Any common ground on Canada’s pipeline problem?

An easy resolution to the debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline is unlikely, argues Matthew Hoffmann, since at its core lies an irreconcilable difference of opinion on whether climate change is an emergency or a manageable problem.

By: /
June 1, 2018
Steel pipe to be used in the construction of the Trans Mountain expansion project sits on rail cars in Kamloops, British Columbia, May 29, 2018. REUTERS/Dennis Owen

Canada, and thus Canadians, now (or soon will) own a pipeline. Its purchase was a complex and contentious decision and it promises to remain so for some time. The controversy over expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline has been raging for over a year and the Trudeau government’s move to national ownership (at least in the short term) will not resolve it; indeed it will add fuel to the fire.

It adds another element of contention — debate over whether it is a good idea for the national government to purchase private assets — to an issue that is already enormously challenging, in part because it involves a number of long-standing tensions in Canadian politics and society. But perhaps most importantly, there will be no easy resolution because a major source of the debate rests on irreconcilable beliefs about the extent of the threat from climate change and bitumen extraction and transport.

There are so many intersecting issues at play around the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that it is somewhat difficult to keep track of them all. At one level, there is a contest between provincial and federal authority to approve the means and modes of shipping bitumen across provincial lines and the role of provincial environmental protection standards on those decisions. The ability and authority of the national government to approve the expansion over the objections of British Columbia will likely go before the courts in a case that ironically may have political ramifications for the federal government’s ability to impose a national climate policy and national carbon tax.

A second dimension that also involves a contest over control and authority over land is the objection many Indigenous communities have to the pipeline expansion because of threats from pipeline spills and, indeed, concerns over the impact of bitumen extraction itself. This tension is not only about the current pipeline expansion but also relates to long-standing grievances about authority over land and relationships with the federal government. This issue has generated some of the most visible and vociferous protests of pipeline expansion.

Relatedly, in adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016 the Canadian government pledged to honour the principle of free, prior and informed consent in dealing with Indigenous peoples. This pledge and even the broader push for reconciliation with those communities are now coming under question because of the federal government’s push to support (and now impose) the pipeline expansion.

These issues are serious and difficult to resolve in and of themselves, but, rightly or wrongly, they may not have captured the national imagination and developed into a national controversy or crisis outside the context of Canada’s response to climate change. And it is here where irreconcilable differences dominate.

The outlines of the debate are simple enough.

The Trudeau government and pipeline expansion proponents claim that the expansion will have a relatively small effect on the growth of Canadian emissions, one that is less important than the impact of the national climate plan — which hinges on approving pipeline expansion to keep provinces with major fossil energy sectors (read: Alberta) on side. The argument here is that the national climate plan, with its national backstop carbon tax and complementary policies, has the potential to reduce national emissions significantly and in line with our Paris commitments, beyond the moderate rise in emissions from expanding fossil resource development represented by the pipeline expansion. It is a fair trade off, they say, between economic growth and responsible climate policy, and a necessary political compromise between competing priorities.

"What you think is reasonable in an emergency is very different from what you think is reasonable outside that context."

Critics of pipeline expansion see it differently. They contend that the national climate plan will lose any substantive meaning if tar sands production ramps up, and that the resulting increased production would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Canada to achieve its Paris commitment. The expansion of tar sands emissions would have to be made up for by even deeper cuts in the rest of the country. They counter the economic arguments in favour of the expansion by arguing that the economic case for the pipeline expansion may depend on assuming that Canada and the world will fail to address climate change. If the world moves ahead aggressively on climate change and decarbonization, the business case for pipeline expansion might evaporate.

The simplicity of such a debate masks the irreconcilable differences at its foundation.

Many critics of pipeline expansion (and thus the recent decision to purchase the pipeline) consider climate change to be an emergency, an existential threat that demands immediate and far reaching action. Policies that facilitate the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and industries are anathema. They serve to lock the Canadian economy and society into future emissions and a trajectory that leads away from decarbonization rather than towards it.

Arguments about economic necessity from exploitation of bitumen resources do not resonate with these critics. Justifications for trading off an expansion of tar sands production in return for larger climate policy are automatically met with skepticism. Claims that leadership on climate change can be forged in spite of (or even through) pipeline expansion are met with derision. The pipeline purchase and expansion decision is seen as another instance of the federal government prioritizing economic benefits from exploitation of fossil energy over climate, environmental and Indigenous communities’ concerns. If you believe we are in a climate emergency, that cannot stand.

Proponents of pipeline expansion who are concerned about climate change (which is not all of them) do not see an emergency. Climate change and tar sands production are instead manageable problems that can be dealt with through compromises between economic and environmental imperatives. Policies can be weighed in terms of their economic and environmental consequences, and continued exploitation and some expansion of fossil resources is justifiable. If there is a positive economic case and the climate impact is not too significant, then it is reasonable to proceed, especially when the national climate policy promises emissions reductions that would dwarf the increases from pipeline expansion. The argument here is that we can move at a measured pace, get the carbon price right, balance concern about economic growth through exploitation of fossil energy and climate change and everything will be okay.

There is very little common ground here. What you think is reasonable in an emergency is very different from what you think is reasonable outside that context. Thus, the tumult surrounding the Trans Mountain pipeline will increase in the days and months to come. There is too much at stake for too many people for this to go quietly.

One possible way through this morass is a direction that reasonable people on both sides think is necessary — a just transition toward decarbonization. We must take seriously the need to quickly move away from exploitation of fossil resources as a national imperative and do so in a way that allows those dependent on fossil fuel industries to see themselves and the good life in the transition.

We have to get to a point where people and provinces do not see their economic fate tied to exploitation of fossil energy resources and we have to do so quickly. The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Energy and Climate Change recognizes this, but whether Canada can or will quickly pursue a just transition and spend $4.5 billion purchasing a pipeline will still be a matter for vociferous debate.