Will Canadian Provinces Block Pipeline Expansion?
Keith Stewart of Greenpeace Canada and Carol Linnitt of DeSmog Canada discuss the upcoming premiers meeting on energy
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
Critics say Canada’s climate record is abysmal, ranking last among 58 countries in a 2014 performance index survey, despite the fact that Canada bears some of the worst effects of climate change. A new report published Monday in Nature Geoscience finds that Canada faces 70% glacier loss by the end of the century. This could have devastating impact on natural ecosystems and access to drinking water.
Next week on April 14th, Canada’s provincial premiers are meeting in Quebec City for the First Ministers’ conference. They will discuss energy and the environment, which may result in a possible national energy strategy.
A large coalition of environmental organizations and activists have called for a national day of action this Saturday, April 11th, with events taking place across the country. Thousands are expected at the Act on Climate march in Quebec City to demand the premiers act on climate change and stop building pipelines to transport the tar sands from Alberta.
Well now joining us to discuss all of this first of all is Keith Stewart. Keith leads Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy campaign and is also a part-time faculty member at the University of Toronto, where he teaches a course on energy policy and the environment.
Carol Linnitt is managing editor and director of research for DeSmog Canada, and is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria.
Thanks very much for joining us.
CAROL LINNITT, MANAGING EDITOR, DESMOG CANADA: Thanks.
JAY: Carol, given how draconian, dramatic the data keeps getting — the glacier loss, if I understand it correctly, I think the Arctic ice shield is the thinnest it’s ever been in recorded history. We’re getting temperature readings that are the hottest in recorded history. Why do you think Canadians aren’t demanding more action on climate change? And why is the Harper government, which seems barely to believe in the science of climate change, able to ignore all this?
LINNITT: Well, I think the Harper government is less and less able to ignore this issue. And I think we’re going to really see that on Saturday as projected maybe even 10,000 people come out to the Act on Climate march in Quebec City.
Traditionally we have been at something of an impasse politically when it comes to climate. The fact that our federal government isn’t acting on climate isn’t always exactly representative of what Canadians themselves want, but there’s certainly been some disconnect between what Canadians want and what we see our politicians doing. And in previous polling in previous years we’ve seen some really low levels of faith or trust in politicians, in our federal leaders, to actually do what Canadians feel is necessary, to actually be serious about climate change.
The most recent polling that I’ve seen come out from the Canadian Climate Action Network just this past week shows that the majority of Canadians across the political spectrum actually feel climate change is extremely important. They believe it’s a moral imperative, they believe federal leaders have a duty and an obligation to act. And probably what is most at the crux of the issue for Canadians, they believe that acting on climate is more important than expanding our major petroleum reserves and building pipelines.
When it comes to expanding our oil development and natural gas and building pipelines, I think we’re seeing something of a catalyst for a lot of climate activists in the country. People who had proposed pipelines perhaps coming into their communities are finding themselves looking at climate change as an issue that actually has really, really critical bearing for where they live and their daily lives and ways of being.
JAY: Right. Keith, is there a difference amongst any of the premiers? Is there any more activity happening at the provincial level, and is there any, you know, conflict or contradictions between any of the premiers and the federal government on climate change policy?
KEITH STEWART, RESEARCHER, GREENPEACE CANADA: Yeah. Well, we have this really interesting dynamic in Canada that I’ve tried to explain to my international colleagues within Greenpeace, and they think I’m crazy. Because I talk about how we’re developing a national energy strategy in Canada, but the federal government isn’t actually involved in the discussions. They won’t come to the meetings. So it’s being developed by the provinces.
And this, actually, idea originally came out of Alberta. It was proposed by Alberta, because they basically wanted to have a national pipeline strategy. This got some pushback from other provinces, particularly Ontario and Quebec, who said, well, if we’re going to talk about energy, then we should talk about all forms of energy, not just oil. And we should also talk about climate change, because our energy plan is actually our climate plan. They’re one and the same. How we use — how we get, where we get our energy from, how we use it, that is how we’re going to, that’s going to basically define what our climate impact is.
So we’ve seen in Canada there’s been this battle the last few years between, amongst the provinces … it’s kind of a friendly thing. Their discussion [ongoing]. But last year, Ontario and Quebec really put their foot down together, and they jointly said, okay, look. We want to go ahead with a national energy strategy. We’re not going to do it unless climate is part of that discussion. And they called a special meeting that’s happening next Tuesday. A meeting on climate change. How does this fit into the national energy strategy. Bringing together all the provincial premiers.
So that’s one of the reasons there’s this big rally on the weekend, it’s to sort of send a message to the premiers that if you guys are willing to stand up to big oil, we’re here for you. You know, we want this kind of action. We’re going to have people out in the streets. There’s this new kind of –
JAY: But Harper is not attending. The prime minister’s not attending.
STEWART: No. The federal government won’t come. They haven’t come to any of these meetings. They really don’t even like the idea, I think because — they knew that climate would become part of this discussion, and they really just want to talk about pipelines. They’re all about how can we build pipelines. They changed almost every environmental law at the federal level in Canada to make it easier to build pipelines.
This just created a backlash. Because when people see their government basically acting as a cheerleader for industry rather than as kind of a referee amongst competing interests , [which is what] I think most people expect, then they lose faith in the process.
And so the National Energy Board now can put out a verdict like they did in the case of the Northern Gateway Pipeline in British Columbia, saying okay, you can go ahead and build this. And the company can’t build it because they just don’t have any kind of social license, any popular support.
We’re seeing the same thing on every pipeline in the country. And I think the pipeline battles have really catalyzed this discussion, because it’s a very concrete thing. If we build this pipeline, it means we’re expanding the tar sands. It means we’re contributing to climate change. It would be [inaud.] here or somewhere else.
JAY: And has, and are any — have any of the premiers, Carol, come out against, on the pipeline issue? About expanding pipelines?
LINNITT: We’ve seen some really interesting dynamics in the provinces and also these interdynamics between the premiers themselves. Recently with the Energy East pipeline, there was some discussion in Ontario that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the pipeline, not just the pipeline itself but the fuel source that it was actually reaching into, would be considered for the province in terms of its standing on the pipeline. About a week later you see the premier of Alberta traveling to Ontario, and then Ontario’s gently backtracking on that position.
So these interdynamics are really interesting, and there’s such dissonance among the provinces that it’s going to be really interesting to see what comes out of these meetings. But despite that dissonance, it’s really encouraging to see them get together to actually talk about these issues. That’s something that we just don’t have happening at the federal level at all. So people are really relying on these sub-national conversations to get things moving.
JAY: Now there’s, Keith, there’s been some suggestion I understand from Quebec, perhaps some of the other premiers, about a cap and trade scheme. Which sounds like it’s something that’s better than nothing, except there’s been a lot of critique of cap and trade, that it’s really just a financialization of the problem and doesn’t really lead to overall really lower carbon emissions. I mean, is that — if they’re going to do something, and if that’s the something, is that really something?
STEWART: So you know, we have in Canada, British Columbia actually has a carbon tax. It covers any fossil fuel that is burnt in the province. At $30 a tonne, which is by international standards pretty good. You know, obviously a lot more needs to happen there, but they’ve actually got a good base. Quebec is just joining —
JAY: But that’s carbon taxes. That, are premiers, other premiers talking carbon tax? Or is it more cap and trade?
STEWART: Other premiers are talking putting a price on carbon. So Quebec is doing it through cap and trade jointly with California. Ontario has committed to introducing some kind of a price on carbon. It probably will be cap and trade. And cap and trade basically, the devil’s in the details. If you do it well, it can be effective. If you let the polluters build in all sorts of loopholes, it will be ineffective.
JAY: It seems like if you can confine it to, like California, then they can actually regulate and keep control of that the trade actually is a meaningful trade. It seems when cap and trade is international, it’s virtually really uncontrollable and most of it is smoke and mirrors.
STEWART: Yeah. For instance what Greenpeace has said is we don’t want to see any offsets in the system, where you can [buy] credits somewhere else to sort of not have to reduce at home, because that’s one of the big loopholes. Because how do you verify whether those reductions wouldn’t have happened otherwise? Or were they real?
We also would like to see, rather than giving away the permits for the cap and trade system for free, to put, just auction them all. To sell them all. Because then basically a cap and trade system, if you auction all the permits and you don’t allow these loopholes called offsets, then it’s pretty much a type of carbon tax. It functions basically the same from an economic perspective.
So you know, we’ll wait to see the details. But putting a price on carbon is a part of the solution. It’s not going to solve all the problems, but it’s a big part of the solution because it builds it into the — polluters are having to pay. And you know, that will get passed on to consumers, it will make highly polluting products more expensive. It will make — it in particular makes them more expensive relative to less-polluting products.
JAY: But Carol, the IPCC is saying 80% of the fossil fuels that are in the ground need to stay in the ground, or we’re going to hit temperatures that are going to be catastrophic. I mean, take that meaning 80% of the tar sands needs to stay in the ground. That’s, you would think unacceptable to large sections of the Canadian political elite, and I would say lots of ordinary people whose incomes are connected to the oil industry.
LINNITT: Yeah, presumably that will be the case. One of the things that we need to do is, as Keith said, making it more expensive to produce this carbon in the first place is one step in the right direction. Canada certainly needs to take other steps in the right direction, like putting regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector. This is something that our prime minister Stephen Harper said would be crazy to do and that no one else is doing anywhere else. Which isn’t at all the case.
So I think it’s going to be a blend of things that will eventually lead to slowing down the pace and scale of production in the Alberta oil sands. I mean, it’s just, it’s running off the rails at this point, and that’s because there’s nothing. There are no limits in place to actually rein it in. and that’s what we need to see happen.
I feel like carbon tax, cap and trade, all these schemes have a role to play in that.
JAY: Keith, how much power do the provinces actually have? I mean, can they create a national energy strategy without the prime minister?
STEWART: Well, the Canadian constitution is an odd thing. It was designed in 1867 when no one imagined that there would be a problem called climate change. And actually most of the legal powers to control the polluting industries is actually in the hands of the provinces. So what I would say is we need a federal government to actually help them come together, build a plan that’s going to work overall, and avoid having some provinces skip out on their responsibilities.
But a lot of the legal authority is with the provinces, and they’re going to have to take action, because they control the electricity sector, they control mining … but you know, the feds also have a role.
Greenpeace today actually put out a report in advance of the meeting next week, where we just crunched the numbers from Environment Canada data and sort of showed that the biggest single thing we could do to make sure Canada [meets] its carbon taxes is to say no to pipelines. Not build new pipelines, because when you build new pipelines you expand the tar sands.
Right now, Alberta has emissions …. Alberta, 11% of the population, has emissions that are higher than Ontario and Quebec, which are the two largest provinces. According to Environment Canada’s current projections, by 2020 Alberta will have emissions higher than Alberta, Quebec, and BC, which holds 75% of the Canadian population. So until we do something about the tar sands, which is what’s driving that increase, to hold back that growth. Because —
JAY: Well, to do that you need the federal government. Because there’s no way the other provinces can impose that on Alberta. I mean, even if they say you can’t —
STEWART: But they can say no to the pipelines. Which is actually one of the [inaud.]
JAY: Well, they can say no to the pipelines going east or west. They can’t say much to a pipeline going south.
STEWART: Yeah. They’ve tried that pipeline going south, and it’s been eight years that we’ve managed to hold it up. And I think it’s going to get canceled this year. So you know, they can tweak some of the [southern] pipelines, but when you look at the growth projections that they have, which is to triple the production. You know, this isn’t like a little bit of growth. They don’t need one pipeline or two pipelines or three. They need all five pipelines currently proposed and more if they’re going to grow the industry the way the government thinks they will, the way the industry thinks they will, and the way that the government has actually already handed out the permits to allow them to do.
JAY: So right now you think it’s possible you could have British Columbia say no, you can’t put your pipeline and get to a port in Vancouver. Or Ontario will say, you can’t get your pipeline entering our province. I mean, is that really a possibility?
STEWART: Yes. If you look at the politics in BC, BC has put five conditions on allowing any pipeline to go through. And basically, those pipeline — those conditions can be interpreted politically to mean they can say yes or no, and they basically are looking at public opinion. And what they’ve said so far is no, because the public is, in BC, is firmly against.
Similarly in Quebec, where you’d have to build a thousand kilometers of new pipeline for Energy East, there’s only 30% support for this pipeline in Quebec. The Quebec government’s looking at that, and saying why would we take a big political hit for Alberta? And also, for Quebec it’s, they get all the risk of oil spills, the conflict that’s going to come around the pipeline, they don’t actually get any of the economic benefit.
This is why it’s so fascinating having this meeting between the provinces, because the other provinces actually hold a lot of cards vis-a-vis Alberta. And they’ve been saying to Alberta, okay, you’ve got to come to the table with something [significant] if you want to … us to actually have a kind of a national energy strategy.
And what we’ve been saying is there’s no room in any kind of climate strategy for new pipelines. Let’s talk about how we’re going to make the investments in the alternatives. We know we’re not going to end … we’re not going to get off oil tomorrow. We’re not going to shut down the tar sands tomorrow. But for God’s sakes we can stop making them bigger.
JAY: And just one quickly, just a final, to finish off, Carol. The price of oil right now, is that taking some of the interest out of new pipelines in terms of investment interest in expanding anything to do with the tar sands? I mean, I would think at the current levels of oil prices, tar sands oil’s not all that attractive to investors, anyway.
LINNITT: Absolutely. And it’s really interesting to see what market forces have done to the production of oil in Canada. I mean, we’ve seen some major developers back out of projects in the tar sands, and that’s been quite interesting. What it does is it takes away the incentive to produce more oil, and that takes away the need for these pipelines. And at the same time, we’re seeing such tremendous gains being made in renewables. They’re so much cheaper to produce than ever before, and they’re getting cheaper at exponential rates.
So we’re seeing these really dramatic shifts happen in the fossil fuel market, or in the energy market, and I think that that is going to be a critical part of changing the tide, along with this lack of social license, concern about climate change, international pressure to regulate emissions.
I think all of these things are happening in tandem, and Canadians are getting more serious about leveraging their power when and where they can. Even if the federal government is stubborn on these issues.
JAY: Okay, well, thank you both for joining us. We’ll see what happens at the protests on the 11th and the premier’s meeting on the 14th. Thank you.
LINNITT: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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