Fate of Canada’s Tar Sands, Pipelines Depend on Trudeau’s Commitments at COP21

The Real News Network’s Dimitri Lascaris speaks to DeSmog Canada’s managing editor Carol Linnet at COP21 in Paris

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DIMITRI LASCARIS, TRNN: This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for the Real News from COP 21 in Paris. I’m here today with Carol Linnitt, the managing editor and the director of research for DeSmog Canada, a leading and widely-read independent news site relating to environmental issues and energy. Thanks for joining us, Carol.

CAROL LINNITT: Thank you for having me.

LASCARIS: So why don’t you start by giving us a sense of what has transpired thus far, and where things are heading for the balance of the conference?

LINNITT: So what we’ve pretty much seen the first week are negotiators, negotiator teams, and delegations from numerous countries working to narrow a text that can be taken to ministers next week for final approval. Some of the main issues that are addressed in that text are the nature of the legally binding aspect of the climate treaty, as well as things like climate finance, how that’s going to work for vulnerable countries, as well as loss and damage. And working towards a sort of, the actual binding mechanisms around hitting that 2 degree warming target.

LASCARIS: Now, there’s been a lot of talk about whether the emission reduction targets should be or could be legally binding at this stage. Where do you think we’re going to end up on that front?

LINNITT: I think it’s interesting. It’s pretty split between countries right now. There’s a lot of political parsing that’s happening. Some countries seem to be less in support of a legally binding target. The U.S. and Canada, for example, haven’t really come out strongly in favor of a legally binding target. They’re more concerned about the practical mechanisms and things like transparency, review, and monitoring, and how that’s going to take place. So how each country will be sort of adjudicated, you know, say every five years. That’s been something that Canada has really been pushing for, but not so much on the legally binding side. So that really remains to be seen. That’s probably something that will be sort of punted to next week when the ministers are here.

LASCARIS: You mentioned Canada, and I’d like to get into that a little more with you. As we all know, we have a new prime minister in Canada, Justin Trudeau, a new government. And the prior regime, I think it’s fair to say, was perennially regarded as a huge obstruction to meaningful action on climate change. When this conference opened Justin Trudeau proclaimed that Canada’s back. I’d like your thoughts on whether there’s a disparity between the rhetoric and the reality of the new government, and if so why.

LINNITT: Well, it’s been really interesting. Certainly it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lot of promising, a lot of people are saying, you know, it’s very rhetorical what has happened with the Liberal party so far. They have put their money where their mouth is in some regards. They’ve bumped up funding for vulnerable countries in the Green Climate Fund, from $300 million under the previous Harper government to now $2.65 billion. Certainly, you know, indicating some real progress in being an active participant, a constructive player in the climate talks.

However, critics have been quick to point out that there’s a lot of discussion about fair share. So this is the question of differentiation. Which countries should pay which amounts of money to vulnerable countries, and which country should be responsible for what amount of emissions already in the atmosphere. According to sort of fair share metrics, Canada should be funding the Green Climate Fund $4 billion each year. So far they’ve only put in $2.65 billion over the next five years.

So there’s a little bit of, you know, positive indication, and big, big progress has been made from previous years. But there’s still a lot of question about the actual specifics of what Canada’s really going to do. Justin Trudeau has brought Canada’s biggest delegation ever to COP 21, including a lot of the premiers, and he’s really indicated a keen interest in working with the provinces to manage, you know, climate emissions where they sort of arise in each of the provinces. And he has promised to meet with the premiers within 90 days of the end of the Copenhagen–or climate summit–to really focus on those, those measures and what that really means for Canada. So Canadians will really have to wait in some regards to really find out what our work here will actually mean on the ground back at home.

LASCARIS: Now, in January of this year, a study came out in the prestigious journal Nature which analyzed the extent to which we’d have to leave the known fossil fuel reserves of fossil fuels companies in the ground in order to remain within the 2 degrees Celsius threshold. And I understand the conclusion that was reached was that something in the range of 85 percent of those fossil fuels reserves would have to be kept in the ground. And the tar sands were identified as one in which the proportion would have to be even higher, because of the emissions related with the tar sands. What’s your understanding of the Trudeau government’s position with respect to keeping it in the ground?

LINNITT: Well, they haven’t made any clear indications about that yet. What they have done is indicated willingness to work with the provinces, and we’ve seen a new climate action plan just come out of Alberta about two weeks ago, I guess, that puts a cap on oil sands emissions. And so probably what we’re going to be seeing is less of the expansion of the oil sands going on.

When it comes to keeping it in the ground and actually stopping production, that’s much more of a tricky point, and a sticking point. We’ve seen–a new report came out yesterday by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a British group, and they analyzed Canada’s carbon reserves and found that $220 billion worth of fossil fuels, including the oil sands, would need to stay in the ground if we are to hit that, stay within that 2 degree target, if Canada is to do its share to stay within that 2 degree warming target.

Yesterday we had the Canadian Youth Delegation who’s here, a number of them are part of Canada’s official delegation. They wanted to meet with Prime Minister Trudeau and unfortunately weren’t able to. They staged an action yesterday saying that one of their clear demands to the team of delegates is actually to immediately stop the expansion of the tar sands, and really work to enforce indigenous rights in Canada. That’s a really big thing on top of addressing the issue of climate, is to actually repair relations with First Nations people and respect their constitutional and treaty rights to their land. I think that will have a huge implication on the future of the oil sands, as well.

LASCARIS: I actually interviewed a Canadian Youth Delegation activist yesterday during their action, and she mentioned two things. That the Trudeau government expressed disappointment when President Obama rejected Keystone XL, and that it also appears to be inclined to approval of Energy East, even before the environmental review process is completed. Do you think that the notion of keeping the majority of the tar sands in the ground is consistent with the government’s apparently commitment to pipeline expansion?

LINNITT: Yeah, that’s a bit of a tricky one, too. On the issue of Justin Trudeau saying he was disappointed with the U.S.’s decision to axe the Keystone XL pipeline, my bit of analysis on that is Trudeau is politically savvy. I think he did what our former prime minister Stephen Harper consistently failed to do, which was acknowledge the decision-making authority of the states. I think by saying he was disappointed he was also sort of nodding to the oil and gas industry that he wasn’t celebrating the loss of that project that they had spent years investing in.

I do think that when it comes to the Energy East pipeline, as well as the Kinder Morgan pipeline which is meant to be expanded to the West coast of Canada. Justin Trudeau as he was campaigning promised that these pipelines would go through new, fresh review, a more robust review under our National Energy Board program, and include more voices from directly affected people, have it be more evidence and science-based. So far there has been a sort of change in tune on that, which has signaled, you know, maybe not following through on those pipeline promises. And that’s been some cause for concern for climate, environmental advocates, definitely, in Canada.

I think there’s still, they said that they are reviewing and possibly updating the National Energy Board review process. So I do think that some sort of stronger, stronger processes and review elements could come into the process after the fact. But in terms of starting it over again, really asking those tough climate questions about pipelines, that has yet to be seen.

Last point. If they’re not really going to be expanding the oil sands past the sort of estimated 1 million new barrels of production, that really limits the need for increased pipeline capacity. There is that conversation to be had there between pipelines and oil trains, if oil is going to be moved, you know, how should it be moved. And of course for climate advocates, that’s not the question at all. It is what is our strict climate threshold that we’re trying to meet, and which fossil fuels can we start sort of shifting away from right away.

Canada puts more money into subsidizing the fossil fuel industry than it has submitted to the Green Climate Fund. So we certainly are, you know, that’s not Justin Trudeau’s fault. These are sort of systemic issues that he has stepped into. So I do think that we have to wait a little bit to really see how these things will play out in the real world. But by any indication we have a lot of, you know, positive–yeah, positive trajectory so far. But we really need to see a little more strong commitments from the Liberal government and from Justin Trudeau on actually how Canada is going to make those climate targets and what that’s going to mean for energy and energy infrastructure projects on the ground.

LASCARIS: Just to put a finer point on the pipeline issue, years ago NASA scientist, climate scientist, James Hansen in quite colorful language said that if we continue to exploit the tar sands resource it was game over for the climate.

Ultimately if Kinder Morgan and Energy East are constructed, and are used to facilitate the expansion of the tar sands as a resource, do you think that there’s any practical way for Canada to be a responsible player in the fight against climate change in that event?

LINNITT: I think that when you look at Canada, Canada is a tremendous high consumer of resources. We have really high per-capita emissions, and that’s problematic. Some people say the oil sands are game over for the climate. Other people say oil sands emissions are just a drop in the bucket when you’re looking at Canada on the global scale. I think what we really need to look at are these per capita emissions, understanding what sort of a fair share is, working in collaboration with countries across the planet who are really trying to do what is required of them to bring their emissions down.

Canada, that will mean not producing as much in the oil sands. There’s sort of no way about it. I think we, Alberta is a province that really relies economically on the oil sands. We need to be thinking about what does this mean for the labor force. There’s a lot of green labor groups here talking about Canada, talking about oil sands workers, working on a plan, a green energy plan to transition those workers to new jobs. I think that’s something that Trudeau has indicated he would really like to be a part of, and so have the provinces.

And so, yeah. So I mean, while the game over for the climate reference to the oil sands, I don’t think it really fits when we’re sort of looking at, you know, the consumption of coal in other places. But in terms of Canada and what we can do, we have to be serious about the oil sands, we have to be serious about fracking for gas, especially in British Columbia. We have a major LNG export plan for that province. And that means BC will not meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets. So there’s stuff across the board, but we are seeing good progress. Ontario phased out its coal power plants. Alberta just announced they will do the same.

So progress is being made. I do think we need to see some more positive direction on the oil sands, though.

LASCARIS: Thank you very much for joining us. I hope we’ll have the opportunity to get your assessment of COP 21 towards the end of the conference.

LINNITT: I hope so, too. Thanks for having me.

LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris for the Real News in Paris.

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