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

Blog - March 12, 2013 - By Clare Demerse

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. 

Clare Demerse
Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


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