The Trans Mountain Migraine: Canada Chooses Oil Over Climate

Canada’s peeling façade as an environmental leader lost a few more flakes of lead paint this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau again gave the greenlight for the troubled Trans Mountain expansion tar sands pipeline. The sequence of events that led up to the announcement caused so much cognitive whiplash that the headlines wrote themselves: “On Monday, Canada declared a ‘climate emergency.’ On Tuesday, it approved a pipeline expansion.” On stage announcing the decision, Trudeau was once again doing backflips to try and justify his government’s continued misalignment around climate action and continued support for the expansion of Canada’s tar sands industry. The basic premise: we’ll pay for climate mitigation with oil money!

But that position is utter nonsense.

Let’s remember how the current mess that is the Trans Mountain pipeline got started in the first place. Almost exactly one year ago, in a bid to prop up a project proposal that no longer had economic justification and was headed to defeat in the courts, the Government of Canada purchased the existing Trans Mountain line from Texas-based Kinder Morgan, along with the rights to build the proposed expansion pipeline. So elated were Kinder Morgan’s shareholders to get that project off their hands that they immediately voted—almost unanimously—in favor of the sale. Soon after, the project’s federal permit was invalidated by Canada’s courts.

In the intervening months three big pieces of information were confirmed: First, Canada’s National Energy Board—the country’s pipeline regulator—acknowledged that, if built, the Trans Mountain expansion would have a significant negative impact on the imperiled Southern Resident Killer Whales that Canada has sworn to protect. Second, a lack of export pipeline capacity really does require production slowdowns in the tar sands; and, conversely, new pipelines are all about facilitating expanded oil production in Canada’s tar sands. And finally, Prime Minister Trudeau can’t think of any alternative ways to tackle climate change aside from greenlighting new oil production at the moment our global climate crisis has finally reached a fever pitch.

Orca breaching in the Salish Sea. Andrew Reding

That new oil production would come with a very hefty greenhouse gas price tag. Lifecycle emissions caused by producing and burning the oil carried by the Trans Mountain expansion could top 143 million metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere every year. That’s 129 million metric tons more than Canada has managed to cut from its 2005 emissions baseline over the past 14 years. So, Trudeau’s premise of producing more oil to pay for emissions reductions? It's already going to be a stretch with Canada's government using up to $2 billion of taxpayer funds--instead of tolls collected from the shippers who use the existing Trans Mountain pipeline--to pay for the government's purchase of that aging pipeline. A quick math check suggests that Ottawa would be at least $10 billion in the red if Trans Mountain were ever built, meaning there would be a stretch of many years before the "profits" Trudeau leans so heavily on ever materialize. Even if they eventually do, it's hard to see how they could even deliver greenhouse gas reductions above and beyond the increased emissions driven by the pipeline itself.

At the end of the day, sadly, logic has once again not prevailed. Canada declared a “climate emergency,” and then took a right down the road of a petrostate. Meanwhile, policies that were used to “green” the tar sands and Alberta in general are being hoisted onto the scrap heap by the newly elected conservative provincial government. Which means, that at the end of the day, despite many reasons for letting Trans Mountain join Northern Gateway and Energy East in the tar sands pipeline graveyard, the battle will almost certainly return to the courts where Trans Mountain’s future looks about as gloomy as it always did.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

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