OTTAWA—Call it a thicket, call it a Gordian knot — call it whatever you want. It doesn’t change the predicament for the new Liberal government as it tries to navigate the competing demands for fossil fuel development and serious climate action that are cranking up tensions in the Canadian federation.
The Liberals claim they can do both: support the oil and gas sector — maybe even enlarge it — while Canada shifts from burning fossil fuels, exceeds its target under the international Paris Agreement to fight climate change, and achieves net-zero emissions by 2050.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to lead his new Liberal cabinet in the incoming minority Parliament, here are some looming flashpoints in the thorny arena of climate change and energy policy.
During the campaign, the Liberals pledged to do more to fight climate change by delivering tax breaks to clean tech businesses, planting 2 billion trees over 10 years, and going beyond their current target of reducing Canada’s emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
At the same time, the party promised to introduce a “Just Transition Act” in Parliament. Modelled after its supports for coal industry workers who will lose their jobs due to the Liberal’s mandated phaseout of coal-fired energy, this legislation was styled by Trudeau as a way to ensure workers “have access to the training and support they need to succeed in the new clean economy” that the government envisions.
It’s an obvious political football, given the premise of the bill is that people earning their livelihoods in one sector can “transition” to a new one. But Isabelle Turcotte, director of federal policy for the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, said this legislation — if developed well — could dampen divisions by reframing Canada’s climate action as an opportunity for working people in oil and gas regions, rather than simply as a necessary disruption on the path to a cleaner future.
“This is about making sure that our workers are ready to claim their space in that (clean) economy, that no one feels like they don’t know where they fit, that this is actually an exciting project to be part of,” she said.
“Canadians need to be brought along in this journey in a much more compelling way.”
The Liberals also promised to create an independent panel of experts to measure progress and advise the government on how to slash emissions on its way to net-zero by 2050. This will coincide with legislated five-year reduction targets to ensure progress is being made, the party pledged.
Tim Gray, executive director of the advocacy organization Environmental Defence, said this is a “key” commitment that could place the machinery of government climate action a step removed from the partisan fray.
In order to be perceived as legitimate, though, Gray said the advisory panel will need to be designed with heft so that “the accountability and reporting mechanisms in there that are real, that they’re not lip service, that they’re binding.”
Then there’s “a bunch of stuff not finished from the first mandate,” Gray said, some of which could inflame tensions with the oil and gas sector and governments of Prairie provinces.
Over the coming year, the government will need to finalize its planned clean fuel standard, a significant piece of the Liberal’s cross-Canada climate plan that was originally forecast to slash 30 megatonnes of emissions per year.
As consultations continue through 2020, Turcotte said some in the environment movement are worried about industry pressure to weaken the final rules for cleaner fuels, pointing to how the Conservatives pledged to scrap the policy during the election campaign.
The government is also preparing to implement new rules to restrict industrial methane regulations, and Gray said the Liberals will need to decide whether to accept competing regulations in Alberta and Saskatchewan that he described as weaker than the planned federal standards for this greenhouse gas. Another demand from those provinces is changes to the Liberals’ revamp of environmental assessments, which was passed into law in the last session of Parliament.
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On Thursday, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told reporters the government won’t change that law but is open to hearing suggestions about how it will be implemented.
For Turcotte, the major question will be how Ottawa designs the “climate test” for proposed projects, which would indicate considerations about greenhouse gas emissions factor into assessment decisions.
All these policies would fall in areas of political friction for the Liberal government — especially with ideological opponents in the Prairies that have raised the spectre of separating from the federation, said Eric Campbell, a former senior adviser to the federal environment minister who is now an independent consultant in Ottawa.
“When you talk about clean fuel standard, when you talk about methane, when you talk about the price on carbon, there’s an inherent tension with Alberta and Saskatchewan,” said Campbell.
“Building those functional partnerships is going to be absolutely obligatory if Canada is going to meet its 2030 targets.”
The next frontier
One looming decision that could put these divisions in stark relief involves the Frontier oilsands proposal from Vancouver-based Teck Resources, which Gray described as “the largest oilsands project ever.”
The project is awaiting federal approval after it was given a green light on July 25 by a joint panel appointed by Ottawa and Alberta to review Teck’s proposal. The project would consist of two open pit mines that would span more than 29,000 hectares and pump out 260,000 barrels of bitumen per day for 41 years.
The panel detailed how the project would create “significant adverse effects” on the environment and traditional Indigenous land use, and increase emissions by more than 4 megatonnes per year. But the panel also found it would reap significant economic benefits, including thousands of jobs, $12 billion in taxes to the federal government and $55 billion in royalties.
Campbell said this balance of costs and benefits will be further complicated by the political situation, with opposition to the federal climate agenda from the right, and outrage on the left that Trudeau’s Liberals are undermining climate action by their support of the oil and gas sector.
“Canada’s pathway to (the 2030 target) allows for some growth in the oil and gas sector, but they’re going to have to do some tricky manoeuvring around projects like Teck Resources,” he said.
“The oil and gas industry is an enormous source of Canada’s emissions, and as a result, (it is) the biggest source of Canada’s climate mitigation potential … It’s where the rubber’s going to hit the road.”