After facing prolonged resistance from indigenous communities and environmental groups, the Texas-based energy company Kinder Morgan announced in early April that it would temporarily be suspending construction of its proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would have transported tar sands oil from Alberta to the southwestern coast of British Columbia.
The victory, however, was short-lived, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on April 15 that he was willing to offer Kinder Morgan government aid to make sure that the project gets built. Describing the pipeline as being “of vital strategic interest to Canada,” Trudeau added that he was “actively pursuing legislative options that will assert and reinforce the government of Canada’s jurisdiction in this matter.”
Since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency in 2016, United States-based climate activists have looked to Canada and Trudeau’s government in the hope that a more liberal North American country might continue to march ahead with climate action in the face of Trump’s all-out resistance. Trudeau himself has chastised Trump for his climate stance, vocally disapproving of Trump’s choice to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
But when it comes to dealing with grassroots resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure, climate activists have come to the sobering realization that perhaps Trump and Trudeau are more similar than disparate, using executive power to push forward projects of crucial importance to corporations at the expense of public health and the environment.
“It’s not a Canadian problem. It’s a North American problem,” Eric de Place, programs director with the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, told ThinkProgress.
Geographically, the similarities between the United States and Canada when it comes to fossil fuel resistance — and extraction — are startling. Both countries produce the bulk of their fossil fuel in the interior of the country, whether in the tar sands fields of Alberta or the Powder River Basin coal mines and Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Wyoming.
In both countries, energy companies looking for a way to export their fuels have looked to cities along the coasts — and particularly, along the Pacific Coast, which offers a quick and easy route to Asian markets. And in both cases, companies have encountered a wall of local resistance to those export projects — mostly lead by indigenous communities — that have seriously hampered their ability to move fuel from landlocked regions to coastal areas.
“I think it’s fair to say that the environmental community is as lock step opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline as to the coal export projects of yesteryear,” de Place said, referencing a slew of proposed coal export terminals that ultimately met their demise due in large part to local resistance in Oregon and Washington.
In the Pacific Northwest, such continued resistance has helped local communities defeat a slew of proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects, from coal export terminals to natural gas and oil pipelines. The same thing happened in British Columbia, where environmental groups and indigenous groups successfully defeated Enbridge’s plans for a pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific.
Taken together, this years-long campaign of opposition to export terminals and pipelines along the Pacific Coast has left landlocked energy companies — and energy-rich regions whose economies largely depend on the success of these companies — with few options for export.
In the Powder River Basin, for instance, coal companies have struggled to find a viable export route for their coal, given the massive wall of resistance in the Pacific Northwest. In 2011, there were six proposals for coal export terminals that cumulatively would have shipped more than 100 million tons of coal from the Powder River Basin to Asian markets; today, just one of those projects remains under consideration.
Communities in the Northwest have also rallied in opposition to crude oil export terminals that would transport fuel from the Bakken region to Asia, citing the dangers associated with increased oil-by-rail traffic. In Vancouver, Washington, state officials recently rejected a proposal for what would have been the largest oil-by-rail export facility in the country.
In Canada, opposition to pipelines has put a squeeze on the country’s tar sands industry. Tar sands — or oil sands — are an incredibly energy intensive kind of fuel to extract, largely because it is located deeper beneath the earth than fuel like natural gas. Tar sands oil is also much heavier than typical crude oil or natural gas; its original state is closer to tar than a liquid, so companies have to use natural gas and chemicals to heat and pressurize the substance into what is known as diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.”
Because the process is so time-intensive — and requires so much energy — it’s difficult for tar sands oil to be competitive with crude or natural gas, especially with current oil prices hovering around $66 a barrel.
Pretty much every major energy company — with the exception of Exxon — that used to have a significant financial stake in Canada’s tar sands oil has been getting out of the game, and projections for future production from the industry has fallen by more than 1 billion barrels.
“There has been, from climate advocates, for decades, a tremendous amount of justified frustration that we can’t seem to, at the national level, take a serious approach to climate change,” de Place said. “I think one of the reasons [the local movement to resist fossil fuels] has been so successful is that those localized fights give people power. It enables people to tackle these kinds of Darth Vader industries that have done so much to foul up our politicians and corrupt our national discourse.”
But powerful industries like coal, oil, and tar sands aren’t the kinds of players that take losses sitting down. In both Canada and the United States, energy companies — and energy-dependent regions — have been flexing their political muscle in response to coastal opposition, trying everything from federal bailouts to lawsuits against progressive cities and counties.
In Wyoming, for instance, state lawmakers considered a bill earlier this year that would have earmarked $250,000 in state funds to retain private counsel and launch a lawsuit against Washington state’s denial of permits related to coal export terminals. In Utah, lawmakers are considering a similar bill that would set aside $2 million in state funds for coal and climate-related lawsuits against California, whose progressive climate goals make it more expensive for Utah to export coal.
In Canada, Alberta responded to British Columbia’s resistance to the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion by boycotting the province’s wine industry — though that boycott ended after British Columbia challenged the constitutionality of the ban in court. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has also said that the government is looking into legal strategies to challenge British Columbia’s resistance to tar sands pipelines, and she recently introduced legislation that would allow Alberta to restrict the flow of energy fuels going to British Columbia.
At the federal level, both countries have seen leaders step in with executive action to revive flailing energy projects.
In the United States, Trump signed an executive order in January of 2017 that directed federal agencies to conclude — and approve — all necessary studies and permits for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Both had been sidelined after years of community and environmental resistance.
And Trudeau appears to be taking a cue from Trump’s playbook with respect to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, telling reporters on April 15 that he intends to introduce legislation to Canadian lawmakers to “reaffirm federal jurisdiction over the interprovincial pipeline,” according to the National Observer.
“Unfortunately in both cases, the federal governments are not just ignoring the wishes and wellbeing of their citizens, but also overreaching in their regulatory power,” Yianni Varonis, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, told ThinkProgress via email.
While Trump’s support for fossil fuel projects should come as no surprise — he campaigned on a platform of unfettered fossil fuel extraction and a rollback of environmental regulations — Trudeau’s stance clashes with his international image of a progressive, climate-minded environmentalist. The reality, however, is that even liberal politicians tend to support pipeline projects and fossil fuel infrastructure.
President Barack Obama, for instance, took years to take a public stand against Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline, only doing so in the final years of his administration. And despite his eventual opposition to these two pipelines, the Obama administration approved a handful of cross-border pipeline projects during his presidency. This includes two pipelines owned by Energy Transfer Partners — the same company that owns the Dakota Access pipeline — and a cross-border pipeline that brings tar sands oil from Alberta to Wisconsin.
“These industries come from Alberta or Texas, from Wyoming or Montana and they bring with them a certain amount of muscle, both political and financial,” de Place said, adding that the Obama administration was “not a great friend” to the anti-fossil fuel infrastructure movement in the Northwest. “It has gotten worse under Trump, but honestly, not that worse. When I see Trudeau saying that he is going to build that pipeline, that dynamic is really familiar.”