Since the court decision of August 30th that put the Trans Mountain pipeline on hold —and the cat decidedly among the pigeons — Canada’s energy/climate politics has been strangely quiet. Trans Mountain was the last of a batch of new pipelines proposed to get oil/tar sands oil to the Pacific coast. Northern Gateway had been quashed earlier, but new pipelines have been proposed periodically, such as the Eagle Spirit pipeline. This issue exemplifies Canada’s confusions over climate change.
In the immediate aftermath of the court decision, we had a flurry of activity. First, Notley’s Alberta government announced its withdrawal from the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, the federal government’s overarching climate change strategy. Alberta declared that it would not increase the province’s carbon tax rate in the planned manner. Next, federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer announced that he would force the pipeline through, invoking, as the oil industry and its supporters have for over a decade, the idea of pipeline opponents as “foreign funded radicals.” Other conservatives went further, comparing pipeline opponents to IRA terrorists.
But this flurry died down quickly. The government, of course now in hock to its newly purchased pipeline, quietly resumed the National Energy Board (NEB) consultation process, trying to insulate it from future court challenges. Effective consultation with First Nations groups and a range of oceanic ecological impacts are still key issues. The NEB started a new hearing process on September 26th. Whether this will result in a court-proof process is decidedly unclear. The decision to give only a week for submissions doesn’t signal that they take the consultation process seriously.
In the narrow sense of climate politics within Canada, the Trans Mountain decision has decisively reshaped the landscape, making any pretence of positioning Canada as a global leader on climate change quite farcical. The Pan-Canadian Framework had a Trudeau/Notley alliance at its heart, where both fundamentally agreed on “pipelines for the climate” as the intrinsic trade-off. In order to sell climate policy politically, an aggressive pursuit of new pipelines to increase revenues for oil sands producers was key. Other provinces were important, but at least the other big three — Ontario, Québec, and British Columbia — could be more or less taken for granted as being on board.
But Alberta was crucial to the “pipelines for the climate” logic. And that alliance has now been fundamentally breached with Alberta’s withdrawal from the Pan-Canadian Framework. Opposition by Saskatchewan and Manitoba to the imposition of a pan-Canadian carbon price, combined with Ford’s election in Ontario, make the federal climate strategy look exceptionally precarious right now.
Ottawa may have the jurisdictional power to impose a carbon tax over the objections of the provinces, but the potential political costs are piling up. The only significant claim to progressive climate policy remaining is the coal phase out. This was used to good effect internationally through Canada’s leadership in the “powering past coal” alliance launched at the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference (COP23) in Bonn in 2017. Canada has also recently joined the “Carbon Neutral Coalition” of countries pledged to become net carbon zero by 2050, a pledge standing in stark contrast to pipeline promises and the weakening of the initially stringent methane emissions regulations. These initiatives are unlikely to sustain Canada’s international leadership claims. In fact, Canada could easily return to the pariah status it had in the Harper years.
In the longer term, the court decision may have rather different effects on Canada’s climate policy. There was always a basic contradiction in the Trudeau/Notley approach: the obvious tension in promising aggressive GHG emissions reductions while expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. We now know that emissions must fall in effect to zero within the next thirty years, given global equity requirements for rich countries like Canada. The Paris Agreement confirms this in Article 4.1: there must be a “balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century.” This has widely been interpreted to mean the end of fossil fuels. Expanding pipelines to pump oil for many decades hence is therefore fundamentally inconsistent with that goal.
Notley’s approach, more than Trudeau’s, shows an understanding of the dilemma. Her government has put considerable resources into retraining oil workers for renewable energy, phasing out coal, and imposing a cap on oil sands process emissions. While she recognizes the necessity for transition, she is also caught in a political bind. Indeed this bind has stymied progressive/NDP forces on climate change generally, since her government has been the NDP’s most successful across the country until the BC election of 2017.
While pipeline advocates may win some short-term battles, this ongoing conflict makes the choice between Canada as a petro-state and Canada as a green leader much clearer, predicated on an aggressive transition to a post–fossil fuel economy. Assuming that Notley loses the Alberta election in 2019, this will free up political space for more consistent promotion of climate policy across the country, premised on a transition away from fossil fuels. The ultimately incoherent fudge of the Notley/Trudeau alliance no longer has any political rationale to sustain it.
Whether pro-climate forces can seize this opportunity, of course, remains to be seen. But the stakes and the political terrain have become much clearer with the Trans Mountain conflict.