The Canadian government looks set to bankroll the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by Texas-based Kinder Morgan, North America’s largest energy infrastructure company. Controversy over the pipeline has pitted one province against another, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau siding publicly with oil-rich Alberta over neighboring British Columbia in an aggressive and un-Canadian display of political brinkmanship.
As Canadian environmental politics have begun to boil over in ways reminiscent of its southern neighbor, science has become marginalized, putting at risk North American leadership on energy and climate policies that will affect the planet for generations.
North American researchers, including myself, have offered independent scientific perspective to the environmental consequences of tar sands development. We published an article in the international science journal Nature, produced a consensus statement — co-signed by over 100 North American scientists — calling for a moratorium on tar sands expansion, and produced a comprehensive review of the state of knowledge regarding risks to oceans.
In the fall of 2016, we shared results with Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and his cabinet while they were considering several pipeline proposals. Despite the scientific opposition Trudeau approved proposals for two pipelines, claiming that his decisions were “based on rigorous debate on science and evidence.” We were not surprised that our research was ignored, but the government’s failure to disclose the scientific basis of their decision was troubling. Ten months later, a journalist’s request under Canada’s Access to Information Act revealed internal emails showing that government officials had discussed our research — but looked for reasons to dismiss it prior to announcing the pipeline approvals.
While unsurprising to scientists reeling under the current American administration, this erosion of scientific debate runs counter to the evidence-based policy and transparency promised by the Trudeau government. In recent years, Canada has become a vocal advocate for international action on climate, so the hard push for the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a three-fold increase in the westward flow of tar sands petroleum products, and a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic in the waters off British Columbia and Washington state seems duplicitous.
The reason for this doublespeak is that Canada’s proposed Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change depends on the participation of Alberta, where the tar sands are located. Trudeau himself has acknowledged that pipeline approval “was always a tradeoff” for Alberta’s acceptance of the climate plan.
Yet, independent analysis has shown that significant expansion of tar sands production would make the climate framework ineffective, with reductions in carbon emissions from some sectors of the Canadian economy largely cancelled out by increased emissions from the tar sands. As impressive as Canada’s climate plan may appear, if its adoption requires concessions that will permit expansion of the tar sands industry, it will be, at best, a pyrrhic victory.
The idea that Canada can become a climate leader and a petro state, simultaneously, is absurd. Suggesting otherwise is irresponsible. Canada can show true leadership on climate and energy by pausing its expansion of the tar sands and mandating a comprehensive analysis of climate impacts — both national and global. Canada should also assess the cumulative environmental risks of production, pipeline construction, and transport of poorly understood tar sands products on land, and in freshwater and marine ecosystems.
If that comprehensive review shows that more production and new pipelines are incompatible with climate progress and environmental quality — as I predict it would — then the tar sands should become the first source of oil that we forgo, not the next climate-disrupting fossil fuel that we exploit.
Thomas D. Sisk is the Olajos-Goslow professor of environmental science and policy at Northern Arizona University, and a visiting scholar with appointments at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia.