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6 October 2021

The nonsense of Justin Trudeau’s pipeline promises

The Canadian prime minister pledges action on climate change while backing and buying oil pipelines.

By Megan Gibson

“Faster, stronger” is how Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau promised his new government would move on issues such as climate change in a press conference on 29 September. Less than a week later, on 4 October, his government invoked a 44-year-old treaty to prevent the US from shutting down an oil pipeline.

The dissonance between lofty rhetoric on climate action and a penchant for pipelines that is out of sync with global commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions has long been a problem for Trudeau. And attempts to keep fossil fuel giants and environmentalists on side are only going to get trickier. The prime minister, whose Liberal party managed to stay in power with another minority government following a bitterly fought snap election last month, is entering his third term leading a country even more divided on the question of climate change.

Trudeau’s campaign platform pushed green promises, including a pledge to move Canada’s previous G20 commitment to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies by 2025 forward by two years and end thermal coal exports by 2030. But he appears to have no plans to do anything about past commitments to back, build and buy pipelines.

On 1 October, the Alberta, Canada-based multinational Enbridge opened its replacement Line 3 pipeline, which moves oil from Edmonton, Alberta to Wisconsin in the US. The project, which marks the first new pipeline between the two countries in years, was approved by Trudeau’s government back in 2016. Replacing a pipeline that was first built in the 1960s, Line 3 will more than double the amount of oil pumped through to the US – up to 760,000 barrels a day. Environmentalists and indigenous groups have for years warned that the new pipeline could destroy fragile ecosystems, including those on treaty-protected land, and would ramp up carbon emissions.

It’s not the only pipeline project Trudeau has thrown his weight behind. In 2016, he approved the Trans Mountain line, a C$6.8bn (£3.9bn), 1,150-kilometre pipeline that will stretch from Edmonton to Burnaby, British Columbia, near Vancouver. In 2018, the prime minister doubled down on his support for the pipeline when he nationalised it, committing to spending C$4.5bn (£2.6bn) to ensure its completion.

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Opposing pipelines – and going against the powerful oil and gas sector in Alberta – would be a short-term political gamble that Trudeau hasn’t so far been willing to risk. The fossil fuel industry is a huge driver of the Canadian economy: oil is the country’s largest export. By some estimates, roughly 450,000 jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the industry. And although Trudeau has repeatedly got behind major pipeline projects, he’s still viewed as too soft on the issue by hardline Conservatives, many of whom live in Alberta.

But longer term, investing in pipelines looks like environmental and economic folly. Modelling by UK-based Carbon Tracker shows no new oil sands are needed in a low-carbon world, and that new pipelines are uneconomic and likely to become a drain on the public purse. “All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, in particular Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, are surplus to requirements in a Paris-compliant world,” says Carbon Tracker, warning of the financial risks of investing in such infrastructure.

Further, during a year where record-breaking heat waves caused death and destruction in British Columbia, and another particularly brutal fire season in western and central Canada, public support for climate change has reached a new urgency. “The biggest problem that we have when it comes to climate action in Canada is the inaction on fossil fuel,” says Eddy Pérez from the NGO Climate Action Network.

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And after Trudeau’s election miscalculation, which saw his party fail to significantly increase its number of seats in parliament, his new government will once again need support from the New Democratic Party (NDP), which campaigned hard on Trudeau’s climate failures. If public opinion continues to move towards taking more aggressive action on climate change – and recent polls have indicated that it will – Trudeau is likely to find it harder to support pipelines at home.

What’s more, it is increasingly becoming a diplomatic dilemma. After US president Joe Biden ordered a review on another of Enbridge’s disputed pipeline projects, Line 5, which runs under the Great Lakes, Trudeau invoked a 1977 treaty, which calls for negotiations between the two federal governments. The move has prompted a backlash from environmental groups on either side of the border, as well as from Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who has fought the pipeline. In a statement, Whitmer said she was “profoundly disappointed” by Trudeau’s move, and that she expected more from “a nation that prides itself on its commitment to environmental protection”.

With the UN’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow fast approaching, Trudeau is under pressure – both at home and from abroad – to bring his campaign promises and his climate credentials into closer alignment.

[See also: Emissions tracker: How countries compare ahead of COP26]