Things used to be so much simpler. If you self-identified as liberal and your presidential candidate lost, you spent the next six months checking Vancouver real estate listings, brushing up on hockey lingo, and practicing your charming mispronunciation of the word about. You weren’t really going to move to Canada, but it was comforting knowing Canada was there: sane, sensible Canada, where polite moderation reigns and demagoguery is nationally frowned upon.
Well, I’m here to tell you that this vision of a uniformly progressive Canada isn’t real—and, in truth, never has been. When it comes to weathering the incoming Trump administration’s likely assault on the environment, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s policies, I’m afraid, won’t offer you much sanctuary.
Yes, Justin Trudeau loves all of those things. But he presumably loves his job, too. And if he wants to keep it, he also has to love, or at least appear to love, Big Oil, the one entity that no Canadian leader from any political party can afford to spurn.
And just like his predecessor, Stephen Harper—the guy who cheerfully pulled his country out of the Kyoto Accord, trampled all over the rights and dignity of First Nations tribes, and dramatically curtailed environmental assessments under the fervently pro-business auspices of his Conservative Party—Trudeau’s crush on hydrocarbons is becoming obvious. He recently green-lighted two massive pipeline projects, giving his country’s tar sands industry a pair of Christmas gifts that will, as the saying goes, keep on giving (and taking). He then followed up with a friendly chat with our president-elect about the need to resuscitate the Keystone XL pipeline—yes, the one that we all thought was dead.
Trudeau, a skilled amateur boxer, knows how to feint with the best of them. Earlier this week, President Obama announced a permanent ban on new offshore oil and gas drilling in large swaths of the Arctic and Atlantic, an action presented as a joint effort between the United States and our friendly neighbor to the north. Trudeau does deserve credit for instituting a similar freeze on drilling in Canada’s Arctic waters and for promising to revisit the issue every five years. These bans represent a substantial win for environmentalists, and the benefits for Arctic ecosystems will be seen for decades to come.
But juxtaposed with his support for more pipelines, Trudeau’s admirable stance on offshore drilling is generating some major cognitive dissonance.
Together, the two new pipeline projects will carry an extra one million barrels of oil per day through some of Canada’s most vulnerable habitat. One of these, the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain project, will nearly triple the capacity of a 53-year-old pipeline to 890,000 barrels a day, pumping tar sands oil 715 miles south from Alberta to a newly expanded terminal outside Vancouver. The other, Enbridge’s Line 3 project, will stretch across 1,000 miles and transport 760,000 barrels per day as part of the company’s massive mainline system, which snakes across the U.S.–Canada border before terminating in Wisconsin.
And then there’s KXL. When President Obama announced in November 2015 that he was nixing the transborder pipeline at the studied recommendation of his State Department, he noted that Prime Minister Trudeau had “expressed his disappointment” at the decision. But Obama also said that the two men “agreed that our close friendship on a whole range of issues, including energy and climate change, should provide the basis for even closer coordination between our countries going forward.”
Cut to one year, and one political bombshell, later. TransCanada, the infrastructure company behind the pipeline, wasted little time after the U.S. election—just 24 hours, actually—in expressing hope that KXL was now back on the table. And after the latest conversation between Trudeau and our president-elect, TransCanada would seem to have even more reason to be excited.
“I’m confident that the right decisions will be taken,” Trudeau told an audience in Calgary right after his talk with Trump. Calgary is the seat of Canada’s oil industry, and the people in attendance surely knew what he meant by “the right decisions.” The many pro-oil folks among them must have felt comforted by their prime minister’s professed confidence.
The rest of us are left to wonder if the word right in Canadian English means something different from what it means in American English.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Valérie Courtois is guiding an indigenous-led conservation strategy for one of the world’s last great forests.