On the heels of the NEB’s approval of Kinder Morgan’s pipeline proposal, a raft of research points in the other direction.
THERE IS A STRANGE IRONY to the timing of the National Energy Board’s recommendation that the controversial $6.8-billion Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion should get a green light from the federal cabinet.
Almost simultaneously with the May release of the NEB report, which concluded that, subject to 157 conditions, the Trans-Mountain pipeline would be in the national interest, a flurry of reports and scientific studies appeared documenting the risks of continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels. These were followed by a number of court challenges to the NEB recommendation.
The studies gave momentum to the leave-it-in-the-ground movement and added to public discomfort with the prospect of Kinder Morgan tripling the amount of diluted bitumen flowing from the Alberta oil sands to Burnaby. The expansion would also mean 400 tankers a year—a sevenfold increase—carrying dilbit through the sensitive waters of the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Opponents are emphasizing the project’s climate change implications and questioning how the increase in oil sands output, as the pipeline opens up new Asian markets, can fit with Canada’s commitment at the Paris climate talks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“Expanding fossil fuel production flies in the face of what is needed to tackle climate change,” said David Suzuki in an email to supporters. “So why is the government still talking about building fossil fuel infrastructure?”
The NEB report looked only at direct emissions from pipeline construction and operation, and made nine recommendations. For the first time in its history, the board recommended offsets to ensure no net emissions, but it did not look at upstream or downstream emissions or at the overall effect on climate change.
The final pipeline decision will rest with the federal cabinet. Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr has appointed a three-person panel to hear from BC residents, with promises that at least upstream greenhouse gas emissions will be examined in detail. The panel will finish its’ report in November and Carr has promised a government decision no later than December 19, 2016.
In the meantime, scientific evidence of harm—both from the processes used to extract bitumen from the oil sands and from greenhouse gas emissions released later on—continues to mount.
A STUDY, led by Environment and Climate Change Canada scientists, published in the journal Nature in May, found the oil sands pose another big problem, beyond their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions: They are one of the largest sources of “secondary organic aerosol” pollution in North America. The pollution is now “comparable to downwind of megacities such as Mexico City and Paris, and is higher than that observed in Tokyo and New England.” The tiny airborne particles, which result in what we call smog, have been linked to major health problems like respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Other studies examined the impacts of climate change on Canada. As carbon dioxide continues to be released into the atmosphere, Canada’s future, according to different scientific papers, includes both increasing droughts and floods. David Schindler, ecology professor at the University of Alberta, in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the Prairies are likely to see droughts worse than the 1930s. Meanwhile, the Fraser Basin Council warned that climate change is increasing the risk of major floods in the Lower Mainland.
Tim Takaro, Simon Fraser University health sciences professor, finds it difficult to understand why the NEB did not adequately consider climate change.
“Climate change is huge. You can see the evidence happening in Fort McMurray. It affects our health and you can’t ignore that in a project of this scale,” he said. “It is unconscionable to me that we can be discussing this dramatic expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure without considering climate changes and the health impacts,” Takaro said in an interview.
Health problems could come from a spill of diluted bitumen, but the effects of air pollution, temperature increases, flooding and sea level rise must also be considered, said Takaro.
“The International Panel on Climate Change of the UN has very clearly said that, if we [are to] have any chance of getting hold of this tiger and controlling it, we have to stop building super-large fossil fuel infrastructure,” he said.
An examination of what will happen if we don’t take such action came in May from a team of climate scientists, led by University of Victoria PhD student Katarzyna Tokarska. Published in Nature Climate Change, their study warned that if the Earth’s remaining untapped fossil-fuel resources are burned, the average global temperature is likely to rise between 6.4 and 9.5 degrees Celsius by 2300, with Arctic temperatures warming an astounding 14.7 and 19.5 degrees Celsius by that year. These increases are a far cry from the 2.0 degrees of warming that is accepted as the upward limit to avoid the most serious effects of climate change. Such warming would end life as we know it on planet Earth.
Tokarska applied sophisticated climate models to the current estimate of known fossil fuel reserves, with their conservative associated five trillion tonnes of carbon emissions when burned, to project “considerably more profound climate changes than previously suggested.”
“What we are doing is showing it’s relevant to know what will happen if we don’t take any action to mitigate climate change—if we don’t ever implement the Paris agreement or other such agreements. It’s a worst case scenario if we don’t do anything now,” Tokarska said in an interview.
Climate scientist and MLA Andrew Weaver, a co-author of Tokarska’s paper, said in an interview that if Canada is serious about the Paris agreement, the government should not even consider the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
“Signing that agreement says we shouldn’t be building pipelines and we shouldn’t be building new LNG facilities,” said Weaver, who is also leader of the BC Green Party.
“Canada investing in infrastructure to enhance its extraction of a resource, 80 percent of which, globally, has to be left in the ground if we are going to meet our targets, makes no sense,” Weaver added.
CONTINUED RELIANCE ON FOSSIL FUELS also does not make economic sense, said Weaver. He pointed to Saudi Arabia’s decision to move to an economy that does not rely on oil and Norway’s decision to eliminate fossil fuel vehicles.
“Canada is in a very precarious position. If we double down on the 20th century economy, which is dependent on resource extraction, we are going to be very poorly positioned when other jurisdictions transition away from fossil fuel,” he said.
The economic uncertainty is echoed by a federal government think-tank that, in a draft report obtained by the CBC in May, said the rapid transformation of the world’s energy landscape could jeopardize economies based on fossil fuels.
Policy Horizons Canada, which provides future-looking advice to federal bureaucrats, said in the report that electricity from wind and solar is becoming competitive with electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear power.
“The shift to an electricity-dominated global energy mix will be accelerated as decreasing costs combine with increasing government and private sector concerns over climate change, energy security and air pollution, particularly in developing countries where the need for additional energy capacity is greatest,” says the report.
David Hughes, former research director at the Geological Survey of Canada, agrees that the economic case for new pipelines is flawed. In another new study, he noted that the international price of oil is no longer significantly higher than North American prices.
“The idea that exporting more oil sands bitumen to Europe or Asia will boost returns to Alberta simply doesn’t hold water,” Hughes wrote in the study conducted for the Corporate Mapping Project, led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Alberta’s Parkland Institute.
“Oil sand bitumen will always sell at a discount due to its lower quality, regardless of whether it’s sold in North America or on international markets,” says the study.
Hughes also eviscerates claims by politicians that it is possible to meet climate commitments while significantly expanding oil and gas production and building new export pipelines.
“Short of an economic collapse, it is difficult to see how Canada can realistically meet its Paris commitments in the 14 years remaining without rethinking its plans for oil and gas development,” he wrote.
Hughes, who also factors in the five liquefied natural gas export terminals envisioned by the provincial government, found that with projected oil sands growth, emissions in other sectors would have to shrink by 55 percent to meet Paris Agreement commitments.
“If Canada is to have any hope of meeting its Paris commitment, the aggressive oil and gas growth ambitions of the Alberta and BC governments will have to be reconsidered and reduced,” he said.
Environment and Climate Change Canada, in a May review, estimated that, if the pipeline expansion is approved, upstream emissions—those associated with the production, processing and transportation of oil—could be between 20 and 26 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. The NEB previously estimated that the pipeline itself would generate about one million tonnes of greenhouse gases during construction and another 400,000 tonnes annually once in operation.
The government review, however, also noted that the upstream emissions might occur whether or not the Trans Mountain pipeline is built; if oil sands production does not happen in Canada, investments would be made in other jurisdictions and global oil consumption would be materially unchanged in the long-term.
That assumption is being challenged by critics such as Ecojustice lawyer Dyna Tuytel who wrote in her blog that it amounts to a failure to take responsibility for Canadian upstream emissions.
“This means that Environment Canada will not consider the emissions from additional tar sands production itself and, instead, will focus on the difference in emissions intensity of oil production in Canada compared to other hypothetical jurisdictions if Canada were not to produce it here,” she wrote.
ECOJUSTICE, REPRESENTING the Living Oceans Society and Raincoast Conservation Foundation, is among the groups now challenging the NEB report in the courts.
Lawyers for Ecojustice have filed for a judicial review of the report saying that the board failed to adequately consider the adverse effects of tankers on endangered southern resident killer whales and their habitat.
The Squamish Nation has filed for a judicial review, as well, claiming that the First Nation’s concerns were not adequately taken into consideration and that the NEB process was flawed. And in June the City of Vancouver filed for a judicial review saying the NEB report is “flawed and biased” and ignores scientific evidence about the consequences of a major spill and the effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, the federal Liberal government has launched a lengthy review of the NEB process and other legislation governing the way major projects are assessed.
Many of the laws, such as the Fisheries Act, Environmental Assessment Act, and the Fisheries and Navigation Protection Act, were changed in 2012 by the former Conservative government in an effort to get industrial and resource projects fast-tracked and approved more quickly.
Expert panels will now review the legislation and issue a report in January. Some of the laws will also be studied by two parliamentary committees. However, the Liberal government has already said that projects already in the process—such as Kinder Morgan—will not be required to go back to square one and instead will face additional regulation through already-announced interim measures, including more consultation with First Nations and more emphasis on the effect projects will have on greenhouse gas emissions.
Despite the continuing controversy, Kinder Morgan is confident that it can meet NEB’s conditions, including controlling emissions. A communications spokesman said in an emailed statement that the company welcomes the NEB’s requirement for a GHG offset plan. Although pipelines account for only about one percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, the industry is ready to do its part, he said. “It is a sign of the times and an appropriate reflection by the NEB, taking into consideration an issue of great public interest and importance,” he said. “We understand climate change is an important global issue requiring action across many industries around the world.”
PROVINCIALLY, KINDER MORGAN’S pipeline faces hurdles into 2017 when it will likely become a provincial election issue.
Before that it will have to face a provincial environmental review following a BC Supreme Court ruling that the province cannot rely solely on the federal process and, so far, the provincial government is not ready to give a go-ahead.
“Our government position has always been clear and consistent. We will only support heavy oil pipelines in BC if our five conditions are met,” said Environment Minister Mary Polak. “We are not there yet.”
Polak noted that some conditions set by the NEB do address BC’s concerns, but there is work yet to do on issues such as marine spill response, First Nations and benefits for BC.
The provincial conditions include a world-class response to spills and for BC to receive its fair share of benefits, but do not mention climate change or emissions. That’s because pipeline greenhouse gas emissions are a federal responsibility, explained BC Ministry of Environment spokesman David Karn. “As the regulator of interprovincial pipelines, it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure emissions are managed so that federal commitments are achieved,” he said.
The province will rely on information from the NEB environmental assessment, but provincial Environmental Assessment Office staff will meet with aboriginal groups to determine whether Kinder Morgan has adequately consulted First Nations, Karn said.
The provincial cabinet decision is likely to be made after the federal ruling in December and it is not clear what will happen if the two do not dovetail.
Leading towards May 2017’s provincial election, where do the parties stand on the pipeline?
George Heyman, NDP environment critic, says the NDP has consistently opposed the project, partially because of the NEB failure to consider climate change and lack of information on what part the pipeline plays in an overall climate plan.
“This not in British Columbia’s interest,” Heyman said, counting off potential risks to the environment and the economy and accusing the BC Liberals of trying to have-their-cake-and-eat-it-too by taking an ambivalent stance.
During the last provincial election, the NDP loss was partially blamed on then-leader Adrian Dix coming out against the pipeline during the campaign, but Heyman said that there are no concerns that it will deter voters next spring. “One of the reasons we took this position clearly and early is so people know where we stand. We will go forward into an election telling people what we are going to do to create jobs and a healthy economy as well as what clear measures we will take to have a good climate action plan,” he said.
Weaver also believes the issue could still be knocking around during next spring’s provincial election and, as Green Party leader, he wants to see the Province just say “No.”
“I have said very clearly that Kinder Morgan is simply not going to happen on my watch and they should not be wasting people’s time going through a process that is not in the interest of British Columbians or Canadians,” he said.
The government always seems focused on “getting to yes, no matter what the question is,” Weaver said. “But with some projects the answer should be ‘No’—and Kinder Morgan is one of those projects.”
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
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