Canada Approves Two Pipelines, Axes One, Calls it a Climate Victory

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his oil sands decisions are compatible with Canada's pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signing the Paris climate agreement
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, greeted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon after signing the Paris climate agreement in April, says oil sands expansion is not incompatible with the country's commitment to reduce emissions. Credit: Getty Images

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The Canadian government announced long-awaited decisions on three major oil sands pipelines in a single sweep on Tuesday: Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 were approved, while Enbridge’s Northern Gateway was rejected.

The net result means an additional 960,000 barrels per day of the abundant but carbon-heavy oil could be transported out of landlocked Alberta to more lucrative global markets in the coming decade. That coincides with the same timeline under which Canada, along with most other developed countries, are supposed to peak and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions under their pledges to the Paris climate agreement.

According to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, there’s no conflict between future growth in the oil sands and tackling climate change. Speaking at a press conference in Ottawa, he paradoxically described the two pipeline approvals as a way to both boost Canada’s production of oil sands and transition the country “off of a fossil fuel intensive economy.”

“We are able to approve pipeline projects,” Trudeau said, “because we have put in significant measures in place, including a price on carbon pollution and a world-class ocean protection plan; because we are phasing out coal plants; because we are demonstrating genuine climate leadership.”

The decisions were largely a win for Canada’s oil sands producers in their long campaign to find export markets for their oil, either by shipping it across Canada to the east or west or south through the United States to refineries on the Gulf coast. Recently producers have had to cut production and cancel new projects as global oil prices have plummeted and it remains unclear if and how much oil prices will rebound.

Kinder Morgan hailed the approval of its pipeline as a “landmark decision.” Enbridge’s response was mixed, with the company announcing that it was pleased with the Line 3 approval and disappointed in the Northern Gateway project rejection.

The news comes as TransCanada’s rejected northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska is expected to be revived under a Trump administration.

Environmental groups and members of Canada’s indigenous First Nations, who have aggressively fought these projects for years, expressed disappointment and anger.

“I have to say that I am not totally surprised by the permit decision today but I am disappointed,” Charlene Aleck, the spokeswoman for the Tsleil-Waututh Nation group opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline, said in a statement. “There is a terrible history of the mistreatment of First Nations people in Canada. It saddens me because we hoped things might be different with Trudeau but today’s decision is a big step backwards.”

After the federal government conditionally approved the Northern Gateway project in 2013, First Nations successfully sued the government in challenging the decision. In British Columbia, many First Nations never signed treaties ceding their lands to the Canadian government and some said they would carry on the fight in court and protests.

“This is about our survival and the protection of our home, this inlet and the planet,” said Aleck. “They are making a big mistake. We will not allow this pipeline to be built.”

Pipeline opponents took issue with the Trudeau administration’s climate accounting, which assumes that if the pipelines were denied the tar sands would simply find another route to market such as by rail.

“We looked into the math and unequivocally there is no way that these pipelines, which would facilitate extracting and exporting more than 1 million barrels per day of new tar sands production, fits within Canada’s climate plan,” Adam Scott, senior campaigner at the research and advocacy group Oil Change International, told InsideClimate News in an email.

Under the global climate treaty, Canada has vowed to cut its emissions 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. At the latest round of climate talks in Morocco, Canada was among the nations to share its mid-century climate strategy, to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 compared to 2005 levels.

A look at the three pipelines whose fates were decided on Tuesday:

Trans Mountain Pipeline

Trudeau’s first announcement was to approve Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. First proposed in 2013, this project is expected to cost more than $5 billion and involves constructing a parallel line next to an existing one between Strathcona County, Alberta and Burnaby, British Columbia. The project’s total capacity is slated to increase from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day.

According to Trudeau, it is essential to bringing Canadian oil sands to new markets and it will create 15,000 new jobs. “The project will effectively triple our capacity to get Canadian energy resources to international markets beyond the United States,” said Trudeau.

Under the proposed path, the new pipe would cross hundreds of streams in British Columbia and increase tanker traffic in the Pacific Ocean. Environmentalists and First Nation activists have raised concerns about how a potential oil spill along this pipeline could impact water resources and marine wildlife, including killer whales and salmon.

“If I thought this project was unsafe for the BC coast, I would reject it,” said Trudeau. “This is decision based on rigorous debate, on science and evidence.” Before the pipeline can be built, Kinder Morgan needs to meet 157 conditions laid out by the National Energy Board earlier this year. The project has a tentative start date of December 2019.

Last year, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the NEB’s authority to conduct this review. The court has since rejected this lawsuit; meanwhile, multiple additional lawsuits have been filed against the project.

Calculations by the Canadian government show the carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions from an upcoming carbon tax will be nearly wiped out by the additional emissions from the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Line 3

Enbridge’s Line 3 involves replacing and expanding an existing pipeline that runs 1,031 miles from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisc. The nearly $5.6 billion project would carry up to 760,000 barrels of oil a day.

“This aging line really needs to be replaced,” said Trudeau on Tuesday. By approving this project, he explained, it will “allow us to ensure that state-of-the-art technology will be used to prevent spills.”

The National Energy Board in April issued 89 conditions Enbridge must meet in order to build its pipeline.

Meanwhile, the line faces opposition in the United States, particularly in Minnesota, where activists want state regulators to conduct a more thorough environmental review.

Northern Gateway

Trudeau’s rejection of Northern Gateway is a long time in coming. Proposed 12 years ago, the 730-mile project would cost about $5.9 billion and carry more than half a million barrels of tar sands crude from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, where it would be loaded onto tankers and shipped across the Pacific to markets in Asia.

It was vigorously opposed by First Nations who lived in its path, who fear an oil spill would destroy their salmon-spawning rivers, the coastal temperate rainforest and threaten tourism, with many bands rejecting offers from Enbridge that would have given them a 10 percent equity stake worth millions of dollars.

In 2013, under the previous Stephen Harper administration, the project was conditionally approved.

But then a group of First Nations filed—and ultimately won—a lawsuit against the federal government. After the judge’s ruling, Haida Nation’s Peter Lantin told CBC News: “At every turn you’re going, you are seeing nails in the coffin of the Enbridge project. I don’t think there’s enough room for another nail in the coffin.”