Prime Minister Harper’s Inaction on Climate Killed the Keystone XL Oilsands Pipeline

With U.S. President Barack Obama expected to deny a permit to the Keystone XL pipeline this fall, Canada’s oil industry is looking for someone to blame.

The National Post’s Claudia Cattaneo wrote last week that “many Canadians … would see Obama’s fatal stab as a betrayal by a close friend and ally” and that others “would see it as the product of failure by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to come up with a climate change plan.”

The latter is the more logical conclusion. Obama has made his decision-making criteria clear: he won’t approve the pipeline if it exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution.

Even the U.S. State Department’s very conservative analysis states the Keystone XL pipeline would “substantially increase oilsands expansion and related emissions.” The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed.

While Canada’s energy reviews take into account “upstream benefits” — such as jobs created in the oilsands sector as a result of pipelines — they don’t even consider the upstream environmental impacts created by the expansion of the oilsands.

For all the bluster and finger-pointing, there’s no covering up the fact that Canada’s record on climate change is one of broken promises.

Oil and Gas Regulations Promised Since 2006

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised since 2006 that he’ll regulate oil and gas emissions. Those regulations still haven’t materialized nearly a decade later —and there’s only one person to blame for that.

In recent years, Harper has taken the approach that Canada can’t regulate its oil and gas sector unless the U.S. does too. This argument is fundamentally flawed.

First, it presumes that Canada should outsource its climate policy to another country. On issues from health care to acid rain, Canada has moved independently from the U.S. and prospered as a result.

Secondly, copying U.S. climate policy has never really made sense from a greenhouse gas perspective because the countries have very different emissions profiles.

Chiefly, the oil and gas sector only accounts for about three per cent of U.S. emissions, so it isn’t a top priority for the country to regulate. Instead, the U.S. is focused on reducing emissions from power plants — including coal and natural gas-fired electricity — which account for one-third of emissions.

In Canada, the oil and gas sector accounts for nearly 25 per cent of Canada’s emissions, hence the need for a focus on that sector when addressing emissions.

What’s more, while coal-fired power plant emissions in the U.S. are already dropping, oilsands emissions are projected to more than double from 2010 to 2020, making them Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Canada and the Copenhagen Accord: More Broken Promises

Let’s not forget: when Canada has aligned itself with the U.S. on climate commitments, it has broken those promises.

As part of the 2009 Copenhagen agreement, both countries agreed to reduce their carbon emissions by 17 per cent by 2020.

The U.S. has implemented a plan to meet those commitments by aggressively tackling its biggest source of emissions (coal-fired power plants), along with a range of other actions, including taking on methane emissions, which account for the majority of emissions from its oil and gas sector.  

Meantime, Canada is on track to substantially miss its Copenhagen commitments, due in large part to its unchecked support of oilsands expansion.

Instead of actually addressing growing emissions from the oilsands sector, the Canadian government has focused on PR — spending millions to lobby internationally for approval of new pipelines and undermining clean energy policies in Canada, the U.S. and the European Union. More than that, the federal government has eliminated environmental protections and undermined public review processes.

Harper would have better served the interests of all Canadians (including the oil industry) by investing that time and energy into writing climate regulations, instead of sticking his head in the sand.

Harper Treats Climate Change as Race to Bottom

All in all, it’s little wonder that Obama is expected to refuse the Keystone XL pipeline when Harper has treated Obama’s chief concern, climate change, as a race to the bottom by employing the faulty logic that because we can’t solve the whole problem, we should do nothing.

If our leaders had employed that same logic in the 1940s, Canada would never have sent troops to the Second World War, where Canadians accounted for just two per cent of the Allied effort.

After a summer of unprecedented wildfires and drought across North America, it’s never been more apparent that climate change is already costing us all.

Citibank just released a new report showing that taking action now against the growing threat of climate change would save $1.8 trillion by 2040. And yes, that report takes into account the potential lost revenue from leaving resources in the ground — including 80 per cent of coal reserves, half of the world’s gas reserves, and a third of global oil reserves — and still concludes that the global economy would see a net gain.

While the fossil fuel industry continues to pay off pseudo scientists and unethical PR firms to create confusion about climate change, the science is clear. And the time to act is now.

The federal government’s utter failure on climate change has given rise to fruitless, polarized pipeline debates, such as the prolonged one over TransCanada’s Keystone XL. The only person who can be blamed for that is Harper himself.

Main image: A 2009 Greenpeace billboard calls on world leaders to secure a fair, ambitious and binding deal at the Copenhagen Cimate Summit. Via Flickr.

Emma Gilchrist is a reporter, editor, public speaker and spreadsheet-keeper. She started her journalism career more than 15 years ago…

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