thousands of residents, local First Nations, and other Metro Vancouver cities who told the federal government a resounding ‘no’ to this project — will keep speaking out against this pipeline expansion that doesn’t make sense for our economic or environmental future.”

Vancouver residents — as well as residents of Washington state, which shares waters with the Port of Vancouver — worry that increased oil traffic will raise the risk of a major spill off the Vancouver coast. The product from Alberta’s tar sands is a particularly heavy type of oil known as bitumen, which sinks when released in water, instead of rising to the surface like other oils. That makes cleaning up bitumen spills incredibly difficult and costly — instead of skimming oil off the top of the water, cleaning up bitumen usually requires dredging, which can have serious detrimental effects on ecosystems. Indigenous communities along the Vancouver coast are worried that such a spill could devastate important species like salmon and orcas.

“They are making a big mistake, we will not allow this pipeline to be built.”

“This issue is as black and white as the killer whales they endanger,” Charlene Aleck, a spokeswoman for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, said in a statement. “This is about our survival and the protection of our home, this inlet and the planet. They are making a big mistake, we will not allow this pipeline to be built.”

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency estimates that the increased pipeline capacity could add as much as 17 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions each year — roughly 2 percent of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

The second approved project is the expansion of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, which runs from the tar sands of Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. The expansion would make the line the largest project in Enbridge’s history.

Enbridge, a Canadian oil company, has history of high-profile pipeline spills. The most famous is the Kalamazoo River oil spill, which became the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It occurred in 2010, when an Enbridge pipeline carrying tar sands crude oil ruptured below the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It took Enbridge more than 17 hours to cut off the pipeline’s flow — by the time the flow had been stopped, more than 1 million gallons of bitumen had spilled into the river. Five years later, much of the river remains contaminated.

Enbridge has argued that the expansion of Line 3 will help prevent problems like spills, by modernizing the line’s aging infrastructure. The line was completed in the 1960s, and the company has lowered the volume of shipments through the line while waiting for news of the expansion.

“We’re pleased by the federal government’s decision to approve the Line 3 replacement program, an essential maintenance project that will ensure the safe and reliable delivery of Canada’s energy resources to market,” Enbridge said in a statement. “We have strong support for the project from our communities along the route, including Indigenous communities.”

Local environmental activist groups, however, voiced their disapproval of Trudeau’s decision.

“As thousands of water protectors continue to make camp in winter conditions at Standing Rock, more crude oil pipelines are the last thing the Midwest needs,” Andy Pearson, Midwest tar sands coordinator with MN350, said in a statement. “The Canadian approval of Line 3 is a slap in the face to the landowners and indigenous community members of North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, who will work harder than ever to make sure this dirty tar sands pipeline does not cross into the United States.”

New life for tar sands

The approval of the two projects also helps boost the Canadian tar sands industry, which had been on the decline after the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline by the Obama administration in 2015.

“Today marks the beginning of the end for dirty tar sands, as well as dirty fossil fuel projects around our continent and the world,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said following the pipeline’s rejection.

The reasoning from the environmental community was that without pipeline infrastructure, tar sands crude oil was simply too expensive to ship any other way — especially by train, which requires companies to purchase insurance should derailments result in damage or fires.

Tar sands projects also require a large amount of investment and infrastructure, making them a less-attractive option for investors when the price of oil is low. Tar sands projects aren’t as nimble as U.S. domestic oil projects, like fracking wells in North Dakota or Texas, which can be scaled back rather rapidly when wells become depleted or when market forces drive costs up or down. Tar sands projects, in contrast, require a great deal of investment up front.

Mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand at the Albian Sands tar sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh
Mining trucks carry loads of oil laden sand at the Albian Sands tar sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff McIntosh

But it looks as though those sorts of investments might be on the horizon for the Alberta tar sands, both domestically and internationally. In addition to the two approvals from Trudeau, Alberta has reason to believe that their prospects of trade with their neighbor to the south might rapidly improve with the incoming administration.

On Tuesday, hours before Trudeau’s decision to approve the two pipeline expansion projects, news broke that Kellyanne Conway, President-elect Trump’s campaign manager and senior transition adviser, would be traveling to Canada before the inauguration to tour Alberta’s tar sands.

The move has lead to speculation that the incoming Trump administration might renew the Keystone XL project, something that Trump promised during his campaign. Following Trump’s Electoral College win on November 8, TransCanada — the company behind Keystone — released a statement saying it was eager to work with a Trump administration.

“TransCanada remains fully committed to building Keystone XL,” company spokesman Mark Cooper said.