Environmental Issues in Canada

The environment is a hot topic in Canada. It’s also the foundation of our work at The Narwhal, so we do our best to cover these issues as they develop. Some of our ongoing coverage is included below. For all the latest updates, sign up for The Narwhal’s newsletter.

Canada’s Oilsands

The single largest source of carbon emissions is Canada’s oil industry, according to Environment Canada. The agency found that oil and gas accounts for a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of that, the oilsands is the most carbon intensive. 
The oilsands have become a global focus for climate activists. Environmentalists target it for its emissions-intensive extraction process and destructive land use. The industry is aware of these criticisms, and has made some progress in reducing the carbon intensity. Its cumulative impact, however, continues to grow.

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Much of the oil extracted in Alberta’s oilsands reserves is shipped in pipelines in its raw form, bitumen. As oil companies look to grow in the oilsands, they need to expand their capacity to ship the oil around the world.
There is an ongoing public debate about whether new pipelines should be built in Canada. Concerns include 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. It 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. But President Donald Trump has revived the pipeline.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was proposed for nearly 10 years, but is dead. The B.C. Supreme Court also ruled in 2015 that B.C. failed to adequately consult with affected First Nations.
TransCanada announced in 2017 it was abandoning its proposal to build the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick.
In 2016, the Trudeau government approved the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver. The B.C. government and First Nations have challenged it 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 some of its electricity. However, 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 to export thermal coal from Wyoming’s Powder Basin, creating local pollution issues while 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 around the world. Murders, rapes, and beatings have been reported at mines owned by Canadian companies.
They’re not doing so well on the environmental front either. Contamination of water bodies from tailings pond and dam failures has become commonplace. 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. They can then leach heavy metals from the rock and contaminate water. 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. The country produces more hydropower than any country besides China, and most of that comes from traditional dams.
Dams are considered “clean” energy because they do not need fossil fuels to operate. But they still have serious environmental consequences. In producing the reservoir, the dams flood large swaths of land. That can destroy farmland, and archaeological sites and even force the relocation of towns and villages. It also produces methane and carbon dioxide as the flooded vegetation decomposes. In some cases a dam can produce even more carbon than a traditional thermal power plant.
Hydropower has impacts downstream as well. Dams create a barrier that fish need to get around — sometimes by, well, “creative” means.

Salmon Farming

In B.C., wild salmon have been the backbone of Indigenous food systems for millennia. Much more recently, fish farms have begun popping up on the coast. They concentrate hundreds of thousands of fish in floating farms using open net pens. The farms breed pests and diseases like Infectious Salmon Anemia, sea lice, and Piscine Reovirus, and can pass those on to wild populations.
Indigenous-led activists have attacked the industry for its effects on wild fish.

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