Environmental Issues in Canada

With its abundant forests, natural resources and surrounding oceans, environmental issues in Canada are a hot topic.

There are many environmental issues in Canada and below you will find an overview of the major themes that arise time and again, followed by our latest news and analysis on the subject.

Canada's Oilsands 

One of the most controversial environmental issues in Canada is the extremely high-carbon process of extracting oilsands deposits found in Northern Alberta.

According to Environment Canada, the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (responsible for climate change) is Canada's oil industry. In a report released in 2014, Environment Canada found that oil and gas now accounts for one-quarter of all of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

Oilsands Pipelines

Much of the oil extracted in Alberta's oilsands reserves is shipped by pipelines in a raw form called “bitumen.” As oil companies look to expand their extraction operations in the oil sands, they need to expand their capacity to ship the oil to global markets. 

There is an ongoing public debate about whether new pipelines should be built in Canada. Concerns include global climate change, pipeline leaks, First Nations treaty rights and oil tanker spills. One of the most high-profile pipeline debates has centered around the Keystone XL pipeline that would have shipped oil from the oilsands to refineries in the United States. On November 6, 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama officially stopped the Keystone pipeline from being built by stating he would not issue the necessary presidential permit.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline has been proposed for nearly 10 years, but is also essentially dead after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to power on a promise to implement a ban on oil tankers on the north coast of B.C. The B.C. Supreme Court also ruled early in 2015 that the province of B.C. had failed to adequately consult affected First Nations.

Other oilsands pipelines are still in the environmental assessment stages: TransCanada's Energy East pipeline would ship bitumen from Alberta to Quebec and Atlantic Canada and Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline would ship bitumen from Alberta to Burrard Inlet near Vancouver.

Coal Exports

Canada is responsible for shipping large amounts of coal overseas. When it comes to climate change, the continued burning of coal is a major concern because it is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, when compared to other fossil fuels. When burned, coal also produces toxic pollutants like mercury. 

While coal exports are not accounted for in domestic reporting of greenhouse gas emissions, Canada is in essence exporting greenhouse gas emissions to other countries like China, Japan and India. Canada also still uses coal to generate a portion of its electricity, but Ontario has already phased out coal use, and Alberta has committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030.

A major issue is the proposed expansion of coal export facilities on Canada's Pacific coast, which would export thermal coal from Wyoming's Powder Basin, creating both local pollution issues as well as the global implications of increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Image credit: Ben Powless on Flickr.

DeSmog Canada's latest news coverage on environmental issues in Canada

Get Weekly News Updates

Talk about the government fox guarding the hen house. BC Hydro has applied to the provincial government for a new licence that will allow it to demolish Peace Valley protected old-growth forest, migratory bird habitat and a rare wetland for the Site C dam.

Next up on the Site C chopping block is 1,225 hectares of Crown land — an area larger than three Stanley Parks — that includes a spectacular and rare hillside wetland called a tufa seep. The seep likely took thousands of years to form, making it older than the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Great Wall of China.

Even if the government required BC Hydro to place a no-logging zone around the seep to protect its unique biodiversity values, it will be ultimately destroyed by the Site C reservoir. The seep is one of at least seven of the ancient wetlands that lie within the Site C project area, a concentration that botanist and lichenologist Curtis Bjork said is “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

For years, the Canadian public has been besieged with the same message: Alberta’s pipeline network is completely maxed out, meaning the oilsands are landlocked and new pipelines must be constructed to allow producers to ship their product to new markets and eliminate the discount imposed on exports.

It’s a notion that’s been repeated by politicians of all stripes, including Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

But there’s no merit to that argument, according to a new report from the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Oil Change International.

On June 23, the Federal Court of Appeal struck down the Harper government’s approval of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline on account of failing to properly consult with adversely affected First Nations.

Many environmental and Indigenous groups cited the ruling as a win, but buried in the decision is a legal interpretation that upholds former Primer Minister Stephen Harper’s changes to environmental assessment law in the country.

Some argue this interpretation of the new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) will undermine the ability for the public to challenge the legality of environmental assessment reports for future projects, such as Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline.

The B.C. Oil and Gas Commission describes its vision as providing “oil and gas regulatory excellence for British Columbia’s changing energy future” and lists its values as “respectful, accountable, effective, efficient, responsive and transparent.”

Carrying out those lofty goals is difficult, however, when the commission’s main public accountability portal for its more than 43,000 kilometres of pipelines — an online ‘incident map’ — has been offline for more than a month.

DeSmog Canada notified the Oil and Gas Commission that the incident map had been down for over one week via e-mail on September 7. A message posted online in lieu of the interactive map — which is meant to provide up-to-date and historical data related to pipeline incidents including accidents, ruptures and releases — said the site was down for maintenance.

I’ve often thought politicians inhabit a parallel universe. Maybe it’s just widespread cognitive dissonance, coupled with a lack of imagination, that compels them to engage in so much contradictory behaviour. Trying to appease so many varying interests isn’t easy.

Rather than focusing on short-term economic and corporate priorities, though, politicians should first consider the long-term health and well-being of the people they’re elected to represent. When it comes to climate change and fossil fuels, many aren’t living up to that.

As the cost of producing energy from wind and sun continues to drop, power produced by the Site C dam will be an increasingly bad bargain, according to leading U.S. energy economist Robert McCullough.

In a report comparing the cost of nuclear, hydro and natural gas energy with power produced by solar and land-based wind farms, McCullough concludes that renewables cost less than half the cost of hydro.

While there would be costs associated with suspending or halting construction of Site C, I remain of the view that Tweet: '@BCHydro could save $112.74-million on an annual basis by instead building wind & solar' http://bit.ly/2e41U3w #SiteC #bcpoli #bcelxn17BC Hydro could save $112.74-million on an annual basis by instead building wind and solar. This amount could be higher if tax credits for renewable energy were considered,” McCullough wrote in a cover letter to Ken Boon, Peace Valley Landowner Association president.

Economist Robyn Allan has a penchant for details. The former president and CEO of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia also sees the benefits of informed decision-making, which is why Allan recently wrote a myth-busting letter to federal minister of natural resources, Jim Carr, on the issue of oil pipelines.

The minister, Allan said, had been “dangerously misled” by senior ministerial staff about the economic benefits of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline project. Tweet: FOI: internal #KinderMorgan docs ‘riddled w factual & analytical mistakes' & 'lack of attention to detail’ http://bit.ly/2dz97Zn #cdnpoliAn internal document provided to Minister Carr, and subsequently released through Freedom of Information legislation, was “riddled with factual and analytical mistakes and displays a lack of attention to detail” Allan wrote in her letter.

Among her findings, Allan stated the minister had been misinformed about the need for increased oil pipeline capacity in Canada especially when considering Canada’s pipelines — despite claims to the contrary — are not operating at full capacity and market conditions have substantially altered the oil production landscape in recent years (see Allan's evidence in the full letter below).

Allowing wealthy corporations or powerful government agencies to launch baseless court cases against citizens who speak out against them is putting a chill on free expression in B.C. and there is a growing need for legislation against SLAPP suits, says the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

It is time to fight back against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), which aim to intimidate and silence critics by landing them with the often-unmanageable cost of defending themselves against an unwarranted lawsuit, said Micheal Vonn, BCCLA policy director, who believes SLAPP suits are undermining B.C.’s democratic health.

BCCLA is aiming to put pressure on the provincial government to bring in anti-SLAPP legislation, similar to changes introduced last year in Ontario, to help those threatened with legal action to defend themselves against those with powerful financial interests and deep pockets.

Construction on Site C dam

Fifty-five years ago, construction crews started one of the tallest earth dams in the world 22 kilometres west of Hudson’s Hope, B.C. It was to flood a valley shaped by the Parsnip and Finlay Rivers.

This secluded paradise had been home to the Tsay Keh Dene for millennia. It was where they derived their livelihoods, established their identity, honoured their ancestors and envisioned their future. The band was not consulted about the project. No plans were drawn up to help them move ancestors to new burial sites or establish a new village.

W.A.C. Bennett, B.C.’s premier at the time, was consumed with his “two rivers” plan, developing hydro power both on the Upper Columbia and the Peace rivers.

Christy Clark doesn’t like Victoria. At least, she said as much in an interview with the National Post: “I try never to go over there. Because it’s sick. It’s a sick culture. All they can think about is government…”

Maybe that’s why Clark pulled the plug on this fall’s legislative session. As a bonus, that means her political opponents won’t get the opportunity to ask her any questions … well, not in the legislature at least.

Unfortunately for the powers that be, we rang up a few folks. Here are their top five questions for Clark.