EnvironmentalIssuesinCanada

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 in the country is Canada’s oil industry, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. The federal department found that oil and gas accounts for a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Of that, the oilsands is the most carbon intensive. 

Alberta’s 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. 

 

Pipelines

 

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 are also many natural gas operations in northeast B.C. which rely on fracking. 

There is an ongoing public debate about whether new pipelines should be built in Canada. Concerns include climate change, pipeline leaks, Indigenous Rights and oil tanker spills. 

Contentious projects on the go right now include the federally owned and operated Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline, both of which are facing construction delays and cost overruns.

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In 2016, the Trudeau government approved the twinning of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver. After Kinder Morgan said in 2018 it was suspending work on Trans Mountain, the Trudeau government purchased it for $4.5 billion.

TC Energy is building the Coastal GasLink pipeline from northeast B.C. to the province’s northwest in Kitimat, where the gas would be processed at an LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat. While many elected First Nations councils have signed agreements with TC Energy, Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs and their supporters continue to oppose it. The RCMP has conducted militarized raids against land defenders on Wet’suwet’en territory to enforce a Coastal GasLink injunction.

Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline project continues to be a source of contention in Ontario and across the Canada-U.S. border in Michigan.

The Keystone XL pipeline, which would have shipped oil from Alberta’s oilsands to refineries in the U.S., collapsed in 2021 after U.S. President Joe Biden revoked the project’s permit. The project was first rejected in 2015 by the Obama administration before Donald Trump revived it in 2016.

 

Coal

 

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.

 

Mining

 

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.

 

Dams

 

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 and in some cases a dam can produce more carbon than a traditional thermal power plant. This does not generally occur in Canada, where forests are clearcut prior to building dams — a process which minimizes methane emissions.

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. But in recent years, fish farms have cropped 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.

The federal government has pledged to phase out B.C.’s open-net pen salmon farms by 2025, but a raft of new proposals from operators to expand farming operations is raising questions about whether that pledge will be upheld.

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