Earth Day 2016. Welcome to a new era of accountability on climate change.
The fossil fuel industry is in decline from collapsing oil prices, 150 world leaders are signing the Paris climate deal April 22, and a growing legion of tar sands workers are calling for funding for the new green economy. If we’re going to “break free” from fossil fuels and the infrastructure to pipe it, this, say planet lovers, is our moment.
Breakfree2016.org, the next “global wave of resistance to keep coal, oil and gas in the ground,” launches on May 4 with actions on six continents “targeting some of the most iconic and dangerous fossil fuel projects all over the world.” In Canada, Greenpeace and 350.org are planning a mass mobilization against tar sands development and the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline in particular on May 13 and 14 in Metro Vancouver to help demonstrate “the moral urgency of ending the use of fossil fuels and choosing renewables.”
Yet word in the National Post is that our climate-championing prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has told senior staff to draw up plans to make Trans Canada’s Energy East and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansions “a reality.”
When the Post article was raised last week, the prime minister didn’t so much deny it as maintain that his position on pipelines hasn’t changed.
“It’s one of the fundamental responsibilities of any Canadian prime minister to get our resources to market,” he said. “But in the 21st century that means getting it done responsibly, sustainably and in an environmentally conscious way.”
Stir in Alberta premier Rachel Notley’s recently televised plea that the home of the tar sands “can’t continue to support Canada’s economy unless Canada supports us” (read pipelines) – plus a headline-grabbing poll showing most Canadians would rather ship oil by pipeline than rail – and the idea that pipelines are essential to Canada’s economic future seems to be back from a post-Paris- climate-talks hiatus.
Lliam Hildebrand was working as an industrial welder building rigs in the oil sands when he first saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
“I realized then that the infrastructure that my trade produced was one of the key drivers of climate change and that my trade skills would also be critical in creating the infrastructure required to address climate change issues by building the renewable energy infrastructure we need,” Hildebrand tells NOW.
So he quit and went back to school for environmental studies. Running low on cash, Hildebrand ended up back in the oil sands for six more years. This time around the industry started bleeding jobs, and his co-workers kept talking about the need to diversify the energy grid.
That’s when his non-profit, Iron & Earth, was born. It’s calling on the Alberta government to train 1,000 out-of-work tar sands electricians on solar panel installations. The province has just announced $3.4 billion for large-scale renewables, with $25 million for training, so Hildebrand is hopeful.
“Now is the time to be retraining our workforce and making sure we have people in place for the accelerating growth when [the renewable economy] starts to take off.”
He’s reticent to offer a comment on pipeline politics when his membership has a “wide range of perspectives” on the issue, but offers that “hopefully… pushing renewable energy solutions forward will help relieve pressure for… a pipeline.”
Unlike past mobilizations, the global Break Free campaign isn’t linked to government summits or coming legislation. But in Canada its launch occurs at a crucial time – when the troubled National Energy Board announces its recommendations on the controversial Kinder Morgan pipeline and the feds start their own promised review of the board.
“[The feds have] made a lot of promises about not prejudging projects and restoring the faith Canadians have lost in the system that reviews these things,” says Environmental Defence’s Adam Scott.
York University environmental studies prof Mark Winfield says plans to get oil to tidewater may get stuck in the muck thanks to the very “interim” measures the feds brought in to revive record-low public trust in the board’s pipeline review process. Those measures have already been called a band-aid solution to a deeply flawed process by environmental lawyers and indigenous groups on the front lines.
Just try to leverage half-baked processes to ram Energy East across five provinces in the face of fierce opposition in Quebec, large swaths of unceded traditional territory in New Brunswick and resistant municipalities and First Nations communities along the way and, says Winfield, “The pathway to Energy East makes Northern Gateway look like a cakewalk. The potential for it to get very nasty legally and politically is very high.”
At a panel discussion on environmental assessment reform and pipeline politics organized by York’s Sustainable Energy Initiative last month, Alberta Climate Change Panel chair and University of Alberta professor Andrew Leach said the NEB can’t be relied on to reject pipelines on the basis of the greenhouse gas assessment test tacked onto the interim measures. He argues that that test comes with “too much scientific uncertainty” to get a no.
“The question [the NEB] should be asking is, in an environment where… we assume that the global policies will be in place to meet global targets, is this pipeline going to have a market? Is it going to be full?”
It’s the question environmentalists want answered.
“The economic argument for building these pipelines has collapsed, along with the crash in oil prices,” says Scott. “Right now, the industry is in the dumps. We’re seeing all the major project expansion in tar sands being cancelled. There’s tons of pipeline capacity right now to accommodate what’s being produced.”
In a new report, Environmental Defence and the Council of Canadians say the real damage will come not from stalled pipeline construction, as Notley suggests, but from building Energy East across nearly 3,000 water bodies, risking oil spills in the drinking water of over 5 million Canadians in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The next piece of the puzzle for environmentalists involves making sure the feds get their national climate strategy right to help build the case against Energy East or Kinder Morgan. Last week Pembina, Equiterre and Environmental Defence joined forces “to build cross-sectoral support for ambitious policy reforms that can meet the scale of the challenge.”
These groups say they launched their partnership “to ensure that Canada’s climate plan reflects our international commitment to reduce emissions consistent with a global temperature limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius.”
Many doubt Trudeau’s federal/provincial consensus project is going to deliver meaningful climate action come fall, as promised.
“Pray that I’m wrong,” says Winfield, “but I really can’t imagine anything of any substance coming out of those processes,” particularly with Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall’s renewed mandate.
It’s unclear how much duct tape and chewing gum may be needed to fashion a meaningful agreement that environmentalists can call a victory. But the movement will be on the feds to not waste this opportunity.
What’s clear, says Greenpeace’s Melina Laboucan-Massimo, is that pipelines can’t pave the way. “What has gotten us into this problem is not the solution to get us out. We need a mentality shift. That’s what Break Free is.
“This isn’t about ‘Oh, we want to have nice renewable energy projects,’ or ‘Oh, we want to shut down this project.’ No, it’s about the fate of humanity.”
Project: Energy East
Capacity: 1.1 million barrels a day
Destination: New Brunswick refineries for export to U.S., Europe and Asia.
Project: Line 9 reversal
Capacity: 300,000 barrels per day
Destination: Suncor Energy Refinery in Montreal
Project: Trans Mountain expansion
Capacity: 890,000 barrels a day (from 590,000 barrels)
Destination: Burnaby, BC, for export to U.S. and Asia.
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