A few days before Bill Morneau announced the federal government’s plan to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline and take charge of its expansion, my morning newspaper displayed the collision of forces behind this decision. On one page of the newspaper was a story about the pipeline’s expansion, and on the facing page was a story about cities on B.C.’s coast planning to build seawalls and abandon low-lying land to cope with rising ocean levels caused by global warming.
Maybe the contrast was the choice of a clever editor, or maybe it was chance, but it revealed the dangerous double standard our society is straddling. Like a heavy smoker who wakes every day to a hacking cough but refuses to face the health hazards of cigarettes, Canadians wake every day to the consequences of burning fossil fuels but refuse to reduce our emissions. While the Justin Trudeau of the Paris Climate Accord was telling us we should quit, Bill Morneau just bought us another carton of smokes.
It’s a fact of politics that governments often hold contradictory positions. We want more trade with China but don’t want to give up sovereignty. We want higher public services but lower taxes. Governments can fudge these contradictions, sometimes forever, because taxes, public services, money, trade, and nation-states all exist as social constructions. Our national borders, currency, health care system, and human rights can all be changed with the stroke of a pen.
Global warming is an entirely different kind of issue. While there are plenty of social concerns around the Trans Mountain pipeline, including the rights of First Nations and provinces, at its foundation the pipeline matters most because it is part of an industry that is dramatically, dangerously, and permanently changing our physical world through global warming.
Once they are gone, no stroke of a pen will bring back our disappearing glaciers, our submerging coasts, or winters cold enough to stop pine beetle infestations. Some double standards are downright dangerous; a government can fudge its promises but it can’t fudge the laws of physics behind global warming.
By reinforcing the oil industry the federal government is facilitating an increase of oil sands production, which pushes up Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide, which is the biggest driver of global warming, accumulates in the air for centuries. The carbon dioxide we produce today will be breathed by our grandchildren’s grandchildren, who will be coping with a hotter and hotter planet because of it. Regardless of political realities, the physical reality is that global warming is intensifying and accelerating, and fossil fuels are to blame.
Something else is intensifying and accelerating too: the transition away from fossil fuels. While Bill Morneau uses taxpayer money to buy and expand pipelines, governments and corporations in much of the rest of the world are investing heavily to make oil obsolete. About seventy per cent of Alberta’s oil and bitumen ends up as transportation fuel. Every major carmaker on Earth is transforming their vehicles to electric power within the decade. Electric utilities are rapidly converting to wind and solar energy.
There is no doubt we’ve prospered from fossil fuels, but as Councilor Charlene Aleck of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation said to a meeting of Kinder Morgan investors, “While we respect the foundation that fossil fuels have given us, they and the pipelines that carry them are on the wrong side of history now.” Either she is right, or our planet is headed for disaster.
With the pipeline decision the Trudeau government is trying to straddle more conflicting issues than it is safe for any government to straddle: Canadian taxpayers versus American shareholders; emission reductions versus expanding oil production; protecting the coast versus more tanker traffic; a melee of disputes involving the federal government, provinces, and First Nations; and much more. More than anything, this decision is about the future versus the past, and Bill Morneau has made a big bet on the past.
There is a different way forward: the federal government could build a bridge to a carbon-free future, closing the renewable energy gap that is expanding between Canada and the rest of the world. On its current course Canada is unlikely to meet the commitments to reduce emissions it made in the Paris Accord, so it is time to change course.
Instead of a Crown corporation investing billions of dollars in a pipeline, imagine a Crown corporation investing billions of dollars in renewable energy partnerships with provinces, First Nations, and communities across Canada, and billions in energy efficiency programs. Instead of hundreds of jobs building a pipeline we’d create thousands of jobs installing solar panels and wind farms; instead of pitting Canadians against each other we’d bring communities together; and instead of increasing emissions we’d drive them down. Instead of clinging to a fading past we’d embrace the future.
"While the Justin Trudeau of the Paris Climate Accord was telling us we should quit, Bill Morneau just bought us another carton of smokes," writes Kevin Taft
These steps would reduce the painful straddles that are throwing this government and country off balance. The Trudeau government, which once looked so solid, needs to remember that governments that straddle too many issues have a tendency to fall.
Kevin Taft is the author of Oil’s Deep State, published by Lorimer in 2017. He is a former MLA from Edmonton and leader of the Official Opposition in Alberta.