Canada’s Trudeau is Under Fire For His Record on Green Issues

After 10 years of a fossil-fuel friendly Conservative government, many Canadians welcomed the election of Justin Trudeau as prime minister. But Trudeau’s decisions to approve two oil pipelines and a major gas facility have left some questioning just how green the new leader really is.

In the months before Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau became Canada’s prime minister in November 2015, he promised “real change” when it came to dealing with the many environmental issues that his Conservative Party predecessor, Stephen Harper, had ignored or seriously undermined. Harper’s legacy had included environmental deregulation, expanding production of Alberta’s heavily polluting tar sands bitumen, a push for drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic, and skepticism about human-caused climate change. 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference on the Paris Agreement in April 2016.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a news conference on the Paris Agreement in April 2016. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Trudeau’s first 14 months in office got off to a seemingly promising start. His government reached a tentative agreement with nine of 10 provinces on a national carbon tax, committed $2 billion for clean water and wastewater funds for cities, allocated $518 million for local governments to strengthen their infrastructure from the impacts of climate change, provided money to build electric vehicle recharging stations, and imposed a five-year moratorium on the licensing of oil and gas drilling projects in the Arctic. And for the first time in nearly 10 years, most government scientists could talk to the media about their work, ending a gag order imposed by the Harper administration.

When Trudeau told a town hall meeting in Ontario last week that the country needs to phase out Alberta tar sands production and make the transition away from fossil fuels, he sounded every bit like the environmentally minded politician who ran for prime minister in 2015. 

But instead of being the darling of the environmental movement, Trudeau is being compared in some quarters to his predecessor. Trudeau’s critics say that while he has talked a good game on climate change, his actions have been in stark contrast to that rhetoric. Trudeau has approved two contentious pipeline projects to transport Alberta tar sands oil. One, the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline, would carry oil from Alberta to the U.S. Midwest and beyond. The other, Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, would move oil and bitumen to ports in British Columbia for export, thus extending for decades the life of tar sands operations. 

Trudeau also supports the highly controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama killed the Keystone Project in late 2015, saying that increasing Alberta tar sands would be a setback to efforts to slow global warming. Now, with incoming President Donald Trump saying he will give Keystone the green light, Trudeau will likely face increasing pressure from environmentalists who call Keystone one of the most harmful fossil fuel projects on the planet. 

In addition, Trudeau has approved the $11.4 billion Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas (LNG) project that would be built by the Malaysian national oil company, Petronas, at the mouth of British Columbia’s Skeena River. The proposed export facility, which would convert fracked gas from northern British Columbia into a liquid by super-cooling it, threatens Canada’s second-largest run of sockeye salmon, which migrate through the Skeena estuary. 

Kathryn Harrison, a political scientist and climate change policy analyst at the University of British Columbia, says it’s hard to see how the Trudeau government can meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets by allowing more tar sands pipelines to be built and by approving the Skeena project. This is especially true, she says, given that the Alberta government recently announced that it will allow tar sands companies to increase production provided they reduce CO2 output per barrel. At United Nations climate talks in Paris in late 2015, Trudeau committed the Canadian government to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. 

“Increasing the production of bitumen will likely result in another 30 to 35 million tons per year of [CO2] emissions,” says Harrison. “Add in the 10 million tons that the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant would easily deliver, and you have a very big problem meeting those targets.” 

The only way Canada could meet its emissions reductions targets, she says, would be to purchase international carbon credits. “That’s not good economic policy,” says Harrison. “It’s not a good climate change strategy either.” 

Protestors outside Canada's National Energy Board hearings last year.

Protestors outside Canada's National Energy Board hearings last year. Sum of Us/Flickr

Harrison says Trudeau is now confronting a dilemma faced by other Canadian prime ministers: The country’s economy is heavily dependent on resource extraction, particularly oil and gas, making it extremely difficult for leaders to fulfill promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s especially true, she says, given that the 10 provincial premiers wield a great deal of power. “We’ve had other prime ministers make similar promises without success,” says Harrison. “It’s a challenge getting a country hooked on resource development to transition to a low-carbon economy.” 

Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau — Canada’s prime minister from 1968 to 1979, and again from 1980 to 1984 — found that out when he tried to impose a National Energy Program in the 1980s. The program — which instituted greater federal control over provincial energy policies, as well as revenue sharing — had an outsized impact on Alberta, which was just beginning to capitalize on its vast oil and gas reserves. Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, a moderate Conservative, responded with a vow to shut off the flow of oil and gas and “let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark.” 

Albertans still display bumper stickers on their cars and trucks with those words. That’s why it was not a surprise for some when Alberta’s premier, Rachel Notley of the New Democratic Party — who is getting mixed reviews from environmentalists— pushed back hard when Trudeau suggested last week that the tar sands should be phased out. 

At last week’s town hall meeting, Trudeau acknowledged the challenge his government faces in weaning Alberta’s economy — and the country’s — off fossil fuel production. “We can’t shut down the oil sands tomorrow,” Trudeau said in Peterborough, Ontario. “We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels, but it’s going to take time …” 

Trudeau has staunchly defended his environmental record, noting that he has achieved consensus with the provinces on climate change and a carbon tax and has improved environmental protection. He points to initiatives such as the $1.5 billion he announced in November for more effective responses to tanker and fuel spills at sea. The Trudeau government also has announced plans to protect 5 percent of Canada’s marine and coastal areas as reserves by the end of this year and 10 percent by 2020

And he insists he can chart a path that both boosts Canada’s economy and protects the environment. “Voters rejected the old thinking that what is good for the economy is bad for the environment,” he said in defending his decision to approve the two pipelines in November. “They embraced the idea that we need strong environmental policies if we expect to develop our natural resources and get them to international markets.” 

Trudeau insists he can chart a path that both boosts Canada’s economy and protects the environment.

A major part of Canada’s solution to reduce fossil fuel production and use is hydropower, which currently supplies 60 percent of the country’s electricity. But Trudeau has run into stiff opposition after approving two controversial hydropower projects. His government has given the go-ahead to the $8.8 billion Site C hydroelectric project, which will create a 52-mile-long reservoir, flooding forests and native land upstream in British Columbia. 

In November, he provided an additional $2.9 billion in loan guarantees for construction of the $11.4 billion Muskrat Falls hydropower project, which scientists say will result in high levels of methylmercury in the Churchill River watershed of Labrador. (Soil-bound mercury, once flooded, is transformed into methylmercury, a neurotoxin that increases as it moves up the food chain.) Roughly 200 Inuit will live along the reservoir once it is filled. 

Environmentalists and native leaders in Labrador are suing the Trudeau government. Acknowledging environmental concerns, Trudeau has reportedly attached a condition to the hydropower loan guarantee that would force Nalcor, the provincially owned energy company behind the project, to remove trees and soil in the reservoir to reduce the risk of methylmercury contamination. 

“If that happens it would be a game-changer,” says Trevor Bell, a geographer with Memorial University in Newfoundland who has monitored the Muskrat Falls hydropower project since its inception. “It will set a precedent for future hydroelectric projects. And it will fulfill promises that Trudeau has made on the environment and on advancing reconciliation with First Nations and the Inuit.” 

Trudeau’s approval of the Petronas liquefied natural project also has drawn strong opposition from Canadian First Nations groups, which oppose the terminal on the grounds that it will threaten the Skeena’s run of five to seven million salmon. A coalition of environmentalists and First Nations groups has filed multiple federal lawsuits to stop the project. 

“I had hopes that Trudeau would be different,” Gitxsan Nation fisherman Richard Wright said. “But it looks like he’s taking his orders from the big corporations just like Harper did. This LNG project is bad news for salmon and it has to be stopped. That’s why we had to go to court.” 

On the signature issue of climate change, Trudeau has broad public support for action, according to recent polls. In November, a Nanos Research Group poll conducted on behalf of CTV television and the Globe and Mail newspaper found that 72 percent of Canadians think the science of climate change is irrefutable, and nearly two-thirds favor imposing a minimum price on carbon

As some experts look deeper into Trudeau’s climate change commitments, they say there may be less than meets the eye. Michael Byers, an Arctic expert and chair of Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, welcomes Trudeau’s ban on Arctic drilling. He notes, however, that oil companies are also not complaining about the ban because they have little interest in high-cost oil-and-gas exploration at a time when energy prices are so low. What concerns Byers is the wiggle room contained in the announcement of the ban, which allows the government to review the policy in five years when oil prices may have rebounded and Arctic drilling becomes more economically attractive. 

For now, as he tries to find a middle way between economic and environmental interests, Trudeau has disappointed many in the environmental community, especially for his pipeline and Skeena LNG terminal decisions. 

“He has another three years, and maybe another term in office to redeem himself,” says Harrison. “And Trudeau is right in suggesting that a healthy environment and a prosperous economy go hand in hand. But not all prosperous economies are environmentally sustainable. He is also right in suggesting that the transition away from fossil fuels must be gradual. But building two new pipelines, and possibly more if Keystone goes ahead, is not moving the country in the right direction because it creates the infrastructure that virtually guarantees bitumen [tar sands] exports for decades to come.”