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Climate Concerns Killed Energy East. And That's A Good Thing

It means that someone finally listened to the overwhelming number of people across Canada who want to see real, serious climate action.

10/13/2017 10:54 EDT | Updated 10/13/2017 11:40 EDT

Back in early September, TransCanada asked the National Energy Board (NEB) for a 30-day suspension of their Energy East application. To some, the request appeared to come out of nowhere, but if you were paying attention, you know it actually followed an announcement by the NEB that they would require a full assessment of the pipeline's climate impacts.

Todd Korol / Reuters
TransCanada President and CEO Russ Girling, right, announces the Energy East Pipeline during a news conference in Calgary, Alta. on August 1, 2013.

For anyone concerned about climate change, it was good news. It marked, for the first time in more than a decade, that a Canadian energy regulator was willing to consider the real and full impact of climate change in approving or denying a fossil-fuel project. It meant that after so many years of Stephen Harper's near outright climate denial — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's confounding cake-and-eat-it-too approach to carbon constraints and pipelines — a regulator might make a decision actually based on evidence and the hard reality that meeting our climate obligations means leaving most fossil fuels in the ground.

Contrary to what Big Oil and their political allies are saying, that's actually really great news.

We can't know exactly what the review would have meant. But we do know that on Oct. 5, TransCanada pulled the plug on Energy East, citing changes to the regulatory review. We also know that the most notable of those changes was the requirement that they consider climate change, and we know that the final death throes of Energy East all started after the NEB announced that requirement. That means, to some degree, climate change concerns helped to kill Energy East. Contrary to what Big Oil and their political allies are saying, that's actually really great news.

For one, it means that someone finally listened to the overwhelming number of people across Canada who want to see real, serious climate action. In all the posturing and punditry about the demise of Energy East, no one seems to remember that a few years ago, tens of thousands of people demanded a climate review of this pipeline. Nor have they mentioned the protests railing against the project's threats to the climate, communities and Indigenous rights from Winnipeg, to Montreal, to Red Head, N.B., a tiny community where the pipeline would have ended. They forget that one of the main reasons the NEB review ground to a halt was that the regulator's refusal to consider climate change eroded their last shreds of legitimacy.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Members of Stop Energy East Halifax protest outside the library in Halifax on Jan. 26, 2015.

At the end of the day, climate regulation should kill projects that don't fit within a carbon-constrained world — that's just good policy. If we can only burn so much carbon without pushing the world past dangerous tipping points — tipping points that should be painfully clear after this summer's wildfires and this fall's devastating hurricanes — we need policy and regulations that make it impossible to build projects that would extract, or facilitate the extraction of, more carbon than we can afford to burn.

Energy East would have had the same climate impact as adding millions of new cars to Canada's roads and could have single-handedly ensured that we had zero chance of meeting our Paris climate commitments. That's exactly the type of project that rational, reasonable climate regulations should prevent from being built. We have laws designed to stop projects that would endanger drinking water or kill off the last of an endangered species; this is the same thing, but for stopping PEI from disappearing beneath rising seas.

But it's not all good news. Justin Trudeau didn't actually stop this pipeline. Sure, his government no doubt played a role in pushing the NEB to mandate a climate review. And he and his ministers didn't bend on that when TransCanada suspended their application and unleashed a flood of pressure from their political allies. That deserves some recognition, but it's not enough in the era of climate change.

Ben Nelms / Reuters
Protesters gather to voice their opposition to Canada's decision to approve Kinder Morgan Inc.'s pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific coast in Vancouver, B.C., on Nov. 29, 2016.

The Kinder Morgan pipeline, currently being challenged in court, was approved by Trudeau with no serious consideration of its climate impacts, despite having the same impact as building more than 30 new coal-fired power plants. If Justin Trudeau and his government are serious about climate change, that would never have happened. Instead, that project would have been subjected to the same climate test — and, like TransCanada, Kinder Morgan would have had to reckon with the simple reality that climate change and pipelines don't mix.

Climate regulations should kill projects like Energy East, but not only for the climate. Regulation and laws that stop massive fossil-fuel projects will incentivize the kinds of projects waiting in the wings to create millions of new jobs in Canada. Regulations that stymie projects like Energy East would help clear the path for renewable energy, electrification, high-speed rail and mass transit — the kinds of infrastructure we need for the coming century.

So, yes — climate action and the overwhelming majority of Canadians who support it killed Energy East. And, the way I see it, that's good news, because it means we're finally stepping in the right direction.

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