Trudeau Shirks Climate Duty, Approves New Tar Sands Pipes

Credit: Orca breaching in the Salish Sea. Andrew Reding

In a move sure to draw widespread condemnation around the world, Canada’s Prime Minister has announced that his government will approve two new tar sands pipelines. Enbridge’s proposed replacement and expansion of Line 3 from Alberta to Wisconsin would add up to 525,000 barrels per day (bpd) of new capacity, bringing total capacity for the line up to 915,000 bpd. Meanwhile, in the West, Kinder Morgan’s proposed expansion to the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, British Columbia, would nearly triple existing capacity from 300,000 bpd to 890,000 bpd. Taken together, the two new lines would add more than 1.1 million bpd of new takeaway capacity for Alberta’s tar sands industry. The announcement also confirmed that a third tar sands pipeline—Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway—will not move forward. While today’s announcement is bad news for the growing fight against tar sands expansion, First Nations across Canada, indigenous communities in the U.S., cities and towns across British Columbia, landowners, and millions of citizens in both countries have reiterated their commitment to fight these pipelines and ensure that they never get built.


But for observers wondering whether Trudeau really means what he says when he talks about the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and work hard to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, today should leave little doubt. He has no intention of making Canada a leader on climate change and has, in one fell swoop, ensured that Canada will not meet its commitments to the international community made in Paris a year ago. Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have been rising since 2009, driven upward almost entirely by Alberta’s tar sands industry. Today’s announcement gives that industry decades worth of growth potential, a fact that will ensure soaring Canadian emissions for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the annual lifecycle emissions from the oil carried by these two pipelines could exceed 271 million metric tons, the same as 57 million passenger vehicles. That’s an important point, because all the oil moved by these lines would come from expansion, not from oil that is produced today.


Meanwhile, First Nation communities in Northern Alberta are faced with the prospect of continuing and expanding environmental degradation caused by the extraction of tar sands oil from beneath Canada’s boreal forest. Around tar sands mines and upgraders, the water and air is growing increasingly toxic, the cutting of seismic lines is decimating intact forest ecosystems, and iconic northern species are beginning to disappear.


For the U.S., these approvals pose serious threats to critical freshwater sources and our entire western coast. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, the new Line 3 would cross wetlands and drinking water sources on its route to refineries in Superior, Wisconsin. Recognizing the potential threat, the State of Minnesota has ordered the preparation of a full environmental impact statement prior to the granting of any permits for the U.S. portion of the line. In Washington State, communities around the Salish Sea have called for the rejection of the Trans Mountain expansion for years, highlighting the severe risk it poses to the region’s beloved killer whale population, and the health of the region’s marine ecosystem. This is because the project relies on the addition of 350 new oil tankers to these already-congested waters—tankers loaded with tar sands diluted bitumen, a substance the National Academy of Sciences recently concluded is nearly impossible to clean in a waterborne spill.

The upper Midwest has already witnessed the aftermath of one major tar sands spill when an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in 2010. That memory alone should remind us all that the risks these new pipelines pose to our critical water resources are simply too great to bear. For the global climate, the toll may be just as high—today’s decisions show that Canada has chosen not to make the tough decisions that will help the world avoid reaching the 2 degree Celsius warming limit that may give us a chance at avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change.