Canada heads to COP26 with a new, activist Minister of Environment and Climate Change

Prime Minister Trudeau announced his appointments to Cabinet on October 26, and one of the strongest symbolic appointments was that of Steven Guilbeault as the new Minister of Environment and Climate Change. It appears that Trudeau did not (yet)  follow the demands in Unifor’s October 22 letter to the Prime Minister , which included “Establish a Just Transition Ministry and Just Transition Fund, partially financed through levies on large industrial emitters, with the mandate to support workers affected by climate-related job displacements through enhanced income insurance, pension bridging, severance pay, retraining and relocation support, and local just transition centres.”  However, the new appointments sent an unmistakable signal, as described in the National Observer article “Cabinet shuffle signals support for climate, not oil and gas”.  The previous ECC Minister, Johnathan Wilkinson, was shifted to the ministry of Natural Resources – replacing Seamus O’Regan, who had been accused of a too-cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry which falls under the Natural Resources portfolio.  The National Observer article highlights the continued importance of Wilkinson on the climate change file.

Mitchell Beer provides the background to Steven Guilbeault in  “Guilbeault to Environment, Wilkinson to Natural Resources as ‘PM in a Hurry’ Names New Cabinet”Energy Mix, Oct. 26). The article includes reaction from environmental activists – many of whom have worked alongside Guilbeault in his earlier life as a Greenpeace campaigner (when he was arrested for scaling the CN Tower in Toronto) , co-founder of  non-profit Équiterre in Quebec, and as a member of the government’s 2018 advisory panel on climate change, before he was elected to Parliament in 2019.  An exemplary quote, from Stand.earth Climate Finance Director Richard Brooks, “Hoping my old friend @s_guilbeault will remain true to his roots—and lead Canada in upping its climate ambition and more importantly its actions…”  Yet as Keith Stewart of Greenpeace points out in their press reaction, a whole of government approach will be needed. Stewart hopes it will lead to “greater cooperation on climate action across departments, as the minister of Natural Resources has in the past acted as the chief advocate for the oil industry at the Cabinet table.”  As indicated in the reaction from Macleans magazine,  “Trudeau sends a signal to Alberta. Cue the squirming” (Oct. 26), Wilkinson and NRCan are expected to smooth over the sharper edges of a potentially rocky relationship with Alberta:  “ A major test, past Glasgow, will be how Wilkinson and Guilbeault handle their government’s buzzy term: “just transition.”… It will fall in large part to Steven Guilbeault to maintain a steady and reassuring tone that this isn’t the case. His past doesn’t suggest he’s perfectly suited for this task…”  

Reaction from the fossil fuel industry and Premier Jason Kenney is predictably negative, as reported in CBC’s story,   “Kenney says longtime activist’s appointment as environment minister sends ‘very problematic’ message”.  The CBC report quotes an Alberta academic who calls  Guilbeault’s appointment  “a finger in the eye to everything that Kenney has done.” A brief article from Reuters sums up the hostile reaction of the fossil fuel industry in the language of its headline “Trudeau roils Canada’s oil patch naming Greenpeace activist as climate chief (Reuters, Oct. 26).

Oil and Gas and Canada’s Energy Policy

Two other reports were released in advance of the Premiers meetings in Quebec City. Crafting an Effective Canadian Energy Strategy: How Energy East and the Oil Sands Affect Climate and Energy Objectives by the Pembina Institute reviews Canadian experience with carbon pricing, emissions levels, and states that any energy strategy will only be effective if it takes into account the emissions footprint of new infrastructure projects, including the proposed Energy East pipeline project. The report also recommends that the Council of the Federation create an advisory committee modelled on the disbanded National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. The report is also available in French.

 Another study, released by Environmental Defence and Greenpeace, makes similar arguments and asserts that “continuing to expand tar sands production makes it virtually impossible for Canada to meet even weak carbon reduction targets or show climate leadership”. Read Digging a Big Hole: How tar sands expansion undermines a Canadian energy strategy that shows climate leadership.

 In April, Environment Canada released the UNFCC-mandated report, National Inventory Report 1990-2013: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada. The report states that the Energy industry was responsible for 81% of Canada’s emissions in 2013. 

Pipeline News: Kitimat, First Nations Reject Northern Gateway; the Government Downgrades Protection for Humpback Whales

The Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline has encountered new road blocks as communities voice renewed opposition to the project. In Kitimat, residents voted against the pipeline by 60% in a non-binding plebiscite on April 19th. Kitimat might stand to gain the most if the project proceeds, with a promise from Enbridge to bring 180 permanent jobs to the community in addition to indirect opportunities for local contractors and suppliers. The day before the vote, four First Nations from the Yinka Dene, just west of Kitimat, expressed their official opposition to Northern Gateway in a meeting with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the National Energy Board, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The Yinka Dene have already gathered 160 B.C. First Nations behind a petition against the project. Other communities that have previously stated their opposition include Terrace, Prince Rupert, and Smithers.

See “Kitimat Residents Vote ‘No’ in Pipeline Plebiscite” from The Globe and Mail at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/kitimat-residents-vote-in-northern-gateway-oil-pipeline-plebiscite/article17949815/, “Does Kitimat’s Vote Matter?” In The Tyee at: http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/04/12/Kitimat-Northern-Gateway-Vote/, and “Four Dene clans officially reject Northern Gateway pipeline” from The Globe and Mail at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/four-dene-clans-officially-reject-northern-gateway-pipeline/article17948468/.

See https://workandclimatechangereport.org/2014/01/28/northern-gateway-headed-to-court-as-neb-approval-provokes-criticism-of-review-process/ for background on the current lawsuits against the Northern Gateway project by First Nations and environmental groups.

Meanwhile, on April 22nd, Environment Canada has recommended that the humpback whale be reclassified, from “threatened” to “species of special concern” under the Species At Risk Act. This would remove legal protection for humpback habitat (which happens to include the British Columbia coast where oil tanker traffic would increase if Northern Gateway is approved, and is part of the basis of a lawsuit launched by EcoJustice and others). See the CBC report at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/humpback-whale-losing-threatened-status-amid-northern-gateway-concerns-1.2617633.

Oil Sands Emissions – Even Greater than we Thought

From researchers at the University of Toronto, a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on February 3 finds that emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from tar sands operations may be two or three times higher than previously reported in official estimates if fumes coming from tailings ponds are included in measurements. A summary of the study is at the CBC website at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/oilsands-air-pollutants-underestimated-researchers-find-1.2521134. The full article, “Evaluating Officially Reported Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Emissions In The Athabasca Oil Sands Region With A Multimedia Fate Model” is available at: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/01/29/1319780111.

A second article published in Environmental Science and Technology, the journal of the American Chemical Society, uses new technology to measure and differentiate between naturally occurring pollution from bitumen deposits and pollution from oil sands processing. The authors conclude that “oil sands process-affected water (OSPW)” from tailings ponds is reaching the Athabasca River system. The research was conducted under Environment Canada’s regular research program – and not surprisingly, Environment Canada told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that it was unable to provide an interview with the report’s main author, Richard Frank.

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“Profiling Oil Sands Mixtures from Industrial Developments and Natural Groundwaters for Source Identification” appears in Environmental Science and Technology Article ASAP (Jan. 21, 2014); an abstract is available at: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es500131k (full text available for a $35 fee). The Edmonton Journal summary is at: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/health/Federal+study+confirms+oilsands+tailings+found/9530481/story.html.

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