The Canadian government has given the green light to an expansion of the controversial Trans Mountain and Line 3 oil pipelines from Alberta while rejecting a third, the Northern Gateway project.
The expansion of the two pipelines would transport approximately one million more barrels of Alberta oil per day to foreign markets. The Trans Mountain pipeline terminates in Burnaby on British Columbia’s southern coast, while Line 3 terminates in Superior, Wisconsin and already has US presidential approval.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday that the approval of the two lines had scientific backing. “This is a decision based on rigorous debate, on science and on evidence,” the Liberal leader told reporters.
His comments were echoed by Ian Black, the president of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, who said that the project “has undergone comprehensive scientific and technical assessment,” and Ian Anderson, the CEO of Kinder Morgan, the energy company looking to build the Trans Mountain line, who said that the decision “follows many years of … the very best scientific, technical and economic information.”
Much of the opposition to the pipelines has come from First Nations and conservationists concerned about the risk of oil spills along the pipeline route and, in the case of the Trans Mountain line, on the coast. Even in the absence of spills, marine mammal researchers warn that the increase in noise pollution could further threaten Southern Resident orcas, an already endangered species of killer whale. In response to this, the federal government had announced a $1.5 billion ocean protection plan, with new spill-response facilities and lifeboat stations.
But the scientific conversation about the impact of the pipelines does not only focus on oil spills and biodiversity preservation. The further development of fossil fuel infrastructure also has an impact on Canada’s ability to meet its international greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitments.
The expansion of the two lines represents the production of 22-28 megatonnes (Mt) of additional upstream greenhouse gases annually when operational, according to the government’s figures (upstream includes extraction, processing, handling and transportation but not end-user combustion of the resulting products). For comparison, BC’s annual emissions clock in at 63 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2eq), and Canada’s total GHG emissions in 2014, the last year for which we have figures, were 732 Mt CO2eq. The country’s Paris Agreement commitments require a reduction of emissions to 524 Mt by 2030. In other words, these two new pipelines alone would represent about 4-5 percent of Canadian annual emissions by that year.
This means that for Canada to keep its Paris pledge while also building these two pipelines, other sectors of the economy such as electricity, transport and industry would have to increase the amount and speed of their own emissions reductions.
In addition, baked into the Paris Agreement is a mechanism that expects all countries to steadily ratchet up the ambition of their emissions mitigation commitments, as UN analysis of the current set of global pledges does not allow the world to keep below an average increase of 2°C of warming above pre-industrial times by 2100—above which we risk dangerous climate change effects. (The current pledges, if adhered to, would likely result in 3.7°C of warming by the end of the century)
Energy economist Mark Jaccard helped design BC’s carbon tax, and he still supports it. But he questions just how politically viable a stringent tax—at the level needed to meet climate targets—can really be. So he also continues to explore how other policies that the public find more acceptable could work.