Trudeau Threatens to Derail Canadian Climate Progress

When Canada’s Prime Minister announced his government’s approval of two new tar sands pipelines earlier this week, he repeated his befuddling claim that expanding productions of one of the world’s dirtiest sources of energy was a necessary step in the fight against climate change. Huh? It’s a claim he’s been testing out with the public for the last six months and it appears, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he’s sticking with it. So, what are the actual climate implications of these new approvals in the context of Canada’s actual emissions, its international commitments, and its plans for lowering climate pollution? While Trudeau's announcements have galvanized the opposition to these pipelines, and their futures are far from certain, it's worth taking a look at just how misleading Trudeau and his government is being when he says new tar sands pipelines and fighting climate change can coexist. This post attempts to unravel the convoluted math and reveal just how misguided Trudeau is in believing Canada could live up to its climate promises while expanding Alberta’s tar sands sector.

Step 1: What are Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions today and where do they need to go?

Canada’s latest report on national greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) pegs the total at 732 megatons (MT) per year. This is not the highest they’ve ever been, but it does represent an increase by 36 MT since 2009. In other words, Canada hasn’t been achieving emission cuts for at least five of the last seven years. In its submissions to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Canada has pledged to cut its annual emissions by 30% by 2030, based on 2005 levels. That translates to annual emissions of 523 MT, a 199 MT cut from 2014’s levels.

Step 2: What do the approvals of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement and expansion mean for Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions?

Canada’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change conducted two separate studies to determine the likely upstream emissions (i.e., emissions released in Canada) associated with each of these tar sands pipelines. For Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, they estimated that the 590,000 bpd increase in export capacity could lead to emission increases ranging from 13-15 MT/year. For Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement and expansion, they estimated that the 370,000 bpd increase in export capacity could lead to emission increases ranging from 10-13 MT/year. Thus, by Canada’s estimates, these projects could add up to 28 MT/year of new GHG emissions in Canada.

There are a few important notes about these numbers to consider:

  • First, they do not include emissions associated with the diluent added to most tar sands oil (to allow it to flow through pipelines) because that product is assumed to be imported from outside of Canada. If diluents were included, we estimate that annual upstream emissions could increase by 7-20 MT/year. While I won’t use these numbers in the following analysis, it is important to always keep in mind the risk of underestimating the impact of these projects.
  • Second, estimates for the Line 3 replacement and expansion do not take into account its actual design capacity, which is 915,000 bpd, not 760,000 bpd. If history is a guide, we should expect that pipeline operators will want to maximize the capacity of this line down the road. Thus, we view the actual increases attributed to these two new pipelines to be 1.115 million bpd, not 960,000 bpd. This could increase upstream emissions by 4.5 MT over Canada’s estimates, leading to total annual increases near 33 MT.
  • Third, they do not include emissions caused by land-use changes associated with tar sands production in Northern Alberta. This is a major hole in the estimates, as tar sands production requires clear-cutting of the boreal forest (for mines and drill pads), road building, and extensive cutting of seismic lines (for exploration).

While any number of new fossil fuel-based infrastructure projects could add to Canada’s GHG emissions over time, I will only highlight one other recent project approval—a massive LNG export terminal planned for British Columbia—which is expected to add another 5 MT to the country’s annual emissions, if built. Taken together these three projects—two tar sands pipelines and one LNG export terminal—could add at least 38 MT of emissions that are not released in Canada today.

Step 3: What does Canada plan to do to cut climate pollution and meet its international commitments?

During his comments announcing the approval of the two new tar sands pipelines discussed here, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that they would provide an economic foundation for the success of multiple new policies that will help Canada meet its international GHG commitments. These policies are:

  • A low carbon fuel standard applicable to transportation fuels. This policy would “promote the use of clean technology, lower carbon fuels, and promote alternatives such as electricity, biogas, and hydrogen” to lower the lifecycle intensity of fuels used in Canada. Similar policies are in place in places like California, but it is particularly ironic to see Canada now pushing for this policy after fighting against similar policies around the world (which, over time, would only be effective if transportation fuels stopped relying on high-carbon feedstocks like tar sands oil). Canada hopes this policy will achieve 30 MT/year of GHG cuts by 2030.
  • Cuts to methane emissions. This policy is the result of a joint agreement between the U.S. and Canada to cut emissions from the oil and gas sector. It is unclear whether Canada will seek to move forward in the likely event that President-elect Donald Trump attempts to roll back this commitment for the U.S. If Canada decides to move forward independent of the U.S. the cuts agreed upon would result in GHG reduction of 13.5 MT/year by 2025. [1]

Step 4: Does this all add up?

So where do all of these policies leave Canada? The short answer is: a long way from meeting its international commitments. The total cuts expected from Canadian federal policies by 2030 are, under a perfect implementation scenario, 82.5 MT/year. Here’s what this looks like under two scenarios:

Scenario 1: GHG cuts with no significant additio tons national emissions

Scenario 2: GHG cuts with additions attributable to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion, Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement and expansion, and British Columbia’s LNG export terminal

Trudeau’s government may argue that additional cuts will be achieved by provincial policies, but so far there isn’t all that much evidence to suggest that this will actually happen. Despite relatively ambitious provincial goals, and some early progress in making cuts, emissions in most of Canada’s large provinces have either flat-lined or begun to rise. Further, absent aggressive federal policy and financial supports, expecting the provinces to find 164.2 MT/year of additional GHG cuts—an amount nearly equal to the emissions of Canada’s most populous province, Ontario—seems very far-fetched.

Meanwhile, even as Trudeau has given his blessing to these two new tar sands pipelines, we are also witnessing the resurrection of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and the ongoing Canadian review of TransCanada's proposed Energy East tar sands pipelines. Those two lines, if ever built, would add twice as much export capacity for Alberta’s tar sands industry compared to the lines just approved. Where in the world would Canada hope to find the nearly 60 MT/year cuts in GHG emissions that these two additional pipelines would bring?

The bottom line is that if Kinder Morgan and Enbridge ever build these two new pipelines, Canada’s hopes of coming anywhere near meeting its climate commitments will remain that stuff of dreams. As environmental leaders in Canada are fond of saying—and the evidence shows they’re right—“climate leaders don’t build new oil pipelines.”


[1] Canada’s methane emissions from oil and gas operations are estimated at 8% of national emissions. This is equivalent to 58.6 MT/year. A 40% reduction (the low end of what has been agreed on) would result in emissions of 35.1 MT/year.

About the Authors

Josh Axelrod

Senior Advocate, Nature Program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.