Have we got a deal for you!

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has offered an interesting  deal for Canadians. In return for agreeing to the construction of the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMEX) pipeline, his government has offered to invest all the profits from the operation of the pipeline into clean energy projects. Is this a deal we should accept?

Even acknowledging the pipeline’s significant negative impacts on indigenous peoples’ livelihoods and marine ecosystems (including adverse effects to the Southern resident killer whale–an endangered species), the Canadian National Energy Board (NEB) after its last review concluded once again that the TMEX is ‘in the public interest’. So if the new pipeline is in the public interest and we get lots of money invested in renewable energy isn’t this a win-win situation?

Not so fast..

The review conducted by the NEB does not take into account the additional greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would be generated by the ramped-up production from the oil sands deposits enabled by the increased capacity provided by the new pipeline. In the NEB’s opinion: “it did not consider that there  was a necessary connection between the Project and upstream production or downstream use.”

This is an extraordinary and astonishing statement. The additional pipeline capacity will result in a significant rise in oil sands production and increase west coast tanker traffic from 5 to 34 vessels a month. How are these direct effects not considered to be a “connection” to the Project?

The TMEX pipeline will substantially increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when the Liberal government has declared a climate emergency and is nowhere near on track to meeting its emission targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement.  

The TMEX pipeline will almost triple the Trans Mountain pipeline capacity from 300,000 barrels a day (bbl/day) to 890,000 bbl/day.  The associated increase in production will produce an immediate rise in emissions of greenhouse gases from the oil sands region of Alberta.

Greenhouse gas emissions from the top six provinces in Canada: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia

The province of Alberta is by far the worst offender when it comes to emissions of greenhouse gases in Canada.  Take a look at the graph recently published by Environment Canada showing the six provinces producing the highest emissions [1].

Not only is Alberta pumping out more greenhouse gases than any other province or territory in Canada, its GHG emissions are rising.  From 2005 to 2017, they increased by a whopping 18%. And they are still rising—that province’s government seemingly oblivious to the global climate crisis or to Canada’s emission reduction targets under the Paris Agreement. From 2016 to 2017 emissions in Alberta rose another 3.4% going from 264 to 273 MtCO2e.  Unlike Alberta, both Quebec and Ontario have reduced their emissions since 2005. 

Just how much carbon dioxide and methane are emitted into the atmosphere by the  production and processing of synthetic crude oil in the Athabasca region of Canada is a matter of some dispute.  Numbers reported by the oil and gas industry, as we might expect, cite a low figure of about 80 kgCO2e per barrel of refined product. However, data from an aerial survey conducted by ECCC in 2013 found systematic under-reporting of emissions by the industry and estimated that emission were at least 30% higher than those reported.[2]

More recently the Pembina Institute, basing their analysis on detailed data published by the Oil Climate Index, reported that emission intensities are more than twice as large as these estimates—likely as high as 174 kgCO2e per barrel of Syncrude production. 

When production in the oil sands region ramps up by 590,000 bbl/day as a result of the additional TMEX pipeline capacity, emissions of greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta will rise by approximately 37 million tons a year.[3] In 2017, greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands deposits were 80.5 MtCO2e.  So the TMEX pipeline will raise emissions from the oil sands region by a huge 46%. Put another way, the increase of 37 MtCO2e/year due to the TMEX is about the same as the annual emissions from the cities of Calgary and Toronto combined.  Effectively, the impact of the TMEX in terms of GHG emissions is to add two major cities to the Canadian landscape. 

This is the environmental impact that the NEB decided had no “connection”  to the TMEX pipeline.

It is obvious that the additional pipeline capacity results in greater oil sands extraction: that’s the whole point of increasing pipeline capacity. A more than six-fold increase in tanker traffic out of the Westridge Marine Terminal (one of the TMEX pipeline’s expected results) confirms the point.  Nevertheless, in what was pretty much a foregone conclusion, the NEB found that “the Trans Mountain Expansion Project is in the Canadian public interest and recommends … that it be approved.”

Whose public interest?

What exactly is the ‘public interest’?  How is it defined, measured and judged?  Strangely, and rather helpfully for Canada’s National Energy Board, it is marvelously subjective.  Essentially, if the NEB decides that an energy project is in the public interest well, then, it is. The NEB listed all the possible benefits (real or imagined), reviewed what it called the ‘burdens’, and came to the firm conclusion that the former outweighed the latter. The principal benefits accrue to the oil and gas industry during the construction of the pipeline.  Once its built, it will only generate a meagre 443 jobs a year.  However, the project “will likely result in considerable revenues to various levels of government.”  This of course means that the pipeline will also very likely result in very considerable revenues for the oil and gas industries that have a vested interest in building the pipeline.

Not everyone was compliant with this egregious example of regulatory capture. Canadian economist Robyn Allen withdrew as an intervenor in the NEB’s review in 2015 stating that the NEB was not impartial; the game was rigged, and “its outcome pre-determined by a captured regulator.”[4]  

Which leaves us with Justin Trudeau’s offer of a fair deal.  Do we agree to greenlight a multi-billion-dollar pipeline that adds two major cities’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions to the Canadian landscape and pretty much scuttles the Paris Agreement target, in exchange for a vague promise to invest in renewable energy projects?  

The answer should be emphatic: Absolutely not.   


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The National Energy Board report on the TMEX can be found here //www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/p80061/114562E.pdf

[1] Environment and Climate Change Canada. National Inventory Report 1990-2017. //publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.816345/publication.html

[2] See Liggio J. et al.: Measured Canadian oil sands CO2 emissions are higher than estimates made using internationally recommended methods. Nature Communications. //doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09714-9

[3] 590,000 bbl/day is 215.35 million bbl/year.  Multiplying by 0.174 tonnes of CO2e emitted per barrel gives a figure for emissions of 37.47 million tonnes CO2e per year. 

[4] See Robyn Allan’s letter to the secretary of the NEB here: //dogwoodbc.ca/news/robyn-allan-withdraws/   

The emissions intensity data for the oil sands reported by the Pembina Institute can be found here : //oci.carnegieendowment.org/#oil/canada-athabasca-dc-sco

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Martin Bush

Martin Bush graduated from the University of Sheffield with a PhD in chemical engineering and fuel technology. He has spent the last 30 years leading natural resources management, renewable energy, and climate change adaptation and mitigation projects in Africa and the Caribbean. He lives in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He can be contacted at climatezone.central@gmail.com. He is the author of a new book: Climate change and renewable energy--How to end the climate crisis. Published by Palgrave-Macmillan in October 2019.

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