Pembina Institute

Fact-checking Canada’s record on climate change and the oilsands

With consideration of the Keystone XL pipeline proposal heading into the home stretch, a parade of Canadian politicians have been making the trek to the U.S. to try to convince the Obama Administration of the pipeline’s merits.

The good news is that the recent visitors — from Premiers Redford and Wall to federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — now acknowledge that Canada’s environmental record is crucial to the upcoming U.S. decision.

The bad news is that there are some gaping holes in that record.

Minister Oliver has called for pipeline decisions to be “based on science and facts, not conjecture, hyperbole or ideology.” In that spirit, surely it’s fair to put some of the assertions in Minister Oliver’s recent Chicago speech under the microscope.

“Current projections show that Canada is halfway to meeting” its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions target.

Parliament Buildings, Ottawa. If you read that statement to mean that we’re “halfway there” right now, I have bad news for you. Environment Canada estimates that Canada will only be “halfway” to meeting its 2020 target in 2020 — meaning that we’re on track to miss the 2020 target by 113 million tonnes, or double the current emissions of British Columbia.

To date, the federal government has not published any plan or proposal to close that gap, and the trend line that Minister Oliver alludes to with his “halfway” assessment already factors in the effects of all existing federal and provincial climate policies.

“Total greenhouse gas emissions from oilsands production represent 0.1 per cent, or one one-thousandth, of global emissions.”

No argument with the numbers themselves, but Joe Oliver isn’t in charge of climate change for the world; he’s the minister of Canada’s natural resources. And in the Canadian context, the oilsands play a starring role as the single fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution in this country.

Indeed, the projected growth from the oilsands sector alone from 2005 to 2020 is large enough to cancel out all other emission reductions taking place elsewhere in the Canadian economy over the same period. More than anything else, the oilsands explain why Canada is projected to miss its 2020 target by such a large margin.

“Once the federal regulations are in place, Canada will be one of a very few oil producers in the world with national binding regulations on its oil and gas sector.”

An oilsands mining facility in Northern Alberta. As Minister Oliver’s statement hints, the reality is that that there are currently no federal constraints of any kind on greenhouse gas pollution from Canada’s oil and gas sector. The government has proposed a variety of approaches to controlling Canada’s emissions since first taking power seven years ago, and made a specific commitment to a sectoral regulation for oil and gas in 2011, but there’s still nothing on the books. In other words, they’ve made their new year’s resolution (again), but they haven’t yet headed out the door to the gym.

If and when Canada does get a regulation into place, it will join numerous oil and gas producing jurisdictions that have already taken steps to tackle their emissions. We recently published a report listing some of those policies, which include carbon taxes in Norway and Australia and cap-and-trade systems in the European Union and California (not to mention carbon pricing in B.C. and Alberta).

Several of those policies are not specific to the oil and gas sector; instead, many of these jurisdictions have adopted economy-wide carbon pricing that includes oil and gas emissions. That kind of broad-based pollution pricing is economically efficient, flexible, and frankly the preferred policy option for many oil and gas companies. Unfortunately, it’s an approach that the Harper government continues to attack on a daily basis as a “job-killing” “tax on everything” — but that kind of rhetoric was conspicuously absent from Minister Oliver’s U.S. outreach.

“Canada’s oilsands are subject to some of the most stringent environmental regulations and monitoring in the world.”

That’s a bold claim from a government that spent much of the past year revising many of Canada’s most important environmental laws to make it easier for resource development to go ahead. The federal government has partnered with the Government of Alberta on a new approach to environmental monitoring that shows promise; unfortunately, budget wrangling and delay means that the new system is still not up and running.

We’ll stop there for now, although the federal government has provided plenty more material that merits a closer look — including its very rosy assessment of Canada’s coal regulations or the assertion that the Keystone XL project would be a huge job creator when the State Department’s recently-released supplemental environmental impact statement found that operating the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline would create a total of 35 permanent jobs.

A year ago, the federal government’s emphasis was on faster project approvals, more oilsands development, and pipelines in all directions. It’s good news that scrutiny from the sector’s major customer has reminded our political leaders that environmental protection needs to be just as much of a priority.

The government’s rhetoric has already changed in response, but even the best speechwriters can’t make a compelling case when there’s little good material to work with.

Environment Minister Peter Kent said last week that the release of the long-promised oil and gas sector regulations is drawing near. It’s a crucial decision for Canada’s approach to climate change. And if Ottawa rises to the challenge by adopting tough rules, it’s also a high-profile opportunity for the government to write itself a better script. 

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Laurie Adkin — Mar 21, 2013 - 09:44 PM MT

This is a superb post -- very helpful. Thanks, Clare!

Michael Tims — Mar 14, 2013 - 02:26 PM MT

Great article Clare Demerse - well done. It is interesting to note that Brad Wall, in his contribution to the conservative rhetoric, likewise avoided the real topic (climate change and pollution), while exonerating the feds because environmental regulation is a shared responsibility with the provinces.
Meanwhile, Canadians continue to await the actual data which clearly shows tar sands development will leave our water, air and land fit for use and biological health. It never seems to appear . . .!

Dianne McCollum — Mar 14, 2013 - 02:01 PM MT

This is all part of the governments DO NOTHING but keep talking agenda. Are they even monitoring the oilsands? NO. Of the thousands of sq. miles of tailing ponds how many are cleaned up? 1. Canadians need to be told the TRUTH in order to make informed decisions about their future. Is that likely to happen any time soon? NO.

anthony ketchum — Mar 12, 2013 - 04:14 PM MT

My grandchildren will thank Clare Demerse as I do. This revealing of the truth is vital. How can we convey our government's misrepresentation of the true facts to people in the U.S.A. and Canada?

Tony Mitra — Mar 12, 2013 - 02:41 PM MT

Very good article. Even if the Keystone project provided ten times more jobs, it would still be short sighted and ecologically harmful and ultimately unsustainable.

Canadians have to find a better definition of "growth" and a better balance with nature. Destroying nature for the sake of progress is not real progress. It is regress.

Greatly adding to the earths carbon footprint is not only not acceptable, but shameful for Canada.

It is unfortunate that we have to depend on the Obama Administration to decide on the Keystone project. it should be for Canadians to reject, irrespective of how the US Govt looks at it.

Brgds
Tony Mitra

John M R Stone — Mar 12, 2013 - 01:46 PM MT

This should be provided to every journalist in Canada as a sort of "cheat sheet" when interviewing Ministers.
Well done, Clare.

David J. Parker — Mar 12, 2013 - 01:31 PM MT

Thanks Clare. A very welcome and necessary reposte to the mendacious ramblings of Joe (Pinoccio) Oliver.

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