Prominent Canadians visit Washington DC to share the truth about Canada's record

co-written with Josh Axelrod, NRDC international legal intern

As the Ottawa Citizen reports the Harper federal government launched a $20 million taxpayer-funded advertising campaign, a prominent delegation of Canadians has traveled to Washington, DC.  The delegation is urging U.S. law and policy makers to take note of the Canadian federal government’s systematic attack on climate and environmental protections, public activism, and artistic expression.  IN the midst of the Obama administration’s permit review for the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, several weeks ago, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly sent a letter to President Obama declaring his willingness to enact any climate actions necessary to get approval of the pipeline.  The truth is that emissions from Keystone XL would simply be too big for Canada to offset, and the Harper government’s pro-tar sands policy leaves little room for confidence that this is anything but more empty promises.  Instead, the Harper government has a clear record prioritizing a massive expansion of its tar sands sector above carbon pollution, above environmental protections, and increasingly with a strategy to silence its citizens.   This delegation includes a Dr. Danny Harvey, a University of Toronto climate scientist, notable environmental leaders David Suzuki and Tzeporah Berman, Tim Gray the head of Environmental Defence Canada and Canadian artist Franke James who has gained notoriety for standing up to the Harper government’s efforts to silence her climate art.

In the era of expanding tar sands oil development fueled by pipelines to the U.S. like Keystone XL, Canada has quietly amended, delayed, and failed to enact environmental laws critical to mitigating the well-known risks of tar sands development.  Along the way, Canada has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, claimed its spot as the eighth largest GHG emitter in the world, lobbied governments around the world to weaken their climate and environmental policies, and actively restrained the production and publication of scientific studies deemed damaging to Canada’s pro-tar sands interests. With U.S. lawmakers and policymakers continuing to mull over whether to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, it is time to set the record straight on Canada’s weakened, ineffective, and missing environmental laws

NRDC has released a new briefing note confirming there is little doubt that the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline packs a major climate impact.  As my colleague Anthony Swift noted, “From the tar sands mine or drilling operation to the automobile gas tank, tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are 81 percent greater than those of conventional oil. Keystone XL, by moving 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands into the Gulf and offsetting less carbon intensive crudes, would generate up to 24.3 million metric tons of additional annual carbon emissions. To put that in perspective, to make up for that, Americans would have to drive 60 billion fewer miles per year.”

Most importantly, Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is a major driver to increase levels of tar sands oil development—a gateway for massive surges in carbon pollution that the environment and Earth’s atmosphere cannot tolerate.  Regardless of industry plans in Northern Alberta, the U.S. must send a message to Canada and the rest of the world that curbing GHG emissions and mitigating climate change are central priorities.  Rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline is one critical step on this responsible and forward-looking path.

The U.S. is certainly looking at Canada’s environmental and climate record as part of its overall review of the pipeline.  A closer look at the current Conservative administration reveals the Harper administration has consistently acted to weaken regulatory laws and policies in order to promote rapid expansion of tar sands development.  In doing so, Canada has placed its own economic future at risk while creating an increased risk for accelerated worldwide climate change.  The Harper government has presided over a major gutting of significant environmental protections in Canada in the name of expanding its tar sands industry:

  • Amendments to major Canadian environmental protection laws including the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, Navigable Water Protection Act, and Fisheries Act (at the request of industry) reducing the scope of environmental impact review, removing consulting agencies from environmental impact review, requiring shorter decision-making timelines, heightened scrutiny of environmental groups trying to challenge review and permitting processes, and the exemption of many oil and gas projects that have significant environmental impacts.
  • Passage of the National Energy Board Act. At the request of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the NEBA was passed in 2012 to remove the need for public consultation prior to licensing for oil and natural gas exploration.
  • Defunding of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE).  The Harper administration ended funding for the major research body in March of 2013 because the NRTEE promoted a carbon tax.  Despite NRTEE’s role as an independent policy advisory agency for the Canadian Government, government ministers suggested that funding was cut off because NRTEE was supposed to “agree with the government.”
  • Withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.  Canada’s withdrawal means that its ambitious plans under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act was abandoned by order of the Harper government. 
  • Suppression of scientific research.  Not only has the Canadian government cut funding for scientific studies that might result in negative findings related to resource development and climate change, it has also instituted policies aimed at restricting climate change media coverage, including apparent attempts to restrict government scientists’ ability to speak with the media.
  • Suppression of critical speech.  In a widely publicized case, the artist Franke James has been directly censored by government officials after producing and seeking to display artwork that is critical of the oil and gas industry’s environmental impacts.
  • International Lobbying.  The Canadian federal government, as well as the Alberta provincial government have each taken high-profile European trips to lobby against the EU’s adoption of the Fuel Quality Directive—an effort by the EU to lower the carbon intensity of the fuels it uses for transport and energy.  Further, lobbying efforts have targeted California’s low-carbon fuel standard and Section 526 of the U.S. clean fuels policy.

This week’s meetings are aimed at telling this often-overlooked story in the words of Canadian citizens, activists, and researchers who must confront these truths every day. 

Dr. David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. He is Companion to the Order of Canada and a recipient of UNESCO's Kalinga Prize for science, the United Nations Environment Program medal, the 2012 Inamori Ethics Prize, the 2009 Right Livelihood Award, and UNEP’s Global 500. Dr. Suzuki is Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and holds 28 honorary degrees from universities around the world. He is familiar to television audiences as host of the CBC science and natural history television series The Nature of Things, and to radio audiences as the original host of CBC Radio's Quirks and Quarks, as well as the acclaimed series It's a Matter of Survival and From Naked Ape to Superspecies.

Franke James is a Canadian artist and has been called, "a wicked thorn in Stephen Harper's side" and a ‘troublesome artist.’  Franke  James' 20-city European art show was cancelled as a direct result of behind-the-scenes government interference by high-level Canadian government bureaucrats.  The artist has vigorously and creatively fought back against the government's interference and censorship calling it an infringement on her right to free expression. James has mounted two crowd-funded art shows to protest the silencing of environmental voices. The first show took place in 2011 in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. The poster show is travelling to Canadian and U.S. cities in 2013. James’ environmental political art will be appearing on the streets of Washington, D.C. starting September 26 and continuing through November.

Tzeporah Berman is Canadian Author and Resource Development Activist. One of Canada’s most well-known environmentalists, Tzeporah Berman has been the voice and face of countless effective environmental campaigns internationally during the past 20 years, including most recently taking legal action against her own government for cutting the people out of the democratic process when it comes to energy infrastructure development.  Tzeporah has been profiled as one of Utne Reader’s 50 Visionaries Changing the World and in Readers Digest as "Canada's Queen of Green”.   

Tim Gray is the Executive Director of Environmental Defence Canada who has been at the forefront of tar sands work in Canada for more than 5 years - leading critical research and campaigns on tailings lakes, water and air quality, toxics, pipelines, and climate change. Environmental Defence has authored recent reports on the tar sands, including, "Mitigating climate impacts of the tar sands: barriers to greenhouse gas reduction in Canada," and, "Reality Check: Water and the Tar Sands."

Danny Harvey is a Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Toronto, where he teaches courses related to climate, global warming and energy use. Dr. Harvey is a lead author of the IPCC 4th and 5th assessment reports.  He has authored several books and and is Deputy Editor of the journal Climatic Change.