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Harrison: Building a Pipeline is Not a Climate Plan

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The federal government’s decision to buy out, then re-approve the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion means Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “has made a choice on our behalf, but Canadians should not kid ourselves that building a pipeline is a climate plan,” argues University of British Columbia political scientist and chemical engineer Kathryn Harrison, in a blistering retort to National Observer columnist Sandy Garossino’s recent post [1] on Ottawa’s C$70-billion climate plan.

Harrison, also writing for Observer, takes issue with Garossino’s contention that building another pipeline will just be “a wash”, on the basis that global supply chains would simply adjust if the Trans Mountain project disappeared.

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“The federal government’s own estimate is that the pipeline’s annual upstream emissions—emissions resulting from extraction, processing, and transportation of crude within Canada—will be 13 to 15 million tonnes, equivalent to two million cars,” she writes. “That’s a big deal, because Canada’s current climate plan is not sufficient to get us to our 2030 Paris Agreement target.” And, she might have added, when Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have both called that Harper-era target a floor, not a ceiling [3] for the country’s climate ambition.

“The tarsands have accounted for three-quarters of Canada’s emissions growth since 1990,” Harrison adds. “It’s also the sector that accounts for almost all projected growth going forward. Even the celebrated 100-megatonne cap on emissions from the tarsands—which was never legally binding and from which Alberta has withdrawn support—would allow a tripling of tarsands emissions from 2005 to 2030, thus demanding deeper compensatory cuts from other sectors and other provinces.”

As for global markets, “we face a collective action problem in fossil fuel production,” she continues. “Oil-exporting countries say they support the Paris Agreement, but hold out hope that their oil will be the last drop consumers buy. This is especially unrealistic for Canada: our oil is relatively costly to produce and carbon-intensive to refine, and thus likely to be the first to go.”

Which means that “at best, Canadians will be saddled with stranded assets and economically ill-prepared when global customers shun our exports. At worst, excess supply will continue to depress global fossil fuel prices, undermining the transition to cleaner energy, to the detriment of future generations.”

Harrison also questions Garossino’s embrace of Trudeau’s “long-standing argument [4]” that revenue from new pipelines will fund Canada’s transition off carbon, adding that theoretical tax income from the pipeline is the backstop for the $70-billion climate plan. “That figure assumes the tarsands will continue to prosper and thus pay taxes for 20 years,” she writes. “Should that happen, Canada and the planet will have much bigger problems than how to allocate those tax revenues.”

And she sets out to counter Garossino’s argument that letting Trans Mountain die would have guaranteed electoral defeat for Trudeau, leaving the last four years of climate programs to be dismantled by an Andrew Scheer government. That equation, she said, depends on how youth and suburban voters outside Alberta will decide to vote—and for provinces east of Alberta, the pipeline may not be the determining issue [although climate might [5]—Ed.].

“Those questions will play out depending on the competitiveness of the parties riding by riding. I don’t have access to granular polling, and I doubt Garossino does either,” Harrison writes. 

But “my bigger concern is a state of affairs where, in the face of arguably the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced, a proposal to expand oil production to fund climate action is the best Canada’s prime minister has to offer.” Politicians’ assumption that voters’ climate concern runs a kilometre wide and a centimetre deep, combined with the view that the economy and the environment can go hand in hand, “have lulled Canadians into false complacency,” she says. “In refusing to acknowledge very real trade-offs, Canadian leaders have failed to build voters’ support for even modest measures that are needed to transform Canada’s economy from fossil fuels.”

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1 Comment To "Harrison: Building a Pipeline is Not a Climate Plan"

#1 Comment By Bill Henderson On July 8, 2019 @ 11:10 AM

Thanks for the fair coverage of Harrison’s oped. We are in an election cycle and many are afraid of aCon win; Garissino’s oped was an attempt to positively spin Trudea’s TMX strategy. Harrison’s important conclusion that Trudea’s strategy and actions have seriously mis-educated Canadians at a critical time is especially germane, if inconvenient for those invested in a Lib win in Oct.