Newly-elected government in Canada outlines its climate priorities; faces first major test in the Frontier mine decision

Canada’s minority government is back in session after the October 2019 election, launched by the Speech from the Throne on December 5.  The Throne Speech traditionally is used to outline government priorities, and signals that Justin Trudeau and his Liberal party will try to stay in power by balancing the demands of the oil and gas proponents in Alberta against the environmental concerns of the rest of the country. The Toronto Star parsed the speech in “What does it mean? The Throne Speech Interpreted “.

On the issue of climate change, here are the actual words of the Throne Speech:

“In this election, Parliamentarians received a mandate from the people of Canada which Ministers will carry out. It is a mandate to fight climate change, strengthen the middle class, walk the road of reconciliation, keep Canadians safe and healthy, and position Canada for success in an uncertain world.”… A clear majority of Canadians voted for ambitious climate action now. And that is what the Government will deliver. It will continue to protect the environment and preserve Canada’s natural legacy. And it will do so in a way that grows the economy and makes life more affordable.

The Government will set a target to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. This goal is ambitious, but necessary – for both environmental protection and economic growth.

The Government will continue to lead in ensuring a price on pollution everywhere in this country, working with partners to further reduce emissions.

The Government will also:

help to make energy efficient homes more affordable, and introduce measures to build clean, efficient, and affordable communities;

make it easier for people to choose zero-emission vehicles;

work to make clean, affordable power available in every Canadian community;

work with businesses to make Canada the best place to start and grow a clean technology company; and

provide help for people displaced by climate-related disasters.

The Government will also act to preserve Canada’s natural legacy, protecting 25 percent of Canada’s land and 25 percent of Canada’s oceans by 2025. Further, it will continue efforts to reduce plastic pollution, and use nature-based solutions to fight climate change – including planting two billion trees to clean the air and make our communities greener.

And while the Government takes strong action to fight climate change, it will also work just as hard to get Canadian resources to new markets, and offer unwavering support to the hardworking women and men in Canada’s natural resources sectors, many of whom have faced tough times recently.”

 

Reaction from environmentalists and Opposition party leaders appeared in the National Observer, in  “Liberals commit to carbon-pollution target of net-zero by 2050”   (Dec. 5); and in “Throne speech climate commitments dwarfed by spending on Trans Mountain” by the Dogwood Institute .

The Canadian Labour Congress reacted with this generally supportive statement:  “We need bold targets to fight climate change, we owe that to our children …. “We also owe the next generation good jobs and commitments to minimize the impact on workers. Today’s commitments move us towards a greener economy.”   In advance of the Throne Speech, the Green Economy Network, a union network of which the CLC is one member, had made  a harder-hitting statement: “The GEN is demanding that the Prime Minister make climate job creation a priority through investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green buildings, public transit and higher speed rail transit.”

Also in advance of the Throne Speech, a group led by the Smart Prosperity Initiative  delivered an Open Letter outlining detailed demands for clean economy initiatives. The twenty-six signatories include leaders from business, environmental advocacy groups, and the United Steelworkers and BlueGreen Canada.

One of the first major tests for the minority government, should it last that long, will be the decision required by the end of February on whether to approve the application by Teck Resources for the massive Frontier oil sands project – a $20-billion, 260,000-barrel-per-day open-pit petroleum-mining project near Fort McKay in northern Alberta. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website provides official documentation, including the July 2019 Joint Review Panel Report , which includes discussion of the  economic and employment impacts of the project (beginning page 883).  Critiques of the Joint Review Panel approval were published in July by The Narwhal here  and the Pembina Institute here .

And now, as Parliament reconvenes and the COP25 meetings are underway, the Frontier mine is becoming the  litmus test of Canada’s climate change policy, as laid out in  “Trudeau will fuel the fires of our climate crisis if he approves Canada’s mega mine”, an Opinion piece by Tzeporah Berman which appeared in The Guardian on December 10.  Also on December 10, Greta Thunberg and fourteen other young people released an Open Letter to government leaders of Canada and Norway, calling on them to block any new oil and gas projects and quickly phase out existing ones. The National Observer explains in  “Greta Thunberg and other youth call on Trudeau to ditch fossil fuels” (Dec.9) .

Environmental injustice for Canada’s First Nations – updated

Syncrude_mildred_lake_plantAn overview of the state of environmental injustice in Canada appears in The Statement of United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, issued following his visit in May/June 2019. The full report will be presented to the United Nations in Fall 2020.  The preliminary information presented in  the Statement identifies “a pervasive trend of inaction of the Canadian Government in the face of existing health threats from decades of historical and current environmental injustices and the cumulative impacts of toxic exposures by indigenous peoples. ” The Statement commented on the specific cases of the oil sands (Fort McMurray, Fort MacKay and Fort Chipewyan), Sarnia, Muskrat Falls, and mining sites such as Elk Valley.  He noted that Canada has “the second highest number of known mining accidents from 2007-2017, increasing significantly from previous years.”

The Special Rapporteur concluded: “It was clear during the course of my visit that many communities in Canada continue to be exploited by toxic exposures.  Some key concerns include: (1) the limited degree of protection of human health and ecosystems under various legislation; (2) the lack of environmental information and monitoring in areas of high risk; (3) long delays or absence of health impact assessment for affected communities; (4) the inadequate compliance with and enforcement of laws and policies; (5) systemic obstacles to access to justice, in particular for cases of health impacts due to chronic exposures; and (6) the recalcitrance to ensure that victims can realize their right to an effective remedy.   The situation of affected communities outside Canada is of equal concern in many of these regards, including the inordinate power imbalance faced by communities in low- and middle-income countries relative to Canadian corporations.”

The Special Rapporteur visited Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley” and highlighted it in his Statement. This area has been identified as a “pollution hot spot”, and the Aamjiwnaang   First Nation have long fought for redress – including a legal challenge under the Environmental Bill of Rights in 2007.  More recently, on October 9, the Toronto Star published “Whistleblower alleges province failing to protect First Nations community in ‘Chemical Valley’ from ‘dangerous’ air pollutants” , a senior engineer employed by the provincial Ministry of the Environment  alleges that ministry executives withheld technical and scientific information about sulphur dioxide impacts,  failed to properly consult the Aamjiwnaang First Nation representatives, and that he was subject to workplace reprisals for raising the issues. His grievance, filed with the labour board, details his accusations and asks for $186,000 to compensate for the reprisals, and for the ministry to begin discussions with him and Aamjiwnaang representatives “with the goal of providing capacity funding and to develop a program” that would transfer authority from the ministry  to the Aamjiwnaang to enforce Ontario air pollution requirements that impact their territory.

Other examples are described by reporters at The National Observer – for example, “How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands” (April 2019)  and “Alberta officials are signalling they have no idea how to clean up toxic oilsands tailings ponds” (Nov. 2018) .  The Narwhal maintains an archive of articles concerning Canadian mining examples, including the Mount Polley and Taesko mines. One example, “‘This is not Canada’: inside the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s battle against Taseko Mines” (August 2019) .  The APTN News article “Amnesty uses World Water Day to highlight environmental racism in Canada” provides an overview of First Nations actions as of March 2019.

grassy narrows warningAnother example of long-standing concern, mercury pollution at Grassy Narrows, has emerged as an election issue, with the Chief of Grassy Narrows running for the NDP in the riding of Kenora.  Dozens of other Indigenous leaders are running in the current election to bring attention to their own areas, according to a CBC report : for the NDP, 10 candidates; for the Liberals, 12; for the Conservatives, 7, and for the Greens, 6.

Related reading:

The Alberta Environmental Law Centre published a blog in September, Access to Environmental Justice: Costs and scientific uncertainty raise barriers to protecting communities .  This brief blog acts an introduction to the issue of environmental injustice by providing brief overviews (with links to further readings) of case studies which illustrate the barriers to legal action experienced by Alberta First Nations. The  specific cases described are Kearl Oil Sands Environmental Assessment (2007), Fort McKay (2016) and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation.  Looking beyond Alberta, the blog also notes examples of Sarnia Ontario’s Chemical Valley, and Africville Nova Scotia, and briefly discusses the concept of climate justice.

 

Oil Sands update: Trans Mountain will undergo new NEB Review – but watch out for the new Frontier mine

On September 21, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources announced that the federal government has begun its path forward after the Court of Appeal decision on August 30 which stopped the Trans Mountain Pipeline.  The press release states:    “we have instructed the National Energy Board (NEB) to reconsider its recommendations, taking into account the effects of project-related marine shipping. The NEB will be required to complete a thorough and prompt review and deliver its report within 22 weeks.”… and “…the NEB will provide participant funding so that the views of Indigenous groups are well represented in the Board’s consideration of marine issues.” The National Energy Board website provides official news of the new Order in Council here

A CBC report on September 21 summarizes the government action and reactions:  “Ottawa gives pipeline regulator 22 weeks to review Trans Mountain expansion project” ; in it,  the Minister  promises a further announcement on improved consultations with First Nations (one of the two grounds cited by the Court of Appeal for quashing the project).

Other reactions:

Although her office hasn’t released an official statement, Alberta’s Premier Rachel Notley has taken a hard line in media interviews,  as reported by  CBC on Sept 21) :  “We will not tolerate legal game playing,”… “And should it start to appear that game playing is working, we will hold Ottawa’s feet to the fire.”

From federal Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer: “Ottawa needs ‘special representative’ to consult Indigenous groups and save Trans Mountain, says Scheer” (Sept. 24);  From B.C.’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, a press release limited to cautious acknowledgement; and from Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, as quoted in The Straight (Sept. 25) : it would be “a win-win-win” to move the terminal from Burnaby to Delta, thus avoiding concerns about tanker traffic in the sensitive Burrard Inlet (but not addressing any concerns to “keep it in the ground”).

West Coast Environmental Law has written a thorough summary of the August Court of Appeal decision , and suggested questions for the coming review.  Ottawa is also facing a call from Washington State for  improved oil spill protocols for the part of the Trans Mountain pipeline which passes through the Puget Sound, according to the National Observer  (Sept 25).

“Colossal” new oil sands mine:  But as all eyes are on the progress of this Trans Mountain review, another enormous oil sands project is under consideration.  “Hearings begin today into a $20-billion oilsands mine that’s even bigger than the massive Fort Hills”  in The Financial Post (Sept. 24), reporting the on a five-week, joint-review panel regulatory hearing by Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and Alberta Energy Regulator into the development of the Frontier oilsands mine by Teck Resources.   The Narwhal analysis describes the Frontier mine as “ a colossal undertaking that relies on ‘relentless’ growth in world oil demand at a time of global climate precarity”.  Read “One of the largest oilsands mines ever proposed advances to public hearings” from The Narwhal for background and discussion of the potential impact, including the economic arguments, for this new development.

Oil sands companies called on to “keep it in the ground” – but Suncor opens new mine near Fort McMurray, deploys driverless trucks

Parkland report big oil coverThe majority of Alberta oil sands production is owned by the five companies: Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), Suncor Energy, Cenovus Energy, Imperial Oil, and Husky Energy.  What the Paris Agreement Means for Alberta’s Oil Sands Majors, released on January 31 by the Parkland Institute, evaluates what the 2°C  warming limit in the  Paris Agreement means for those “Big Five” –  by assessing their  emissions-reduction disclosures and targets, climate change-related policies, and actions, in light of their “carbon liabilities.” The carbon liabilities are calculated using  three levels for the Social Cost of Carbon, ranging from $50, $100, and $200 per tonne. Even under the most conservative scenario, the carbon liabilities of each corporation are more than their total value, and the combined carbon liabilities of the Big Five ($320 billion) are higher than Alberta’s GDP of $309 billion. Conclusion: “the changes required to remain within the Paris Agreement’s 2°C limit signals a need for concrete, long-term “wind-down” plans to address the challenges and changes resulting from global warming, including the fact that a significant portion of known fossil fuel reserves must remain underground.” What the Paris Agreement Means for Alberta’s Oil Sands Majors was written by Ian Hussey and David Janzen, and published by the Parkland Institute as part of the SSHRC-funded Corporate Mapping Project.  A National Observer article reviewed the report and published responses from the Big Five companies on January 31.

autonomous electric mining truckRather than keeping it in the ground, Suncor Energy announced on January 29 that it is continuing to ramp up production at its Fort Hill oilsands mine, about 90 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.  The next day, Suncor also announced  the beginning of a 6-year phase-in of approximately 150 autonomous electric trucks at numerous locations. The company said it will “continue to work with the union on strategies to minimize workforce impacts,” and that “current plans show that the earliest the company would see a decrease in heavy equipment operator positions at Base Plant operations is 2019.”   Reaction from the local union is here in a notice on the website of Unifor 707A;  Unifor National Office response is here:  “Driverless trucks aren’t the solution for Suncor” .  The National Observer published an interview with a Suncor spokesperson on January 31.  According to”Suncor Energy says driverless trucks will eliminate a net 400 jobs in the oilsands” , Suncor is the first oil sands company to use driverless trucks, and “Suncor’s plan to test the autonomous truck systems was initially criticized by the Unifor union local because of job losses. But Little says Suncor is working with the union to minimize job impacts by retraining workers whose jobs will disappear. The company has been preparing for the switch by hiring its truck drivers, including those at its just−opened Fort Hills mine, on a temporary basis.”

The good news is that  “the era of oil sands mega-projects will likely end with Suncor Energy’s 190,000 barrel-per-day Fort Hills mining project, which started producing this month”, according to an article by Reuters.  The bad news is in the title of that article:  “Why Canada is the next frontier for shale oil” (Jan. 29) . The article extols the strengths of Alberta’s mining industry, and quotes a spokesman for Chevron Corporation who calls the Duvernay and Montney formations in Canada “one of the most promising shale opportunities in North America.”  For a quick summary, read   “Montney, Duvernay Oil and Gas Fields Seize the Momentum from Athabasca Tar Sands/Oil Sands” ( Jan. 31) in the Energy Mix.

Also,  consider the work of Ryan Schultz of the Alberta Geological Survey.  Most recently, he is the lead author of  “Hydraulic fracturing volume is associated with induced earthquake productivity in the Duvernay play”, which  appeared in the journal  Science on January 18 , and which is summarized in the  Calgary Herald  on January 18.  It discusses the complexities of how fracking has caused earthquakes in the area.

Canada’s progress on emissions reduction: New reports from OECD, UNFCCC , and policy discussion

An excellent overview article about Canada’s  “staggering challenge” and policy options to meet its emissions reduction targets appeared in The Conversation on January  11, 2018),  written by Warren Mabee, Director of the  Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University and a Co-Investigator in  the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (  ACW) project.   “How your online shopping is impeding Canada’s emissions targets”  outlines  the issues of clean electricity, transportation emissions (where your online shopping can make a difference), greener homes,  and rethinking fossil resources, and concludes that  “If we’re to succeed, Canada will need an integrated, holistic suite of policies – and we need them to be in place soon.”

oecd-environmental-performance-reviews-canada-2017_9789264279612-enOther recent publications take stock of Canada’s emissions reductions in greater detail.  In its  3rd Environmental Performance Review for Canada released on December 19, the OECD warns that  “Without a drastic decrease in the emissions intensity of the oilsands industry, the projected increase in oil production may seriously risk the achievement of Canada’s climate mitigation targets… …“Canada is the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the OECD [in absolute terms], and emissions show no sign of falling yet.”  Canada’s emissions actually did decrease since the last report was issued in 2004, but only by 1.5 per cent compared to reduction of 4.7 per cent by the OECD as a whole.  In addition to the impact of oil sands production, the OECD singles out a regime of poor tax incentives: “Petrol and diesel taxes for road use are among the lowest in the OECD, fossil fuels used for electricity and heating remain untaxed or taxed at low rates in most jurisdictions, and the federal excise tax on fuel-inefficient vehicles is an ineffective incentive to purchase low-emission vehicles.”

The OECD analysis finds support in a report from two researchers from the University of Toronto, in “How the oil sands make our GHG targets unachievable”   in Policy Options.  They state: “… only with a complete phase-out of oil production from the oil sands, elimination of coal for electricity generation, significant replacement of natural-gas-fuelled electricity generation with electricity from carbon-free sources, and stringent efficiency measures in all other sectors of the economy could Canada plausibly meet its 30 percent target.” The authors recommend a  gradual (12-to-15-year) phase-out of oil sands operations, with workers and capital redeployed to emerging sectors  such as renewable energy and building retrofits, and contend that  the importance of oil sands production is overstated. “….  the direct contribution of the entire oil, gas and mining sector to Alberta’s 2016 GDP was 16.4 percent, of which oil sands mining and processing was likely about one-third (or 5 to 6 percent of total provincial GDP)” ….and oil sands oil production is estimated to account for only 2 percent of Canadian GDP.”

Yet the federal government continues the difficult balancing act of a  “have-it-all” approach – for example, in a speech by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr  in November 2017, in which he defended the approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline with: “We need to prepare for the future, but we must deal with the present …..That means continuing to support our oil and gas resources even as we develop alternatives – including solar, wind and tidal…. new pipelines will diversify our markets, be built with improved environmental safety and create thousands of good middle-class jobs, including in Indigenous communities. They were the right decisions then and they are the right ones now. ” A recent blog by Patrick DeRochie of Environmental Defence, “Trudeau Thinks We Can Expand Oil And Still Reduce Carbon. Let’s Put That To A Test” , challenges this view .

On December 29, Canada issued a press release announcing that it has submitted its Seventh National Communication and Third Biennial Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change , required by the UNFCCC to document progress towards its 2030 greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal of 30% reduction from 2005 levels.  The title of the government press release, “Canada’s Climate action is Working, Report to United Nations Confirms” is justified by including estimates of the effects of policies still under development in a “with additional measures scenario”. Under that scenario, the government forecasts an emissions decline across all economic sectors,  equivalent to approximately a third of Canada’s emissions in 2015 by 2030… ”

Meanwhile, the federal government has released a number of announcements and legislative proposals in December 2017 and January 2018. Regarding  the planned carbon pricing backstop under the Pan-Canadian Framework, which will come into effect by January 2019:  Details are set out in:  Supplemental Benchmark Guidance   Timelines ,  and the Letter to Ministers in December, and on January 15, the  proposed carbon backstop  legislative framework was released as Legislative and Regulatory Proposals Relating to the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act and Explanatory Notes (French version here) .  Also on January 15, the federal government released for comment the proposed regulatory framework for  carbon pricing for large industrial facilities – an Output-based Pricing System (OBPS) described in more detail in a separate WCR post here.

On December 12, the  Clean Fuel Standard Regulatory Framework was released for comment.  The government has also committed to developing a national strategy for zero emission vehicles in 2018 to increase the supply of zero-emission vehicles.

Also on December 12, and capping six months of consultation under the banner Generation Energy,  the Minister of Natural Resources announced the creation of a 14-member Generation Energy Council to be co-chaired by Merran Smith,  Executive Director of Clean Energy Canada, and Linda Coady, Chief Sustainability Officer at Enbridge. (Bios of all members are here ). The council is tasked with preparing a  report to advise the government on an “ energy policy that ensures meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples; aligns with Canada’s Paris Agreement commitments and the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change; and complements the work being done by the provinces and territories, building on the shared priorities identified at the Federal, Provincial and Territorial Ministers Meeting at the Forum.”