Today’s Poll

Greening up: W(h)ining about a pipeline

Michael Jessen
By Michael Jessen
February 25th, 2018

“Canada has no cohesive energy policy. Nor does it have a cohesive environmental policy.” – Alanna Mitchell

Almost a decade later, the opening sentences of Alanna Mitchell’s 2009 review of Andrew Nikiforuk‘s Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continentstill ring true.

Federal energy policy is solid but not static,” says Natural Resources Canada, adding “It must remain flexible to ensure an economically competitive and innovative energy sector that sustainably delivers a secure, reliable and safe supply of energy.”

The closest we have to an energy policy is the National Energy Board’s Canada’s Energy Future 2017 which attempts to predict energy supply and demand from now to 2040.

In truth, energy policy is being decided on a case-by-case basis as potential projects seek the required NEB approval. Decisions are supposed to be guided by a series of principles, agreements and accords, but they almost exclusively deal with marketing, pricing and taxation.

Single projects are of such magnitude and so much is at stake financially that the temptation to minimize potential problems must be almost irresistible.

The National Energy Board’s jobis to“regulate pipelines, energy development and trade in the Canadian public interest.” By factoring in economic, environmental and social considerations, the board is “able to make decisions and recommendations that represent the ever-changing interests and concerns of Canadians.”

Canada’s environmental policy is guided by the 2008 Federal Sustainable Development Act and is just as fluid as our energy policy.

The act requires the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to develop “a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy based on the precautionary principle” every three years to incorporate new commitments, decisions and actions and report progress toward goals and targets.

The government’s latest version is Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (2016-2019). It includes 13 new aspirational goals for an environmentally sustainable Canada, specific and measurable targets, new short-term milestones, and clear action plans.

Precaution is advisable

There is an interesting difference in the definition of “precautionary principle” in Canada’s FSD Act. It says “precautionary principle means the principle that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

The European definition is far more prescriptive: “When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.”

Into this maelstrom has been introduced the $7.4 billion Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX), proposed by Kinder Morgan Canada Limited. If built, the expansion will nearly triple capacity to 890,000 barrels per day on the existing Trans Mountain pipeline which extends from Strathcona County near Edmonton to the Westridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby. Instead of one tanker per day leaving the terminal, seven will sail through Vancouver’s harbour daily.

Although already green-lighted by the Government of Canada, the NEB, and the previous Liberal British Columbia government, the project was thrown into uncertainty in January when NDP Premier John Horgan announced a proposal to restrict any increase in diluted bitumen shipments until it conducts more spill response studies.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley immediately called the move unconstitutional and later slapped a ban on B.C. wine imports to Alberta and broke off talks on possible purchases of $500 million worth of B.C.-generated electricity.

Seeking public input – pro and con

She has approved a new Alberta government website which allows people to sign a petition urging Horgan’s government to stop trying to block the pipeline.  The site also allows people to send form letters in support of the pipeline to their MPs, and talk about why the pipeline project is important to them on social media sites.

The government plans to promote the website in both Alberta and British Columbia through online advertising. Notley has threatened further retaliation unless the federal government forces B.C. to back down.

Currently the project is in the midst of court battles with B.C. First Nations communities, environmentalists and municipalities, who fear the potential impact of an oil spill.

B.C. will establish an independent scientific advisory panel to make recommendations to Minister of Environment George Heyman on whether, and how, heavy oils can be safely transported and cleaned up if spilled, in addition to seeking advice from citizens. The public will be able to provide input online once an intentions paper is released, sometime before the end of February.

The province’s government is challenging Alberta’s ban on B.C. wines through the Canadian Free Trade Agreement’s dispute settlement process and will also appeal an NEB decision allowing Kinder Morgan Canada to bypass local regulations in constructing its Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Trudeau faces tough challenge

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, compromised because he said yes to the pipeline expansion in return for Notley buying in to a national carbon pricing plan, has steadfastly pledged to do whatever it takes to get the pipeline built.

Well hold on Justin that just may be the biggest challenge you’ve ever set yourself up for.

Environmental lawyer David Boyd, ecology professor David Schindler, and other scientists also doubt whether Trudeau can make good on his pledge.

And the Federal Court of Appeal – which in 2016 sided with First Nations and rejected the NEB’s approval of the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline due to lack of consultation – has yet to decide on First Nations’ virtually identical challenge to TMX.

Boyd told CBC News that Canada’s constitution – the part about interprovincial and international transportation being the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government was written in 1867 – is silent on the environment which creates “a huge grey area,” adding that there is reason to believe B.C. could create a law that conforms to it.

Scientists support Horgan

Schindler thinks B.C.’s concerns about TMX are lawful. “Somehow, science is being ignored in all this,” he told CBC Early Edition host Stephen Quinn. “I think the questions [about spills] are very legitimate.”

The professor emeritus at the University of Alberta referred to a Royal Society of Canada study from 2015 that raised many issues about bitumen transport by tanker that remain unstudied.

That was also the finding of eight scientists who concluded that there were “substantial gaps in the scientific knowledge needed to support sound policy decisions” after conducting a systematic analysis of peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Led by Stephanie Green of Oregon State University and the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University and Wendy Palen of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University, the team stated: “Top priorities for public research identified by our analysis relate to the behavior, fate, and effect of diluted bitumen in the marine environment in the event of a spill.”

Obviously, John Horgan had good reason to appoint a panel to seek more knowledge.

First Nations’ pitiful compensation

The National Observer– a Canadian news website focused on investigative reporting and daily news on energy, climate, politics and social issues – recently revealed details of First Nations’ compensation for accepting the risks of TMX over their lands and waters that author Sandy Garossino called “a disgrace.”

Garossino wrote: “Kinder Morgan estimates that Canadian oil producers will generate an additional$3.7 billiona year from access to foreign markets. Over 20 years, that’s $74 billion. Total federal, provincial, and municipal taxes generated from the project over 20 years are estimated at nearly $50 billion. The B.C. First Nations, who are forced to pony up the critical lands to uncork this gusher of billions, get about $15 million a year, over 20 years.”

“Wind-down” the oil sands

Finally, a knife has been plunged into the entire economic future of oil sands production by another professor – economist Ian Hussey – from the University of Alberta.

In the report What the Paris Agreement Means for Alberta’s Oil Sands Majors, Hussey and co-author David Janzen analyze the social cost of carbon (SCC) of the Big Five oil sands producers CNRL, Suncor Energy, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, and Husky Energy.

Hussey and Janzen state that the carbon liabilities of the Big Five’s proven and probable oil and gas reserves outweighed not only the value of the assets and market capitalization of these corporations, but also the Alberta economy as a whole.

“If all of the Big Five’s reserves are ultimately burned, the billions of dollars in carbon liabilities will be paid by the public and governments through the cost of dealing with extreme weather events, climate change mitigation, and health impacts,” Hussey argues.

“When we account for the SCC, Alberta’s oil sands industry looks like a carbon bubble that could pop sooner rather than later,” the authors write.

“Alberta is in transition, and we must start seriously planning for a different kind of economy,” they conclude, adding that the energy transition to a low-carbon future is “also a significant opportunity for Alberta and Canada.”

Winding-down the oil sands and planning for a different kind of economy in Alberta is crucial to helping the world meet the Paris Agreement’s target of a global average temperature increase of less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

What are we waiting for?

In a separate opinion piece for The Tyee, Hussey makes the case that oil sands revenues and employment are already a declining part of Alberta’s budget and workforce.

“The benefits of the oilsands are declining, and the effects and costs of climate change are increasing,” Hussey writes. “The economic opportunities from phasing out the industry – cleaning up oil wells and toxic tailings and ratcheting up our renewable energy and clean technology industries – are enormous.”

“What are we waiting for?”, he asks.

The Trans Mountain Expansion Project may lead to morally unacceptable harm along the 1,150-kilometre pipeline route, to the City of Burnaby, Burrard Inlet, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Pacific Ocean.

Its construction will affect our way of life.

If the purpose of energy and environmental policies is to improve the quality of the lives we lead, the Trans Mountain Expansion Project fails to meet those criteria.

Whether the project proceeds to construction is not an economic or technological consideration but rather a matter of choice – a choice to either avoid or diminish the harm the project will cause.

It may be a shock for Albertans to understand that their 70-year cash cow has to scale back and prepare an exit strategy from the provincial economy, but that is the harsh reality.

And it is time to enact energy and environmental policies that remove all ambiguity as to Alberta’s and Canada’s sustainable direction.

Precaution is an ethical responsibility and a legal norm. There are alternatives to everything.

The Earth is calling out to us for alternatives to the risks which we have been subjecting it to.

Just as “Time’s Up” to end sexual harassment everywhere, the time is up for tar sands expansion in Alberta.

Michael Jessen is an eco-writer and sustainability consultant, living at Longbeach near Nelson, B.C. He can be reached by email at

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