Breaking down the narratives around the First Ministers meeting on a National Climate Policy

If you didn’t realize the Prime Minister was meeting with Premiers today to talk about a national climate plan, congrats on finding a way to effectively block mainstream media coverage from your day.

The long-anticipated meeting in Vancouver has been consistently making headlines.

There are distinct themes emerging in the coverage.

Indigenous leaders are clearly unhappy with what they heard at their meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau and Premiers.  From Athabasca Fort Chipewyan’s Chief Allan Adams storming out of the meeting threatening legal action, to the denial of Chiefs for more time to discuss climate policy, tensions were running high. As quoted by APTN news, Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day stated “What it all boils down to is us going back to our communities now and having to explain that we didn’t really have any say or input and that there was nothing resolved.... We are now going to be faced with the leaders at the local level within our treaty territories saying ‘listen something else has to be done here.’ We have no time to waste.” This is not promising for Prime Minister Trudeau who has made big promises for improved relationships with Indigenous communities in Canada on an issue for which Indigenous communities are on the forefront (often both in bearing the brunt of negative climate impacts and often the fossil fuel industry driving them). 

The narrative of Energy East  as a West vs. East fight is again being trumped up. This narrative began with Montreal’s announced opposition to the project – 6 out of 10 Quebec residents oppose it, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall joined with Alberta’s Wild Rose leader Brian Jean, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and even Rick Mercer, piling on Quebec as standing in the way of the national interest in getting a 1.1 million barrel per day pipeline to Saint John, NB. The latest flare up comes after Quebec has sought an injunction requiring TransCanada to submit to the Quebec environmental regulatory process – of which there is legal precedence for in BC. Despite the fact that arguments for Energy East as a national interest project fall flat on facts – it is an export pipeline  – like the cage rattling around Quebec ‘owing’ the Prairies approval of Energy East for years of equalization payments (fact check here), this is likely a narrative we’ll continue to see play out. A destructive one that treads far from the true national interest, as Maude Barlow has argued, we all have in protecting water as a fiercely managed public trust in an era of increasing water scarcity and pollution.

There are questions of whether Trudeau will impose a national carbon price  and an emphasis on the opportunities that come with developing a ‘green economy.  On these two points it is important to remember that we need to not only look at the end goal, but also how we plan on getting there. As argued in the Leap Manifesto, carbon pricing is one tool (of many) that can be used to generate needed funds for the transition to a green economy. Ho it is implemented is critical. It must effectively target industries and actions that are particularly polluting, while also not penalizing people already struggling to support their families. For more on what a progressive carbon tax could look like, see economist Marc Lee’s work with the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives.

 Similarly, there are clear economic opportunities that arise from a transition to a green economy but questions around who owns what and who benefits matter. We express clear support for a democratization of energy production. For example, generating good green jobs in public and community owned, increasingly decentralized renewable power production. Ensuring Indigenous and low-income communities are at the front of the line for needed building retrofits.

One of the more bizarre narratives emerging came from Prime Minister Trudeau's statement in his opening comments to the Globe 2016 Leadership Summit  suggesting pipelines like Energy East can help pay for Canada’s transition to a green economy.

This is like saying we can bomb for peace.  It’s like committing to weight loss with a all-poutine diet. It just doesn’t make sense.

I think it is symptomatic of Trudeau and the Liberals trying to play (at least for now) the middle ground in an increasingly heated debate on pipelines and tar sands expansion versus effectively tackling climate change, respecting Indigenous Free Prior and Informed consent and communities and provinces ability to protect their waterways.  

It’s more of the same from the Liberals who, on the one hand are making promises to revamp pipeline reviews including adding a ‘climate test’ while continuing to assures pipeline proponents that they agree on the need to get oil to tidewater

Filling the Energy East pipeline could spur an up to 40 per cent increase in tar sands production and generate up to 30 to 32 million tonnes of carbon pollution. Along with Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, 45.4 million tonnes could be unleashed annually. This is more than the annual climate pollution of eight provinces and territories. It is the equivalent of adding 9.7 million cars to the road.  

Eighty-five per cent of tar sands bitumen has to be left in the ground in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This means no more than 7.5 billion barrels of oil from the tar sands can be produced over the next 35 years. Energy East alone threatens to exceed that carbon budget within about 19 years. A 1.5 degrees Celsius target, which the Canadian government supported at the UN climate talks in Paris, requires a limit to the amount of oil that can be extracted from the tar sands and shipped via Energy East.

Further, the economic argument for getting oil to tidewater continues to crumble. Dropping oil prices have drastically changed the price differential, or discount on tar sands crude, that underpinned the drive to get 'oil to tidewater.' Even when oil prices go up (and they eventually will), tar sands production will inevitably face increasingly difficult barriers in the wake of climate policies targeting high carbon crudes like tar sands. 

The rapidly dropping oil prices have left producers scrambling in the tar sands, with many realizing industry proposals for unbounded expansion are just not viable anymore. But don't take my word for it, check out what retired Canadian energy industry manager Ross Below recently wrote in ipolitics on the failing business case for Energy East

Further reading:

Top 5 actions for a national climate plan

100% renewable by 2050 is entirely doable 

Council of Canadians supports the call for 1 million climate jobs 

Council of Canadians comments on the Acting on Climate White paper 

Leap Manifesto

Climate Action Network's demands for the First Minister's meeting