Why Alberta’s Climate Plan Won’t Stop the Battle Over Oil Pipelines

Burnaby Mountain protest against Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline.

An article published last week in the National Post that claims a “secret” deal was struck between oil companies and environmentalists has ruffled many feathers — from corporate big wigs in Calgary to environmental activists on the West Coast.

According to Claudia Cattaneo’s story, Alberta’s climate change plan — which introduced a carbon tax, phased out coal-fired electricity and put a cap on oilsands emissions — was “the product of secret negotiations between four top oilsands companies and four environmental organizations.”

I’m not sure how secret any of that was given that all of those players could clearly be seen on stage with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley when she announced the plan, but the story goes on to state: “The companies agreed to the cap in exchange for the environmental groups backing down on opposition to oil export pipelines, but the deal left other players on the sidelines, and that has created a deep division in Canada’s oil and gas sector.”

The remainder of the story goes into how various oil companies have their knickers in a twist over the deal.  You’d think environmentalists would be dancing in the streets about that, but no — it’s actually hard to say who’s more outraged: environmentalists, who bristle at the idea of a secret deal and who don’t think the agreement is strong enough, or oil companies, who don’t think the new regulations will help them gain the market access they’re so desperately seeking.

Let’s just all hold our horses for a second.

First off, let’s look at the source. Cattaneo has spewed quite a bit of industry drivel over the years and her interpretation of Canada’s energy politics leaves much to be desired. Has she exhibited much understanding of how social movements actually work? Nope.

Secondly, was there a deal to stop opposition to oil export pipelines? There were at least five environmental groups on stage for the announcement: Forest Ethics, the Pembina Institute, Clean Energy Canada, Equiterre and Environmental Defence.

Forest Ethics has publicly stated that its campaign against Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline won’t change.

Environmental Defence’s executive director Tim Gray told DeSmog Canada that its work on pipeline issues from a climate, water, biodiversity and community impact perspective will continue. The organization is now looking to the feds for a revised review process for pipelines, which includes a climate test that takes into account all infrastructure, including trains, and respects Alberta's cap on oilsands emissions.

The Pembina Institute’s executive director Ed Whittingham told DeSmog Canada that Pembina’s oilsands advocacy work will continue. Pembina’s advocacy around pipelines has always been out of concern for upstream impacts — not surprising for a group founded in Alberta, on the heels of a deadly sour gas well blowout.  While many of Pembina’s climate-related concerns have been addressed by Alberta’s climate plan, “lots of air, land and water concerns remain,” Whittingham said.

Clean Energy Canada never campaigned against pipelines in the first place. And Equiterre couldn't be reached, but I'd hazard a guess they're in the same boat as the others.

So, sounds to me as though there was no deal of the sort that Cattaneo described.

Thirdly, even if there was a deal, a deal with four environmental groups wouldn’t be worth the hypothetical notepad it was jotted on given the breadth of opposition to new oil pipelines in this country — from municipalities like Vancouver and Burnaby to First Nations to grassroots activists to the umpteen environmental groups that weren’t on that stage.

People who think climate policy in Alberta will ‘buy market access’ through B.C. don't understand concerns around Indigenous rights, tanker traffic, oil spills or the grossly unequal distribution of economic risk and benefit,” said Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director at B.C.-based Dogwood Initiative.

It’s not helping the industry’s case that a landmark study released on Tuesday by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences confirms that diluted bitumen, such as that carried by Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, sinks in water if not cleaned up immediately, making for a nightmare scenario.

The study, Spills of Diluted Bitumen from Pipelines: A Comparative Study of Environmental Fate, Effects, and Response, concluded that diluted bitumen poses unique risks compared to other blends of crude oil.

Which brings me back to my point: the pipeline deal-breaker in B.C. has always been the risk of oil spills. Alberta’s action on climate change doesn’t move the needle on that.

Now, to the climate plan itself. Many environmentalists aren’t terribly impressed with it. Take this revealing infographic by Barry Saxifrage, which shows how Alberta’s emissions will continue to grow until 2030. (Canada has promised to reduce emissions 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.)

However, we must take into consideration that Alberta has already issued permits for another six million barrels a day of oilsands production. The new cap means that, at current emissions levels, three million barrels of those barrels will stay in the ground. That’s a seriously bold move in a province that has an economy 70 per cent based on oil — and that has already seen 40,000 layoffs in the energy industry this year.

All of the enviro grousing of late has reminded me of Rebecca Solnit’s stellar piece in The Guardian a few years back, written to her dismal allies on the U.S. left.

If I gave you a pony, you would not only be furious that not everyone has a pony, but you would pick on the pony for not being radical enough until it wept big, sad, hot pony tears,” Solnit wrote. “Can you imagine how far the civil rights movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough? To hell with integrating the Montgomery public transit system when the problem was so much larger!”

Environmentalists are fighting the richest industry in the world — an industry that has spent millions of dollars to confuse the public about climate change science. They are finally starting to see some victories. The climate change plan enacted in Alberta was unimaginable a year ago. It has the “100 per cent” support of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam.

If we want any policy to stick — not to be struck down like former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s royalty review — it needs to have broad support. Part of the job of the environmental movement should be to help build that support.

To quote Solnit again: “Being different (from the radical right) means celebrating what you have in common with potential allies, not punishing them for often-minor differences. It means developing a more complex understanding of the matters under consideration than the cartoonish black and white that both left and the right tend to fall back on.”

The fact industry and environmental leaders met informally over the past year, found some common ground and ended up standing on stage together to announce a major step forward on Alberta climate policy is a great thing. (And saying that does not mean I don’t acknowledge that while great, it’s not sufficient for Alberta to do its fair share to keep the planet from warming more than two degrees.)

As Tzeporah Berman, adjunct professor in the faculty of environmental studies at York University, wrote recently: “To say a policy is great does not mean there is not more work to be done.”

Without further ado, may the pipeline battles continue.

Image: Burnaby Mountain protest against Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline via Mark Klotz on Flickr.