Pipeline Politics: Who Buried the Lede?
Opinion & Analysis
Award-winning investigative reporter Paul McKay looks into how mainstream media tilts coverage by assigning climate science missing-in-action status.
Lies, deception, and denial have beset humanity since Adam snuck a bite from Eden’s forbidden fruit—then claimed Eve made him do it. She blamed a snake. Their Landlord was not fooled by either tenant, so the parable goes, and summarily served an eviction notice.
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Journalists have no such higher authority, yet many also deal with lies, deception, and denial 24/7. Much like scientists, their job is to find, test, and publish—without fear or favour—verified facts which allow the public to judge their importance, moral merit, and societal resolution.
Imagine no reporters had tracked the Watergate burglars. Or exposed countless churches hiding pedophile priests, or a revered Red Cross negligently sending contaminated blood to Canadian hospitals. Imagine no newspaper had diligently scoured Vancouver police, social worker, and street sources to finally identify the misogynist murderer of 49 victims, or exposed Volkswagen for flogging clean, green diesel vehicles after conspiring to falsify emission tests.
Such examples abound, but even the most laudable feature one flaw: like a coroner’s inquest, the exposé came after far too much damage was done. Often this occurred because many looked the other way, stayed silent, failed to disclose damning documents or report incriminating evidence or conduct. When that finally does happen, guilty parties often fire up fog machines to hide the truth even longer.
But no one, including journalists, can go missing in action, or patiently wait for post-mortem evidence, in the face of the escalating climate crisis. Everyone needs to step up their game because it is already here, doing damage in real time, stalking everything that lives and breathes on Earth.
The Science Doesn’t Lie
The crime has been exposed. Physics has identified carbon as the culprit. Eminent scientists now warn that humanity has a decade or less to avert an irreversibly deranged climate, and that global fossil fuel production and consumption must be ratcheted down fast. Their data is unassailable. Extreme weather “bombs” on every continent already exceed in number, violence, and damage what climate models predicted.
We are not merely courting catastrophes—still rising global carbon emissions means humans are incubating ever more terrifying versions of it.
This is the stark, searing message of 16-year old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish founder of #FridaysforFuture. In the past several weeks, her words have humbled UN General Assembly delegates and members of the United States Congress. She drew a historic crowd of 500,000 in Montreal, an estimated 12,000 to the Alberta Legislature steps, and 15,000 in Vancouver. Globally, the climate rallies she has ignited now exceed seven million marchers.
From her most avid supporters to her most vicious, climate-denying detractors, countless voices have sought to turn Thunberg into the icon and idol she so steadfastly refuses to be.
Yet she has galvanized the world by telling us, in the plainest possible way, that she fears the future because of what science has told her. Hers is not a vague anxiety, teenage angst, misplaced belief, or mere opinion. It is her fundamental fact of life.
This is why her speeches are so riveting and heart-wrenching. She seems incapable of telling a lie, or being deceitful or using doublespeak. Like George Orwell, her words are as clear as a window pane. They don’t come adorned with adjectives, or spin, or artful construction. She does not dress in sponsored sneakers or sweatshirts, try to “build a brand”, or even accept personal awards. She is a marketeer’s worst nightmare.
Her most explicit message is for those in authority to just heed and act on the latest, best science. Her less obvious, though equally important message, is embedded in this paraphrased plea to adults and powers that be: “If you really love us, how dare you foreclose our future?”
Could it be any clearer? Adults, either by commission or omission, negligence or indifference, have put our only Earth and all its children in mortal danger by burning 100 million barrels of oil per day. As a matter of physics, the resulting cumulative emissions (plus more from burning coal and natural gas) already exceed what our biosphere can withstand. It is pushing back with lethal vengeance.
That’s a scientific verdict as certain as gravity and evolution. It is also proof humans are failing in our most fundamental child care duty. That is why Thunberg dares to ask: Will you pretend all is normal—or will you do what it takes to protect your kids?
215 Million Barrels Per Year: Ignoring an Existential Crisis
Climate deniers, the fossil lobby, and their elected allies are predictably quick to dismiss the Swedish teenager’s #ClimateStrike mission as evidence of being brainwashed. That runs counter to the massive, irrefutable knowledge base Thunberg and her allies have absorbed from leading scientific authorities, based on the global evidence they have compiled from meteorological stations to biology field reports to glacier cores and melt rates.
Moreover, during the same week Thunberg spoke in Vancouver, the editor in chief of the world’s most prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, issued this warning:
“The climate crisis is one of the most, I would say the most, existential crisis facing our communities in the world today,” warned Richard Horton. “Doctors and all health professionals have a responsibility, an obligation, to engage in all kinds of non-violent social protests to address the climate emergency. That is the duty of the doctor.”
By any journalistic standard, this emergency declaration should be major news. Mainstream media outlets routinely report on articles, studies, and commentaries published by the esteemed British medical journal. Yet Horton’s urgent call to action received only scant mention in Canada.
Instead, the concurrent federal election media coverage largely devolved into a fact-free food fight which turned the climate crisis issue into a blizzard of sound bites. To my knowledge, not a single scientist was interviewed by major newspapers or broadcasters, or appeared on daily and Sunday morning talk shows.
Few, if any, asked this caustic question: Since the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and related tar sands/oil sands output would abet the burning of an additional 215 million barrels of bitumen per year, how can such a defiance of science be justified or ignored?
Predictably, with actual climate scientists absent from the mainstream media landscape, and a lack of tough questions demanding binary answers, many prominent politicians opted for lies, deceit, or doublespeak.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer claimed the western oilpatch could and should expand infinitely, but Canada would still somehow reach its Paris emission reduction targets by some unspecified means. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau declared himself a climate champion in Montreal, but the proud purchaser of the Trans Mountain project when in Calgary. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh ran as a Trans Mountain opponent because it would triple future oil exports to Asia, then left climate and pipelines off his list of post-election top priorities. Only the Green Party and Bloc Québécois walked their talk.
Post-Election Spin Drives Fossil Agenda
Post-election reporting was worse. The Liberals lost their majority in Parliament, and won not a single seat in the tar sands/oil sands provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. This was pounced on by the two pro-oil provincial premiers, who demanded and got instant public assurances that Trans Mountain would soon start pumping almost 600,000 more barrels of bitumen per day to a Vancouver marine export terminal.
If that happens, one billion more barrels of unrefined bitumen could be exported during the next half-century. That total would more than double if the Keystone XL pipeline were completed and the existing Trans Mountain pipeline continued operating for decades more.
Yet this lethal math and its implications for the climate crisis completely vanished from media narratives after election night, while Trudeau was cast as the chastened prodigal son who could only be redeemed—and save the nation—by granting two aggrieved premiers their every oilpatch wish. Those include gutting recently-approved federal environmental laws, scrapping an oil tanker ban for part of the B.C. coast, making the federal carbon tax disappear, and firing the federal environment minister.
But a careful look at the actual election results indicates that Canadian voters want exactly the opposite.
The federal Conservative vote total in Alberta was 1.4 million, and in Saskatchewan 367,000. That netted a virtual sweep of MP seats for both hard-line oilpatch provinces, but amounted to only about 10% of the 18 million votes cast nationally.
By contrast, the ardently pro-climate action Bloc received a comparable vote total in Quebec (1.37 million) as Conservatives did in Alberta. The NDP garnered 2.8 million votes nationally, the Green Party 1.3 million. Since the Liberals’ and Conservatives’ national vote totals were essentially equal, effectively cancelling each other out, the combined 5.4 million NDP, Bloc, and Green election votes mean Canadians voted for far stronger climate action—which by definition cannot include more pipelines and tar sands/oil sands output.
The glaring disconnect between actual national vote patterns and Parliamentary seats attained can be blamed on our antiquated first-past-the-post electoral system. It can produce arrogant majority governments, or minority governments which grant inordinate leverage and largesse to regional dissidents to stay in power.
In this case, the oilpatch politicians have already begun parlaying a Liberal seat shutout in two provinces into federal concessions which would smash not only our national carbon budget, but Canada’s international treaty obligations and reputation.
Mainstream media have barely mentioned this dysfunction. It is essentially a taboo subject. But Alberta and Saskatchewan are actually outliers and misfits when it comes to heeding climate science, reducing their emissions on par with other provinces, and advancing renewable technologies in line with most of the 185 nations that have signed and ratified the Paris climate accord.
Loading Alberta’s Carbon Responsibilities onto Other Provinces
It is premiers like Jason Kenney who are in deep denial, and determined to accelerate a decades-long bitumen binge by approving more gigantic deposits, and granting fossil players huge tax waivers and subsidies. By demanding unlimited tar sands/oil sands output, Alberta is forcing all other provinces to sharply reduce their own emissions (at escalating cost) in order to meet Canada’s national carbon budget.
It would be shameful for our newly-elected parliamentarians to ignore the national majority who voted to confront the climate crisis, and reward a reckless regional minority. If Trans Mountain is built and some 215 million more barrels of bitumen are burned each year, the extra annual carbon emissions will be the equivalent of putting about 10 million more passenger cars on the road.
If the Keystone XL pipeline reaches its full design capacity 900,000 barrels per day, it will more than double the combined output and emissions from the existing and expanded Trans Mountain pipelines.
In the face of such a wanton, relentless carbon assault on our shared atmosphere, the contribution of otherwise worthy federal investments in electric vehicle charging stations, home energy retrofits, storm protection works, or even a modest national carbon tax will be wiped out.
This factual calculus should be embedded in virtually every story Canadian journalists write about Trans Mountain or climate change, Western alienation, or minority parliament deal-making which assumes the only priority is to mollify two provocative premiers and a fossil fuel Frankenstein—rather than confronting the emergency science has actually declared.
Many reporters, editors, and talk show hosts may instinctively balk at that prescription, concluding that it would tip the scales of “objectivity”. But, in fact, it is climate science which is the most impartial, reliable source of facts.
That is what reporters are trained to seek and use. Not doing that, or routinely leaving climate science and scientists out of the stories that report on political slagging matches, tips the scales heavily in favour of fossil fuel defenders, and defines the emergency as protecting the oilpatch, not humanity’s future on the planet.
For Canadians, stopping Trans Mountain pipeline funding and cancelling its construction is a test of our survival instinct, and of our duty of care to future generations. Anything less will amount to a pretense of real action. That is the verdict of science. That is the math. If it is built and operates, Canadian adults will be conceding defeat from the start. And then have to face their own Greta Thunbergs for decades to come.
If Ottawa does pledge and proclaim the end of oilpatch subsidies, special treatment, and emission exemptions, while generously financing the transition to a carbon-neutral economy, the majority of MPs and Canadians can then in good conscience tell Thunberg:
“Bless your bravery and truth-telling. But please return home soon, reclaim a normal life, and allow us to lift our share of that awful weight from your shoulders. Because we respect the science, and we do love our kids.”
Paul McKay is an award-winning investigative reporter and author. His reports have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Vancouver Sun. He owns a Chevrolet Volt, which he charges with his home solar array.