Sandy Garossino’s recent column, “The Serious $70 Billion Climate Plan You’ve Heard Nothing About,” purports to summarize the “extraordinarily compelling case” in favour of the federal government’s recent approval of the Trans Mountain expansion project, based on the pipeline’s contribution to climate action.
I’m not buying it. Let’s take Garossino’s main arguments one at a time:
Trans Mountain is 'a wash' in terms of greenhouse gases.
Garossino claims that in the pipeline’s absence, “the global supply chain would simply reshuffle and move ahead as if nothing happened.” There are both domestic and international aspects to this claim.
Garossino simply ignores the domestic emissions associated with production of the oil that will flow through the pipeline, The federal government’s own estimate is that the pipeline’s annual upstream emissions — i.e., emissions resulting from extraction, processing and transportation of crude within Canada — will be 13 to 15 million tonnes, equivalent to two million cars.
That’s a big deal because Canada’s current climate plan is not sufficient to get us to our 2030 Paris Agreement target. Indeed, the gap has been growing rather than shrinking. Adding another 15 million tonnes of emissions makes it a lot harder to meet our international obligation.
The tarsands have accounted for three quarters of Canada’s emissions growth since 1990. It’s also the sector that accounts for almost all projected growth going forward. Even the celebrated 100-megatonne cap on emissions from the tarsands — which was never legally binding and from which Alberta has withdrawn support — would allow a tripling of tarsands emissions from 2005 to 2030, thus demanding deeper compensatory cuts from other sectors and other provinces.
The longer-term challenge looms even larger. A pipeline is an investment in long-lasting infrastructure. Yet Canada’s 2030 target is just the first step. It will be ever-harder to make the deeper cuts needed after 2030 (if not before!) if we chain ourselves to new pipeline infrastructure and associated heavy oil production expected to operate for decades to come.
Now let’s consider the global context. Garossino’s assertion about the global supply chain recalls Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement — notably made in Alberta, not Paris — that “no country would find 173 billions barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”
But that is exactly what we must do.
As with fossil-fuel consumption, we face a collective-action problem in fossil-fuel production. Oil-exporting countries say they support the Paris Agreement, but hold out hope that their oil will be the last drop consumers buy. This is especially unrealistic for Canada: our oil is relatively costly to produce and carbon-intensive to refine, and thus likely to be the first to go.
Oil exporters, including Canada, may just be making a financial bet against the success of the Paris Agreement. Whether oil producers are unduly optimistic or hedging their bets, they have collectively created a growing glut of supply relative to the demand trajectory needed to mitigate climate change.
At best, Canadians will be saddled with stranded assets and economically ill-prepared when global customers shun our exports. At worst, excess supply will continue to depress global fossil-fuel prices, undermining the transition to cleaner energy, to the detriment of future generations.
Parliament recently voted to declare climate change a “real and urgent crisis.” Surely, that crisis calls for leadership, rather than the excuse that everyone else is doing it, too.
Funding the clean-energy transition with oil revenues
Garossino embraces Trudeau’s long-standing argument that Canada needs new pipelines to fund the transition to a clean-energy future. While that has been an abstract argument in the past, in announcing the Trans Mountain approval, the prime minister offered a more specific commitment: that any revenues from the project will be dedicated to the clean-energy transition. A back-of-envelope estimate of future tax revenues from oil production for the pipeline is the basis for Garossino’s claim of a “$70-billion climate plan.”
That figure assumes the tarsands will continue to prosper and thus pay taxes for 20 years. Should that happen, Canada and the planet will have much bigger problems than how to allocate those tax revenues.
But let’s take a step back and consider what’s being proposed: funding a transition away from oil by expanding oil production. That makes as much sense as eating more cake to build up strength to go on a diet.
A necessary political compromise?
Garossino’s final argument is that a pipeline in exchange for climate action is a necessary political trade-off. If Trans Mountain doesn’t go forward, she argues, the Liberals will lose the election to the Conservatives, who will cancel the carbon tax and other climate measures in the national plan (all of which I applaud, by the way).
Will the high turnout of young voters that helped propel Trudeau to Sussex Drive in 2015 survive disillusionment over the Trans Mountain approval? Will suburban voters beyond Alberta (which is surely a lost cause for the Liberals) give the Liberals another chance if Trudeau “puts shovels in the ground” for an old-fashioned, resource-extraction megaproject halfway across the country from their own communities? Will opinions on the pipeline even matter to voters beyond Alberta and coastal B.C.?
Those questions will play out depending on the competitiveness of the parties riding by riding. I don’t have access to granular polling, and I doubt Garossino does either.
My bigger concern is a state of affairs where, in the face of arguably the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced, a proposal to expand oil production to fund climate action is the best Canada’s prime minister has to offer.
For decades, politicians have been wary that voters’ concern for the climate is a kilometre wide and a centimetre deep. Liberal and Conservative prime ministers alike have pronounced that “the environment and economy go hand in hand.”
Those reassuring words have allowed Canadians to believe that we can hold our heads high at international climate meetings, even as we continue to prosper from growing exports of heavy oil.
But assurances that we can fix the climate without inconvenience have lulled Canadians into false complacency. In refusing to acknowledge very real trade-offs, Canadian leaders have failed to build voters’ support for even modest measures that are needed to transform Canada’s economy from fossil fuels.
There’s no question a healthy economy and safe climate can go hand in hand. It does not follow that every economy is sustainable. An economy that is increasing long-term dependence on fossil-fuel exports is not consistent with a safe climate.
The prime minister has often insisted Canadians do not have to choose between the economy and the environment. The Trans Mountain expansion project exemplifies the very real choices we face.
Trudeau has made a choice on our behalf, but Canadians should not kid ourselves that building a pipeline is a climate plan.