Why Minister McKenna is being unreasonable on Kinder Morgan pipeline and climate action

While opposition to the Kinder Morgan pipeline heats up, including the building of a Watch House, and arrests of over 170 people blocking a gate of the Burnaby tank farm this past week, Environment and Climate Change Minister McKenna is playing a game of political chess.

McKenna is trying to champion a ‘reasonable’ political middle ground between 'protestors' on the one hand and industry on the other, advocating that the environment and economy go hand in hand. This was on full display in her recent interview with the popular CBC radio show, the Sunday Edition.

Watch House Guardian Will George. Mar. 10, 2018. Photo by Shaena Lambert
(Watch House Guardian Will George, March 10, Photo by Shaena Lambert, in National Observer)

The Kinder Morgan pipeline (read economy) is to go hand in hand with the national climate plan (read environment). Further still, Minister McKenna argues that the Kinder Morgan pipeline is compatible with efforts to fight climate change and Canada’s 2030 emission reduction target with the Paris Climate Agreement, including in this Edmonton Journal oped alongside Natural Resource Minister Carr.

So how is McKenna making this argument with a straight face?

It’s a bit of a shell game, really.

It involves uplifting an insufficient 100MT tar sands ‘hard cap,’ underplaying the gap between the Canada’s 2030 target and existing plans, banking on promises of future (unknown to the public) federal action, allowing climate pollution reductions in California to count towards our target and ignoring the broader context of exporting climate pollution.

100MT Albertan cap: progress in one area providing political cover for climate pollution elsewhere

The proposed 100MTCO2 ‘hard cap’ on tar sands, or oil sands production allows production to grow 47.5MT above 2014 levels. By 2030, this cap would allow the tar sands to constitute around 30 per cent of the budget of climate pollution we have for the entire country.

That may not sound alarming at first, but let’s unpack it. This means the tar sands would be 30 per cent of the allowance (or carbon budget) of climate pollution for the entire country, for every sector. From the climate pollution of other industries, to driving cars and trucks to the agriculture sector - everything. By 2050, production under the cap is estimated to account for a whopping 78 per cent of the target.

Furthermore (as reported recently in the National Observer) the cap actually has significant loopholes, enough to fit the entire climate pollution of Nova Scotia in.

As Simon Fraser University professor and frequent government greenhouse gas emission modeler and advisor Mark Jaccard explains in his recent Globe and Mail oped, “National studies by independent researchers (including my university-based group) consistently show that Mr. Trudeau's 2015 Paris promise of a 30-per-cent reduction by 2030 is unachievable with oil sands expansion.”

Gap between 2030 target and climate plans just got bigger

In his recent blog, Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada highlights that the gap between the reductions promised under the Paris climate agreement and current and planned policies has gone from 44 megatonnes (MT) to 66 MT. To put this in perspective, our 2030 target is reducing climate pollution by to 517 MT.

This was explained by McKenna as due to anticipated emissions from the oil and gas industry and demographic growth. I agree with Keith that, given there is unlikely to be dramatic changes in demographics over the last two years, this is primarily due to the oil and gas sector. The tar sands are a driving force of Canada oil and gas sector and the fastest growing source of climate pollution. Pipeline approvals that facilitate expansion are absolutely an important factor here.

The federal plan also relies on 53 MT of climate pollution reductions outside of Canada, in California, as part of the Western Climate Initiative that BC, Ontario and Quebec are part of. The Council of Canadians has been critical of carbon offsetting noting it takes pressure off of domestic action, the poor track record of the world’s largest market, the European Trading Scheme which was gamed and undermined, and opposition raised by Indigenous allies around displacement and international offsets.

McKenna insists that existing and yet to be announced plans will address it, restating that the government remains committed to the 2030 target.

Frankly, I feel far from reassured when considering the history of promises versus climate action on the part of successive federal Liberal and Conservative governments.

Washing our hands of exported climate pollution

Suggesting that new oil pipelines can help pay for the transition off of fossil fuels (a statement made by McKenna, Carr and Trudeau) is akin to an all poutine diet to lose weight.

This should be common sense.

This is where international efforts on climate change fall short, including the Paris climate agreement. While things are shifting (take for example the Lofoten Declaration), for far too long climate action has been interpreted as reducing climate pollution within borders with little to no thought on the impacts of exports in driving up pollution elsewhere. This has allowed oil exporters like Canada off the hook. The significant pollution associated with combusting the oil from the tar sands becomes the importer’s responsibility, for example. Canada extracts far more oil than it burns, around twice as much.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Marc Lee calls this the ‘green paradox’ and points out that it is actually creating an incentive for countries like Canada to “...extract fossil fuels now before their value evaporates.”

#StopKM

At the front lines of opposition to the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline are Indigenous nations and leaders asserting their fundamental rights to protect their land and water with growing grassroots resistance and before the Federal Court of Appeals. There are very legitimate concerns around the threat of a large diluted bitumen spill in waterways or the Burrard Inlet. There are criticisms of the unfair and insufficient process that approved the pipeline under the National Energy Board that persist despite the interim measures brought in by the federal Liberals.

While the Kinder Morgan pipeline’s contribution to climate change is certainly not the only reason the project is being fought, it remains a critical one. Thankfully those involved in opposition are seeing past the political maneuvering and are recognizing that a pipeline with a typical lifespan of at least 40 years is inconsistent with meaningful climate action.