Trudeau's Support of Keystone XL Is Dangerous for Canada

02/07/2014 08:14 EST | Updated 04/09/2014 05:59 EDT


Trudeau professes to be capable of both meaningfully combatting climate change and supporting oil sands expansion. Yet he recently went so far as to proclaim that "the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States and elsewhere is not scientific." Couple that statement with a recent tweet from his Principal Advisor Gerald Butts that "KXL is not an emissions issue," and it appears as though the Trudeau team is not simply playing politics. They genuinely believe that approval of the 830,000 barrels of oil per-day Keystone XL will not increase carbon emissions. How is this possible, and how should those who care about our climate process this?

There are likely three key building blocks to Justin's belief. First, either due to human incapacity to deny ourselves short-term material riches or a sincere belief that oil sands development is required for economic prosperity, we must exploit this resource, regardless of the current lack of climate action plan. Second, because Canada is a relatively minor contributor to global emissions, building a few pipelines is no big deal. Third, since transporting oil via Keystone XL is safer and less emissions-intensive than by railroad, it is irrational to oppose this pipeline. Oil will flow either way, so it is "not scientific" to oppose Keystone.

Let me first briefly address this false choice offered between pipelines or railroads before breaking down the rest of Trudeau's apparent belief. Even railroad executives admit that transporting oil by rail is a "niche business" that is "not a replacement for pipelines". Cenovus' CEO agrees that in the absence of additional pipeline capacity, he would need to "slow down" his expansion plans. The higher cost and logistical challenges inherent to massively growing oil transport by rail means that denying pipeline approval will necessarily limit the amount of carbon pollution we spew into the atmosphere.

The fact that we are endowed with a natural resource, and some have gambled on its extraction, does not in and of itself require Canadians to permit its exploitation. Human beings have agency. Canadians can choose to leave oil in the ground just like jurisdictions such as Ontario have chosen to leave coal in the ground. And leaving oil in the ground is precisely what must happen.

The International Energy Agency ("IEA") recently concluded that at least two-thirds of the world's proven fossil fuels reserves must still be in the ground by 2050 to prevent catastrophic levels of climate change. Specifically related to our tar sands, enough projects have already been formally approved to "blow well past the climate limits prescribed by the IEA." The IEA has gone so far as to issue a stark warning regarding the danger of "locking in" high carbon infrastructure. It is clear that Canada needs to consciously restrain oil sands growth if we are to play a constructive global leadership role. It is unclear whether Justin is willing to, or will be capable of, doing this.


Next, Trudeau may genuinely believe that exploiting the tar sands will make us rich. While this may be somewhat true in the short-term, it is doubtful in the mid-term, and flat wrong when considering the long game.

The now defunct Conservative-appointed National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy predicted that over the next 30 years, the Canadian economy would take a $87 billion hit due to locking in increased greenhouse gas emissions that would eventually need to be reversed. And the inherently risky boom-and-bust nature of a resource-dominated economy, in contrast to a forward-thinking emphasis on capturing an estimated $149 billion-a-year market share in the Cleantech industry, should in itself give Canadians pause. This is not smart economic policy.

The long-term economic and human impacts of climate change provide an even more persuasive rationale for putting off any new pipeline expansion until a climate action plan is firmly in place. The long-term dent to GDP is estimated to run at between 5 and 20 per cent each year. More importantly, from a moral perspective, the reality that fellow human beings who did almost nothing to contribute to climate change, and have absolutely no ability to stop it, will likely be devastated by disease, drought, resource wars, and dire economic consequences is shameful. And this misery is largely avoidable at "no net economic cost" if we just put our minds to it.


Considering the on-the-ground mobilization of committed citizens across North America, the likelihood of legal challenges, and the reality that transport by rail is not a substitute for pipelines, it is entirely logical for environmentalists to attempt to block any and all pipelines being built in the absence of any corresponding science-based climate action plan. Locking in high-carbon infrastructure in the absence of a long-term strategy is reckless, plain and simple. Trudeau should be quietly thanking environmentalists for giving him leverage, not publicly dismissing their opposition as "not scientific."

While the Liberals deserve some slack as they peel off part of Harper's base, they walk a fine line. Justin's support for Keystone XL, while possibly understandable politically if done carefully, is quite reckless in its current unbalanced form.

Each strong statement he makes entrenches public opinion behind unqualified support of oil sands expansion and subtly increases the pressure on President Obama to actually approve Keystone XL. Each indirect denunciation of brave environmental activists will cause those who may have been natural allies to question whether they should trust Justin's team. And the longer Trudeau loudly supports the oil industry without a similarly strong signal that he is committed to meaningful action on climate change, the harder it will be, should he win, to enact the bold policies the scientific community is actually calling for.

Let's hope he changes his tune soon.


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