Canada’s premiers endorse pipelines, just in time for another major pipeline spill

Sometimes it’s hard not to see the hand of fate in certain synchronicities. That was certainly the case these past few days when a conference between Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers to discuss energy and climate issues coincided with a major pipeline leak near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The premiers came to some semblance of an agreement (full text PDF) which, to listen to them tell it, will almost single-handedly stop climate change in its tracks while supporting tar sands workers:

“It’s a huge step forward,” Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne told the Star in an interview here Friday at the Council of the Federation meeting…

“This is not an incremental move. This is a pretty major step forward,” said Wynne, noting it will promote “cleaner, greener” renewable energy while at the same time helping oil- and natural gas-producing provinces safely transport their products.

“A strong economy and strong environmental protection . . . are not mutually exclusive,” she said, predicting premiers from “the oil-producing provinces are going to take heat for this.”[…]

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall played his hand beautifully by berating Wynne, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in the days leading up to the conference for being soft on pipelines and the tar sands, and by extension anti-energy sector workers. He continued to play his role in the aftermath of the talks, although reading between the lines it’s clear he’s pretty satisfied with the strategy:

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, the oil industry’s biggest champion at the Council of the Federation, admitted he did not get everything he wanted in the strategy.

“There’s some things that I was hoping to see in the energy strategy to a greater extent than perhaps had existed. One of them is around energy independence that speaks to right now even though Canada is home to roughly . . . the third greatest oil reserve on the planet, we import oil . . . because we haven’t been able to move it across the country or were able to,” said Wall, a pipeline proponent.

“So parts of Central Canada and Atlantic Canada have to import oil from other places, which just seems D-U-M-B dumb for any country that would have the oil reserves that we have,” he said.

But Wall, who had arrived in Newfoundland reminding equalization-receiving provinces that oil and gas wealth was bankrolling their transfer payments, admitted everyone put some water in their wine.

We had a meeting and we had some pretty frank discussions and I guess that’s what’s changed. It was a vigorous discussion,” he said, emphasizing “oil — it’s not a four-letter word.”

Maybe we should start spelling it oyul?

Anyway, Wall is being modest here. The oil industry won big with this deal. Though the strategy pays lip service to reducing Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels (the specific phrase used is “a lower carbon economy”), the specific actions it lays out to achieve this are piecemeal at best. The report commits participants to:

Review different approaches regarding greenhouse gas emissions reporting requirements to continually improve, and align where possible, inventory information across Canada…

Review and explore the potential to expand the use of marketbased mechanisms across Canada and identify elements and opportunities to promote collaboration to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of programs…

Collaborate on the development of options for an integrated panCanadian and North American approach to greenhouse gas reductions. Any such approach should be built on initiatives introduced by governments and aimed to enhance jurisdictions’ ability to flexibly implement ambitious measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The approach should also take into account possible impacts on competitiveness…

In other words, some research and study, and some vague gestures towards future implementations of a standard that hasn’t been developed yet, but which must factor “competitiveness” into its approach. I mean, “enhance jurisdictions’ ability to flexibly implement ambitious measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions” is literally just a word salad. They threw a thesaurus in the salad spinner and that’s what came out. And Wynne said the oil premiers would take heat for this!

But meanwhile, when it comes to the “strategic goal” to “develop and enhance a modern, reliable, environmentally safe, and efficient series of transmission and transportation networks for domestic and export/import sources of energy”, the report is much more concrete:

Compile and evaluate capacity of existing transportation and transmission infrastructure to facilitate cross-jurisdictional transportation and transmission of energy products…

Identify shared priorities for energy infrastructure projects to address transportation and transmission constraints and meet demand…

Identify the type, nature, and quantity of energy products by province and territory (region), which require improved transportation and transmission infrastructure to facilitate the safe and economic transportation and transmission of energy resources…

Identify the investments needed to sustain and improve transmission and transportation infrastructure.

Here the commitments are far more granular, far more specific. We’re looking at particular investments, particular projects that can be improved upon. Gone are the qualifiers and the deferred actions we saw when discussing a transition to “a lower carbon economy” – no reviews, no compiling of different approaches, no exploring or “collaborat[ing] on the development of options”. Here we’re identifying what specifically needs to be done to move more energy to market (and then, presumably, doing it).

And btw, in case you didn’t catch it, “energy resources” is code for oil and natural gas, and “energy infrastructure projects” is a stand-in for pipelines, words the report in large measure avoids – a strategy which fooled the Star, which gushingly notes that:

[Wynne’s] comments came after the 13 provincial and territorial leaders unveiled the 35-page strategy that mentions “greenhouse gas” 24 times, “climate change” 20 times, “oil” 11 times, and “natural gas” and “pipelines” four times each.

Which makes it look way more focussed on climate change, right?

But in reality, the strategy is a national buy-in from all the nation’s premiers on continuing to pursue a strategy of more and bigger pipelines – and energy advocacy groups weren’t fooled.

From the Star, again:

But Environmental Defence’s Dale Marshall called the plan “a big step backwards.”

“By lending support to pipelines, the strategy will put Canada further out of step with the rest of the world where climate change is being treated as a serious matter. We in Canada need to come to grips with the fact that it’s practically impossible to grow the tarsands and reduce carbon pollution,” said Marshall.

Similarly, the David Suzuki Foundation issued a statement pointing out the Nexen leak is proof of the urgent need to wean off oil.

“If proposed pipelines are built, more bitumen will travel through remote and under-resourced areas, where clean-up possibilities will be limited,” the foundation said.

“Canada’s premiers should see this as yet another opportunity to show leadership in transitioning from an outdated fossil fuel economy to a burgeoning clean-technology and renewable-energy future.”

And so the cognitive dissonance was pretty intense when news rolled in that there had been a major pipeline leak out in Alberta:

Despite the scope of the incident, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said pipelines are still the best way to transport oil and gas.

“For instance, in Quebec, they know full well that rail is much more problematic a transportation method,” Notley told CBC’s Edmonton AM on Friday.

“Even within this unfortunate accident, which I’m troubled by.”

Notley is attending the Council of the Federation meeting in St. John’s, where premiers agreed to a national energy strategy.

So because a train full of oil blew up in Quebec, then therefore, the logical thing to do is to transport oil by pipeline. Because we can’t, ever, consider that maybe we should leave the damn oil in the ground. That wouldn’t be in tune with the premiers’ strategy; it wouldn’t take into account “possible impacts on competitiveness”.

And so the oil industry, and its friends in government, went to work trying to make the best of a bad situation, trying to minimize the seriousness of the spill. Notley’s vote of confidence for pipelines was by far the most overt example of this, but here’s a few more:

Initial reports by Nexen, the company operating the pipeline, improbably stated that “nothing had flown into the water and there were no immediate reports of impacts on the public or wildlife”, a truly ridiculous statement which was nonetheless echoed across media coverage of the spill. Regardless of the truth of the statement, it’s the long-term effects which are likely to be the most pernicious, even if they do occur long after the news helicopters have moved on to the next disaster.

Similarly, the CP blithely notes that “There are no homes in the immediate area. The closest community, the hamlet of Anzac, is 15 km north of the spill site.” Again, this kind of minimizing language distorts what the true effects of this spill will likely be.

From the CBC, again:

A spokesman for the ACFN said a spill this big will have an “extremely serious” impact on the muskeg, which is a source of aboriginal medicines, berries and wild game.

“There is no way to clean or reclaim the muskeg,” said Eriel Deranger in a news release Friday. “Destruction and contamination like this that directly affects a key component of our ecosystems is affecting First Nations’ ability to access lands and territories for hunting, fishing, gathering and trapping rights, rights protected by both the Constitution and our treaties.”

Adam said the spill is “dangerously close” to the Clearwater River, which flows directly into the Athabasca River.

“The repercussions from the incident could potentially be felt far and wide by those that rely on the Athabasca basin,” he said…

Robert Cree, an elder with the Fort McMurray First Nation, said he was “shocked, but not surprised” by the news of the pipeline break.

Cree, who has hunted in the area now affected by the spill, worries that even after the cleanup is completed, the chemicals will have a lasting effect on the animals living nearby.

“How are they going to sustain the wildlife, how are they going to prevent the wildlife from getting into the area?” he said.

Meanwhile, one of the most outrageous details in this story is that Nexen’s pipeline was equipped with a fail-safe leak detection mechanism – that failed. The company still doesn’t know what caused the leak, or even where exactly the leak is.

This is the energy strategy that the premiers endorsed this week. The coincidence in timing merely serves to make the endorsement that much more striking. For all the talk of safety, and concern for the environment, and greenhouse gas production, the leaders of all of Canada’s provinces and territories signed off on a strategy which is going to inevitably lead to more carbon emissions, more environmental degradation and destruction, more pipeline ruptures, and more half-assed too-little-too-late corporate apologies.

We know that this will be the consequence, and so too must the premiers. They’ve apparently made the calculation that the preservation of oil industry jobs over the short term outweighs the long-term global impact of further exploitation of the tar sands, as well as the disastrous localized impact of the inevitable next catastrophe with pipelines or pressurized rail cars.

So when that disaster strikes, let’s remember this moment, and let’s make these politicians own it.

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