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Keystone XL and Canadian Environmental Performance


Canada and the Keystone XL Decision by the State Department

Yesterday, March 1st, the long-awaited U.S. State Department environmental assessment of the Keystone XL pipeline was released.  As widely expected, the report concluded that there would be no undue environmental risks to completing and operating the pipeline.  While the report did not go so far as to recommend approval, it did argue that, essentially, the Canadian tar sands are going to be developed whether or not this pipeline is constructed, and also that moving petroleum via pipelines is the safest transport method.  It’s been amusing to watch the antics of the Harper government, the oil industry, and sundry other supporters over the past couple of weeks.  Newspapers have almost had to print extra pages to cover the flurry of governmental announcements of Canadian environmental initiatives.  You’d think Canada was so green that even Kermit the frog would feel envious, or that the Irish had taken over and declared every day a celebration of St. Patrick.

Let’s look at some of these announcements from our Canadian government.  On February 15th, Peter Kent, Minister of Environment, added to his nose-lengthening problems by telling the Globe and Mail and others that Canada’s credibility on climate change is so good it does not need much work to prove it so.  “Certainly, I don’t think we have to go very far to build that credibility,” Kent said in response to a reporter’s question.  He added, “We’re doing a lot. Our American friends know that….We work aggressively with the United States on climate change to encourage some of the foot-draggers, the major emitters in the developing world, to step up to their responsibilities.”  Apparently pointing fingers at others is an important way of demonstrating your own credibility – even when your own behavior is not credible.  Mr. Kent, we have the third highest per capita rate of release of greenhouse gases on the planet and are hardly in a position to point fingers, yet alone brag about it.

Minister Kent_landscape

The Honorable Peter Kent, Minister of Environment

Mr. Kent went on to confirm that Canada is regulating emissions sector by sector (an approach widely recognized as cumbersome, slow and ineffective), and stated, “We’re deep into finalizing new regulations for the oil and gas industry, including the oil sands, which is an area of particular misrepresented and exaggerated impact in the United States.”  Exaggerated?  So is his claim.  The Harper government has been so deep into finalizing new regulations for the oil and gas industry for so long that many of us figure they will be released only after the world ceases to use oil and gas.

On the very same day as Mr. Kent had this whimsical conversation, Environment Canada posted its latest report on air pollution on its website.  The data cover emissions of the key air pollutants contributing to smog, acid rain and poor air quality, and/or that affect human health. In general, emissions from most industrial and commercial sectors decreased in 2011 compared to 2010. This decrease reflects those seen in the longer term, where emissions of smog precursors, certain heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants declined between 1990 and 2011.  For example, mercury, lead and cadmium declined by 23, 21, and 50% from 2010.  Sulfur oxides were down 6% and nitrogen oxides down 5%, also good news.  However, these results are not a consequence of the Harper government actually doing anything to rid our air of pollutants, and the report is conspicuously silent on rates of emissions of CO2.  As Elizabeth May, leader and only member of the Green Party in Parliament, pointed out, not only does this Environment Canada report conspicuously not include information on greenhouse gases, the National Pollutants Releases Inventory on which it is based, explicitly exempts oil and gas exploration/production from the obligation to report emissions of pollutants.  Furthermore, the good results in 2011, compared to 2010, were at least partly due to a decline in activity of the industrial sector of the economy – hardly an achievement the government might want to trumpet.

On the 25th February, Peter Kent was at it again, announcing new regulations governing fuel efficiency of heavy-duty trucks (full-size pick-ups, semi-trucks, garbage trucks and buses) to be phased in between now and 2018.  Oh my goodness, what a surprise.  How aggressive can this government be in regulating automotive emissions, and curtailing releases of greenhouse gases.  The regulations only deal with trucks.  They are being phased in over the next three years.  And they only mirror what the U.S. has already mandated two years ago.  Given the tight integration between our economies, it has always been obvious that the American action some time ago would have full effect in Canada whether or not our government chose to do anything.  Calling these new regulations an example of the Harper government’s serious attention to environment stretches credulity.  I mean… this was a really tough decision that actually was made despite the objections of the people who drive those trucks.  We will go far with environmental policy of this type of limp and wispy forcefulness – I can now breathe easier knowing that the Harper government has the environment file safely in hand.

Oh yes, amid all these announcements, Peter Kent again reported falsely that Canada is halfway towards its 2020 goal for curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.  Does the guile of this government know no bounds?

tar-sands-2-1000 Dodge Pembina

Syncrude plant.  Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute

Meanwhile, of course, there has been a continuing stream of Canadians of influence visiting the United States and talking about our closely linked economies, jobs, energy freedom, ethical oil, and good old Canadian-American friendship.  John Baird had gone calling early in the month.  Allison Redford, Premier of Alberta went to Washington the weekend of the 26th February, and not for the cherry blossoms (she was too early).  In an op-ed in USA Today, she reported that  Alberta has a levy on heavy carbon emitters, is redirecting that money into clean energy projects and is taking steps to mitigate the environmental impact from tar sands projects, but without stating what those steps were.  She also made the audacious claim, “Total conserved land within the oilsands region in Alberta is larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island and the District of Columbia combined,” – a clever ploy given Americans’ general difficulty with believing anything in the world could be bigger than Connecticut, Rhode Island, and DC!  I’d have been more impressed with her information on how large the area of seriously degraded land and water is, compared to Connecticut, Rhode Island, and DC, or perhaps Texas.

redford-keystone Jeff MacIntosh CP

The Honorable Allison Redford, Premier of Alberta.  Photo © Jeff MacIntosh, Canadian Press

We know less about some other visitors, but a delegation of oil sands CEOs, accompanied by members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers sounds more like a company of carpetbaggers in alligator shoes than a group of tourists taking in the sights on the Washington Mall.

The Real Impact of Keystone XL

No matter what Canadian government and industry supporters say, the slow progress of the Keystone XL pipeline through American regulatory hurdles is having an important beneficial effect.  It is slowing down the rush to develop the tar sands, and perhaps causing some re-thinking by Canadians about the kind of economy we want to have in the future.

The idea that Keystone XL was somehow a more risky pipeline than others, was an exaggeration once the route was modified to skirt the core of the Ogallala aquifer.  But the ambitious plans for expansion (tripling) of the tar sands production are fundamentally dependent on being able to move the product away from the well sites towards markets, and Keystone is a key component of this.  It is correct, as the State Department report argued, that not building Keystone will not prevent expansion in Athabasca.  But cancelling Keystone, and slowing or hopefully cancelling Northern Gateway will slow or stop this expansion – the less the tar sands project grows (while it remains so dirty) the better Canada’s performance on greenhouse gases.

Keystone Pipeline

Pipe waiting to become a pipeline.   © Canadian Press

As I wrote some weeks ago, it is NOT that the tar sands are contributing an enormous percentage of the GHG released globally.  It is that they are dirtier than any other form of oil (both in GHG and water pollution), and that Canada cannot meet its own very modest commitments on GHG emissions while still pushing for a tripling of production.  The Harper government is being irresponsible in building its economic policy on tar sands revenues.

Is There a Better Future?

If the Harper government would engage with the tar sands developers and demand that they phase in substantial improvements in the impacts on CO2, and water pollution, on a timetable that is reasonable (years, not decades), and if permission to expand production was directly tied to these improvements, it might be possible for Canada to again hold its head high, while still extracting value from the tar sands.  They would still be environmentally messy, but they would not become rapidly more messy, and maybe, just maybe, they would be cleaned up.  But such forceful regulation will never happen so long as the Harper government continues to be the lapdog of the industry.  Indeed, based on performance of the industry and both federal and provincial governments over the past few years, it seems as if the only thing that is likely to save us from ourselves is actions by others (including the USA) to tamp down our expansion, and/or changes in the marketplace that make development of these resources no longer viable.  The real tragedy will be if the tar sands project eventually comes to an end with Alberta’s environment ravaged, and the taxes and royalties all frittered away on high living for the short term.  If that happens, we Canadians will know that we really are “just a colony” – a colony to the kingdom of greed.

Scott Vaughan Sean Kilpatrick CP

Federal Environment Commissioner, Scott Vaughan.  Photo © Jeff Kilpatrick, CP

And less that sound too strident an end to this post, economists are already exploring the consequences on economies of the devaluation that must eventually occur when our world finally weans itself off its dependence on fossil fuels.  That weaning will come first for those fuels that are most expensive and messy to extract.  Canada needs to begin serious planning for the post-tar sands economy, and paying attention to the federal Environment Commissioner, Scott Vaughan, who seems to understand environmental matters somewhat better than certain politicians in Ottawa.