Pouring Gas on the Fire: Canadian Pipeline Politics

Steel pipes to be used in the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project in Kamloops, British Columbia (Dennis Owen/Reuters).

Steel pipes to be used in the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project in Kamloops, British Columbia (Dennis Owen/Reuters).


A Climate Emergency?

On June 18th, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency, requiring that “Canada commit to meeting its national emissions target under the Paris Agreement.” Yet the emergency declaration is non-binding and contains no concrete emergency response protocol — of which one would consider an all-hands-on-deck mentality, a re-prioritization of resources, and immediate action to be vital components.

The next day, the Canadian Government proudly announced their approval of the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline (TMX). The pipeline would run from the oil sands in the province of Alberta to the west coast of Canada, would cost a grand total of C$14 billion to build, and would carry 890,000 barrels of oil a day. The construction of this pipeline is set to begin as soon as possible.

If declaring a national climate emergency without any actionable protocol nor real sense of urgency wasn’t ironic enough, then approving this pipeline the day after declaring said climate emergency might be.

The Government’s Plan

This pipeline has been framed as a way to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon future. Through diversifying trade markets, it would reduce dependency on the US and provide bargaining power on prices, thereby boosting revenue. The government would use this revenue to invest in clean technology.

Although paradoxical, there is logic to that approach. Yet when framed within the context of a fast approaching 2030 emissions reduction deadline and the declaration of a climate emergency, two key problems arise.

The first is time. Although the Canadian government repeatedly touts its commitment to the Paris Agreement, Canada is already way behind on progress towards the 2030 deadline for meeting its targets. If the government’s current plan were to be fully implemented, optimistic projections show Canada falling 79 Megatonnes (Mt) behind a target of 500 Mt of emissions per year, and more likely around 109 Mt short by 2030. The pipeline could potentially add 15 Mt to Canada’s total emissions, making the problem worse before it gets better. 

The second problem is resources. The government already spent C$4.5 billion on purchasing the project and the construction cost is projected to be C$9.3 billion if completed by the end of 2021, producing a total cost of almost C$14 billion. In contrast, the projected corporate tax revenue would be C$500 million per year, which adds up to C$4.5 billion by 2030. At this rate, it would take the government 24 years to recoup its initial investment. The government also plans on selling the project as soon as possible, but that will not fill the C$9.3 billion discrepancy between its cost and its monetary benefit to green technology by 2030.

An Emergency Response?

In addition to diverting all federal pipeline revenue to green technology and emission reduction strategies and continuing the enforcement of a carbon tax, the government is hoping to curb emissions by imposing a cap on the oil sands. It also passed two bills that may make it more difficult to build pipelines in the future. However, these steps simply bridle the oil and gas industry, only reducing the risk of further fossil fuel expansion, without addressing current operations.

Let’s not forget that the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The measures above are risk reduction strategies that the government is employing even though they’re already supposedly in crisis. This is a fundamentally flawed approach. Prominent climate activist Greta Thunberg once stated: “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” 

When your house is on fire, you don’t put up fire-resistant walls, you put out the fire.

The Political Motivation

To add to the uncertainty, the election season in Canada is just around the corner. If the Conservative Party — the current leader in the polls — wins the election, these environmental proposals to offset emissions from the pipeline will likely be scrapped. The Conservative Party has long been in favour of expanding the oil sands, with its stronghold being the province of Alberta. 

The economic draw of oil in Alberta is so powerful, its current premier has hinted at separatism if pipelines aren’t built. The oil and gas industry is able to effectively lobby the Canadian government and has long been a major critic of emissions reduction strategies. Ironically, Alberta has been the province in Canada most affected by climate change. It has been experiencing wildfires of increasing scale, intensity, and frequency. The cost of forest fires is already double than the projected federal revenue from the pipeline, so in theory, declaring a climate emergency should have the most beneficial impact here.

Within the context of the upcoming election, there are clear political motivations behind the Liberal Government’s approval of a pipeline: appeasing the province of Alberta and the Oil and Gas lobby, and hopes of gaining back some of the support lost to the Conservative party. There are also clear political motivations behind a putting forward a motion declaring a climate emergency: exhibiting support for the environment with hopes of attracting the vote of environmentalists, and getting detractors on paper opposing the motion.

Gas on the Fire

Yet the term ‘emergency’ shouldn’t be used lightly. If it is truly an emergency, it shouldn’t matter that the oil lobby is powerful. If it is truly an emergency, it should be recognized that resources are needed in order to avoid catastrophe — maybe the C$14 billion dollars could have been directly used for the transition to a low-carbon economy, instead of boosting the current high-carbon one.

Regardless, the irony on display in Canada’s climate policy decisions does not breed confidence. It is a climate emergency, and the earth is already burning.

So, please stop pouring gas on the fire.

Richard Kingston is a Canadian national with a background in Political Science. He is currently a trainee at the European Union Delegation to Canada. The views expressed in his articles are his alone.