More action needed from Canada's premiers on climate change

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Canada's premiers agreed to a master energy and climate change plan July 17. It's specific on fast-tracking pipelines, but “aspirational” on climate action.

No wonder. Building more pipelines to export oilsands oil will gut any serious plans to cut greenhouse gases.

Alison Redford was Progressive Conservative premier of Alberta for a fleeting 2-1/2 years. As the PC dynasty was crumbling, she was hounded from office, and left in disgrace. Her party soon followed suit and Redford was almost a forgotten figure.

But Canada's premiers rehabilitated her legacy by adopting the Canadian energy strategy she kick-started in 2012. Big foreign oil was reluctant to expand production in Alberta's oilsands unless they could get the oil out of landlocked Alberta to a coast, any coast, so they could obtain the world oil price. As an advocate for Big Oil, Redford needed to get other premiers to support pipelines crossing their provinces.

Alberta couldn't win their approval if it looked like it was just a oilsands-exporting scheme. To appeal to citizens in other provinces, it needed to appear like a nation-building project that would cut greenhouse gases and bring them more than oil spills.

The premiers of B.C., Ontario and Quebec, representing provinces where the lines need to cross, could not be seen supporting dirty oil lines unless they could brandish an environmental agreement. B.C. Premier Christy Clark talked tough, issuing five demands about oil pipelines from Alberta giving B.C. benefits. Ontario and Quebec formed an alliance to use Alberta’s desire for their pipeline support to lever an effective national climate action agreement.

But last week in St. John's, the tough demands of those pipeline-traversing provinces melted away like so many receding glaciers. Canada's premiers agreed to Redford's master energy and climate change plan. Provinces committed to fast-tracking pipelines, but committed to nothing on climate action.

A toothless climate plan flies in the face of growing movements of Indigenous peoples and settlers across Canada joining together to oppose pipelines and take real climate action. The premiers' energy strategy came at the height of a summer of unprecedented heat waves in Western Canada and hundreds dying of heat exposure in Pakistan and Italy.

Strong wording in earlier drafts of the energy strategy would have committed all provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, to absolute reductions in carbon emissions. The wording was missing on the final agreement.

Big Oil's election night fears about the new NDP government in Edmonton faded away. Like its Conservative predecessors, the Notley government promoted export pipelines for oilsands oil, perhaps more effectively than they had, because Notley is plainly not in Big Oil's pocket.

Building more export pipelines will encourage more oilsands oil production and raise greenhouse gases. Production from the oilsands, rather than Canadians' oil and natural gas use, are Canada’s fastest growing source of emissions. Growth in oilsands emissions has recently added more carbon to the atmosphere than Ontario’s phase-out of coal-fired electricity has eliminated.

Three times between 2008 and 2011, the House of Commons passed Jack Layton's Climate Change Accountability Act pledging Canada to cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent below its 1990 level by 2050. (The act never came into law because it was defeated by the unelected Senate.) The 80-per-cent reduction goal subsequently became the international norm.

Yet Canada cannot reach this goal if oilsands output expands by 2050 as expected. Oilsands emissions would take up all of Canada’s carbon room by then. Canada cannot shut down all other oil uses such as cars, trucks, jets and heating oil just so Alberta's oilsands can reach the output level Big Oil wishes.

However, we can cut carbon emissions that much if Canada phases out carbon energy exports and Alberta caps oilsands production at current levels and phases it out over the next 15 years.

Instead of importing oil into Quebec and the Atlantic provinces as we do now, Canada could rely on the slowly falling output of domestic conventional oil and natural gas to transition us to a low-carbon society run on renewable energy.

Instead of building several oilsands export pipelines, we need only one small pipeline to carry conventional, non-fracked oil to Quebec. There’s no need for a new oil pipeline to New Brunswick. If Newfoundland ends oil exports, it can supply conventional oil to all Atlantic Canadians.

The premiers must do more to fight global warming than adding verbal hot air.

Gordon Laxer is the founding director and former head of Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta and author of the forthcoming book, After the Sands. Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians.


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