Environmental Issues in Canada

Environmental issues are a hot topic in Canada.

Among the issues keeping environmentally-conscious Canadians awake at night are the oilsands and the associated transportation systems; abundant coal reserves, which are being exported around the world; its enormous mining companies and their projects across the country; dam megaprojects like Site C in B.C. and their impacts on land; and fish farming and the effect it has on wild fish populations.

We do our best to cover these issues as they develop, bringing you a fresh, fair and science-based perspective. Some of our ongoing coverage is included below.

Canada's Oilsands

One of the most controversial projects in Canada is the extremely carbon, water, and land-intensive process of extracting oilsands deposits found in northern Alberta.

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

The industry has become a global focus for climate activists, who target it for its emissions-intensive extraction process and destructive land use. The industry, aware of these criticisms, has made some progress in reducing the carbon intensity per barrel, and is beginning to embrace less destructive extraction methods, but its cumulative impact continues to grow.


Much of the oil extracted in Alberta's oilsands reserves is shipped by pipelines in its raw form, bitumen. As oil companies look to expand their extraction operations in the oilsands, 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 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 rejected the Keystone XL pipeline by stating he would not issue the necessary presidential permit. However, President Donald Trump has revived the pipeline.

The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was proposed for nearly 10 years, but is 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.

In October 2017, TransCanada announced it was abandoning its proposal to build the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick due to market conditions.

In 2016, the Trudeau government approved the twinning of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, which ships bitumen from Alberta to Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. It is currently being challenged by the B.C. government and First Nations in court.

Coal Exports

Canada is responsible for shipping large amounts of coal overseas. Burning coal is a major climate change concern because it is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. When burned, coal also produces toxic pollutants like mercury and particulate matter; in China alone, coal contributes to 360,000 deaths each year from air pollution.

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.

Coal export facilities on Canada's Pacific coast are pushing for an expansion that would export thermal coal from Wyoming's Powder Basin, creating both local pollution issues as well as the contributing to the increased greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere.


Canada is home to 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies. Yes, you read that correctly. And they don’t have a great record internationally: Murders, rapes, and beatings have been reported at mines owned by Canadian companies worldwide.

Environmentally, they’re not doing so well either. Contamination of water bodies from tailings ponds leakage or tailings dam failures has become commonplace, and in 2014 the Mount Polley tailings dam failure captured worldwide attention for the scale of the disaster.

Acid rock drainage is a process by which crushed rock reacts with air and water to produce acids, which can then leach heavy metals from the rock and contaminate water. According to a mining industry report, it remains a persistent problem in and around mine sites, lasting potentially thousands of years. It’s such an important issue that for a quarter century it has been the subject of an annual conference.


Hydroelectricity is the number one source of energy in Canada, (which in turn produces more hydropower than any country besides China) and most of that is provided by traditional dam-and-reservoir generating stations.

Dams are considered “clean” energy because they do not require fossil fuels to operate, but they have serious environmental consequences. In producing the reservoir, land is flooded behind the dam. That can destroy farmland, archaeological sites, and even force the relocation of towns and villages. It also produces methane and carbon dioxide as the flooded vegetation and upstream nutrients decompose. Studies have found that in some cases a dam can produce even more carbon than a traditional thermal power plant.

Hydropower has impacts downstream as well. Dams on fish-bearing rivers create a barrier that needs to be circumvented, sometimes by, well, “creative” means.

The Site C dam is one of the most controversial projects in Canada right now, and DeSmog Canada has been covering it extensively.

Salmon Farming

In British Columbia, wild salmon have formed the backbone of many Indigenous food systems for thousands of years. Much more recently, fish farms have begun popping up on the coast, concentrating hundreds of thousands of fish in floating farms using open net pens. The farms are known to breed pests and diseases like Infectious Salmon Anemia, sea lice, and Piscine Reovirus, and can pass those on to wild populations.

Indigenous-led activists and wild salmon advocates have attacked the industry for its effects on wild fish.

Image credit: Ben Powless via Flickr

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

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By Seth Klein • Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 12:39
Site C Decision

This piece originally appeared on the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

There is no question that the new B.C. government’s decision to proceed with the Site C dam was a very difficult one. The previous government left them with a poison pill.

With $2 billion already spent, the Horgan government faced a no-win choice, with substantial political and economic costs for either terminating or proceeding with what is one of the largest and most expensive capital projects in B.C. history.

I don’t envy them.

By Carol Linnitt • Tuesday, January 16, 2018 - 09:04
Site C Garth Lenz

The West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court of British Columbia Tuesday claiming the Site C dam, along with two other hydroelectric projects on the Peace River, unjustifiably infringe on their constitutionally protected rights under Treaty 8.

The two nations, whose traditional territory will be flooded by the Site C reservoir, have also requested an injunction on Site C construction work be reviewed by the courts this spring.

The cumulative impact of the Bennett, Peace Canyon, and Site C Dams is to turn the Peace River into a series of reservoirs, destroying the unique cultural and ecological character of the Peace, severing the physical, practical, cultural and spiritual connection the Prophet have with the Peace, and infringing [West Moberly and Prophet’s] Treaty Rights,” the civil action states.

By Judith Lavoie • Friday, January 12, 2018 - 13:08
Premier John Horgan BC Emissions Inventory

Figures in a B.C. greenhouse gas inventory released quietly before Christmas show emissions have risen for four of the last five years.

Previously the province released a full public report on emissions, including inventory methodology, every two years but in December the government released a excel spreadsheet simply listing emissions figures for the second year in a row. The spreadsheet was published without any formal announcement or news release.

By law the province is required to reduce emissions 80 per cent from 2007 levels by 2050. In 2008 the province created a benchmark within that reduction, committing to get to 33 per cent reductions by 2020.

But the new figures show B.C. is not on course to meet that 2020 target. Instead emissions are only 2.1 per cent lower than the baseline year of 2007 and are on the rise.

By James Wilt • Wednesday, January 10, 2018 - 11:50
Dams for Dilbit: How Canada’s New Hydro Dams Will Power Oil Pipelines

The cancellation of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline in early October had major consequences for a rather unexpected player: Manitoba Hydro.

The company had been counting on the energy demand from the pipeline, and now the cancellation is putting extra strain on a company already plagued by debt and in the middle of building an $8.7 billion dam.

Back in 2014, the provincial utility company anticipated that almost 40 per cent of electricity generated by its proposed 695-megawatt Keeyask dam in northern Manitoba would be allocated to “pipeline load” for the Alberta Clipper, Line 3 and Energy East pipelines.

Specifically, the electricity would be used to run pumping stations, which force crude oil through pipelines via a series of pumps and motors. Among those pumping stations were those that would move bitumen from the oilsands to New Brunswick through the Energy East pipeline.

But Energy East is now officially dead.

By Carol Linnitt • Sunday, December 31, 2017 - 09:00
Andrew Weaver DeSmog Canada

B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver went from being B.C.’s solitary Green MLA in 2013 to holding the balance of power in the province’s current minority government.

While the transition has had its ups and downs for the climate scientist, public scrutiny of Weaver’s position and what he ought to do with his influence in government hit an all-time high recently with government’s decision to forge ahead with the controversial Site C dam.

We caught up with Weaver at his office in the legislature to ask him to reflect on the last seven months of cooperation with the NDP government and what he anticipates 2018 holds for some of B.C.’s most pressing energy and environment concerns.

By DeSmog Canada E... • Wednesday, December 27, 2017 - 15:22
 Sandvik DD422iE for underground all electric mine

Being an environmental journalist at this point in history can be a bit, well, depressing. It often means bringing negative stories to light: stories about government failing to balance development with environmental protection, or about companies getting away with harmful practices, or about Indigenous peoples’ rights being set aside in the name of progress.

But it’s not all bad news out there.

And DeSmog Canada wants to celebrate those people and organizations that go out of their way to do development right — those that build their plans around meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples, minimize environmental harms even at a cost to their business and raise the bar for their industries.

We’ve gathered a list of some of the projects we want to fist-bump this year. We’re not suggesting they’re perfect; any large extractive project comes with an environmental cost. But these are projects that rise above the rest in their efforts to minimize that cost.

By Sarah Cox • Friday, December 15, 2017 - 12:01
Site C dam John Horgan Bad Math

The NDP government’s arithmetic on Site C cancellation costs is “deeply flawed,” has “no logic at all,” and is “appalling,” according to three project financing experts.  

Eoin Finn, a retired partner of KPMG, one of the world’s largest auditing firms, said Premier John Horgan’s claim that terminating Site C would result in an almost immediate 12 per cent hydro rate hike is the “worst rationale I’ve heard since ‘the dog ate my homework’” excuse.  

I expected better when the new government came in,” said Finn. “They’ve just continued what [former premier] Christy Clark did to hide the true costs of Site C and hope that they get re-elected before the next generation finds out.”

This is the stupidest capital decision ever made by a B.C. premier. I don’t know who is giving them accounting advice.”

By Emma Gilchrist • Tuesday, December 12, 2017 - 12:52
Media Failed British Columbians on the Site C Dam

There is much to debate about Monday’s decision by the B.C. government to move forward with the Site C dam, but one thing is not debatable: construction should never have started without a full review of costs and demand.

Who’s to blame for that review never happening? Of course the BC Liberals are ultimately responsible for charging ahead with the most expensive public project in B.C.’s history without certainty the power was either a) needed or b) the least expensive of the options available.

But those in power will always be prone to making bull-headed decisions in their own political interests. For democracy to function, a healthy news media needs to challenge the powerful and doggedly defend the public interest. In the case of the Site C dam, this simply wasn’t the case.

By Jimmy Thomson • Monday, December 11, 2017 - 16:40
Site C construction

The Site C dam has lived many lives before its approval today by Premier John Horgan, from a twinkle in the eye of some BC Hydro engineers, to the target of multiple lawsuits, to two damning reports by the utilities regulator, to “the point of no return.”

Below, we've collected a few of the key moments in its life up to now. 

By Sarah Cox • Monday, December 11, 2017 - 14:34
Arlene Boon Site C Dam Violates Human Rights

Ending months of speculation, Premier John Horgan announced Monday that construction of the Site C dam on B.C.’s Peace River will continue even though the cost of the troubled project has climbed to $10.7 billion and the government faces a potentially pricey legal challenge from First Nations.

This is a very divisive issue,” Horgan said at a press conference. “I don’t have a magic solution but I have the best solution that we can come up with in the time I have as premier to make sure that we’re doing the least amount of damage…and making the best of a bad situation.”