The Trudeau government and the oil patch are in agreement: Canada needs to delay plans to reduce the heat-trapping pollution that causes climate change because those actions will cost too much.
It’s a stunning retreat from key promises and statements made by the government since its election in 2015. And it has left some environmentalists wondering whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is following the Trump administration’s race to the bottom on climate policy.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna confirmed the news on Thursday during a conference call with reporters. She said that Canada would introduce plans that would delay tackling emissions of methane — a powerful heat-trapping gas — from the oil patch by two years, the CBC reported.
The Trudeau government and the Obama administration had promised last spring to cut methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025.
The oil and gas industry's main lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), pushed back a few months later calling for delays because they said moving too fast would be too costly.
“We had responded with what we thought would be an alternative approach to meeting that target," said Vicki Ballance, CAPP’s director of climate and innovation, in an interview. “Having to do large retrofit schedules, and new installations, and all of those things are going to have costs for industry."
McKenna said late on Friday that the government remained committed to its climate change goals.
"We are absolutely committed to delivering the 40-45 per cent reductions from methane leaks by 2025 — in the most smart cost effective way," the minister wrote on Twitter.
And in an emailed response to questions from National Observer, McKenna's spokeswoman Marie-Pascale Des Rosiers said the proposed delay to the start date "will allow industry more time to make changes to operations, and to budget the capital needed."
We are absolutely committed to delivering the 40-45% reductions from methane leaks by 2025 - in the most smart cost effective way. https://t.co/9HbSzPVBzY— Catherine McKenna (@cathmckenna) April 22, 2017
'This is the first real test' of Canada's climate strategy, says Greenpeace
The government says if the proposed regulations are implemented, its end-date target of 2025 would still be in place. It said it was simply carrying out its duty to listen to stakeholders.
But environmentalists see the proposed move as part of a bigger picture, with U.S. President Donald Trump moving to unwind federal methane rules and musing about pulling out of the Paris climate change agreements.
“This is the first real test of the federal pan-Canadian climate framework,” said Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada.
“If they cave on methane regulations, then it’s a signal to everyone else that they can probably get them to back down on other measures as well.”
Stewart said he was skeptical about the government's promise to hold to the 2025 end-date, since the regulations wouldn’t kick in until after the next federal election set for 2019.
“You’re promising that the next government will do something about that, which is not something that any government can really promise,” he said.
Move 'does not reflect well on Trudeau' internationally says D.C.-based environmental group
Anthony Swift, director of the Canada Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said the proposed move "does not reflect well on Trudeau as a climate leader."
“There’s little question that if we see more actions by the Trudeau administration to lower the Canadian bar to the level that President Trump has set, it’s going to be a big blow to Trudeau’s reputation on climate,” said Swift.
Even before the announcement of the new delays, the government was already projecting it wouldn't meet its climate change goal of reducing annual emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The government also released a new report this month, National Post reported, projecting that Canada won’t meet its climate targets unless new measures are introduced.
“Given that the policy that’s been proposed is not yet enough to get us across the finish line, taking several steps back by watering down methane regulations, and delaying them, only makes crossing the finish line that much harder,” said Swift.
CAPP says government hosted 'pre-consultation session'
The story of the delays and industry lobbying stretches back to last March.
The rollout plan, according to a senior government official’s presentation a few weeks after the announcement last year, would have involved draft regulations by this spring, and then implementation starting early in 2018, with everything in place by 2020.
But in a September assessment of the government’s draft model posted in an article by Stewart in Policy Options, CAPP said industry investment was down, and that the industry was competing with heightened U.S. production.
It was “not a good time to impose additional costs on industry,” the assessment noted. CAPP also said the switch imposed an “administrative burden.”
The government hosted what it described as a “pre-consultation session” with the industry group in September, said Ballance.
The oil patch lobbyists then proposed that the government delay “regulatory implementation timing past 2020.”
McKenna's spokeswoman Des Rosiers said that to “help inform” the drafting of the proposed regulations, Environment and Climate Change Canada “held very extensive consultations” with stakeholders, including "provinces, territories, industry, [environmental non-governmental organizations] and associations representing Indigenous peoples."
“As a result of these consultations, a number of important changes were made to Canada’s proposed methane regulations...a key change is that Canada agreed to shift the implementation start,” wrote Des Rosiers.
“The changes in start date are an example of government listening to stakeholders."
A 'significant burden' to reduce methane emissions?
Environmental groups and the oil industry disagree about the feasibility of an early start date for new pollution rules.
Ballance said the costs to industry to implement would be a “significant burden” in the “billions” of dollars, although she couldn’t give a more specific cost breakdown.
Swift argued that “methane regulations are one area where major reductions can occur with relatively little cost to the industry."
Even if Trump rolls back U.S. federal methane emissions, that wouldn't affect limits on methane from oil and gas facilities in California, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Utah, said Stewart, so competitiveness shouldn't be as high of a factor, he argued.
Editor's note: This article was updated at 10:10 p.m. ET on Friday with a new comment from Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.