“Climate change is real. And it is a challenge.”
Canadian Prime Minister
Over his four-year leadership of Canada, Liberal PM Justin Trudeau has gone to great lengths, both at home and abroad, to bolster his environmental credentials.
But what has Trudeau’s government achieved so far?
Canada Environmental Policy
Part of Trudeau’s Pan-Canadian climate change strategy requires provinces to have a minimum level carbon pricing. Failing that, the government implements its own carbon tax.
So far, carbon taxes have been imposed on 4 out of 10 provinces.
However, Canada is a country largely dependent on resource extraction.
Any environmental goodwill Trudeau might have earned through this carbon tax has been sullied by his government’s support and subsequent nationalisation of an oil pipeline…
Recently, climate scientists announced that Canada is warming up twice as fast as the rest of the World.
Alberta’s Oil Sands
At ground zero of this environmental disaster in the making are the Alberta’s oil sands: the World’s second largest oil reserve.
The deposits consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid rock-like form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals, and water.
The Athabasca deposit is the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the World, and the largest of three major oil sands deposits in Alberta, along with nearby Peace River deposit and Cold Lake deposit in Saskatchewan.
These oil sand deposits lie under 141,000 square kilometres (54,000 sq mi) of boreal forest and muskeg (peat bogs).
They contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen in-place, comparable in magnitude to the world’s total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.
Alberta’s oil sands are Canada’s most shameful environmental secret.
Open Pit Mining
The process involves open pit mining and its extraction is more labour intensive compared to conventional oil extraction, which occurs through drilling rigs.
The type of oil present in the tar sands is bitumen oil – a viscous, heavy form of crude oil, embedded in sand and clay that has to be scrapped away with the use of machinery and chemicals, then mixed with lighter forms of crude oil in order for it to flow.
A process using enough energy daily to heat up to 3 million homes!
Roughly the size of England, this wasteland is where bitumen is blasted from the Earth under the most extreme oil extraction process.
It is the largest and most destructive industrial project ever endeavoured in human history.
The only way to get some appreciation of its scale is from the air.
The Athabasca Sands Exploitation
Large enough to be seen from space, the tailings ponds in Alberta’s oil sands region are some of the biggest human-made structures on Earth.
Tailings ponds are engineered systems of dams and dykes used to capture oil sand tailings. Large volumes of tailings are a byproduct of bitumen extraction from the oil sands.
They contain a toxic slurry of heavy metals and hydrocarbons from the bitumen separation process.
Canada’s Dirty Oil
Oil sand tailings contain a mixture of salts, suspended solids and other dissoluble chemical compounds such as acids, benzene, hydrocarbons, residual bitumen, fine silts and water.
Settling basins were initially meant to be a temporary solution, but managing oil tailings is one of the most difficult environmental challenges facing this industry.
These massive oil operations have caused staggering levels of carbon emissions and toxic sludge on an unimaginable scale, especially north of Fort McMurray where the boreal forest has been razed to make room for bitumen.
That is apocalyptic environmental destruction.
Not surprisingly, it is unsustainable.
A Dying Business
In the not-so-distant past, the region of the Alberta oil sands and its main city of Fort McMurray experienced an economic boom due to the opportunities created by the oil industry.
People once flocked there, attracted by the money that could be made. There used to be plenty of jobs in the extraction process, with high oil prices sustaining them for a long time.
However, with the price of oil having fallen 70 percent since June 2014 the cost of producing a barrel now outweighs the price that it sells for on the open market.
This is compounded by high transportation costs, primarily via rail and road, and the rejection of the pipelines that were meant to bring down the price of transportation.
The Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion
Currently, the diluted bitumen, or ‘dil-bit’ currently flows through the existing Trans Mountain pipeline (TMPL).
Dilbit has become a lighting rod for controversy in the debate over the pipeline, which would send as much as 830,000 barrels every day from the oil sands of northwestern Canada, to refineries as far away as Texas, in the United States.
PM Justin Trudeau is supposed to be cutting carbon emissions. However, these are set to massively increase under the controversial plans to expand the existing oil pipeline his government has bought.
The project is considered most crucial for an oil industry hit by transportation bottlenecks. But it is fiercely opposed by British Columbia’s left-leaning New Democratic government, many municipalities, some aboriginal groups and environmental activists concerned about potential oil spills.
The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX) will see a twin pipeline follow the same route as the existing one from Edmonton to Burnaby on the West coast of Canada, tripling oil production from £300,000 to almost £900,000 a day.
It’s a project that has divided a nation.
Edmonton to Burnaby
For the pipeline project to succeed, Trudeau has sought the support of first nation groups who still control large parts of the territory.
“When I was growing up, when I was young, we used to swim in this water, and we used to drink from the river.
Now, we don’t do that anymore.”
Chief Allan Adam
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Leader
Chief Adam has seen firsthand the destructive oil sands operation.
“There’s all kinds of toxins: cadmium, arsenic, mercury… Whatever comes with the oil production.”
For years, he has fought the oil industry. But although conflicted, he is ready to strike a deal with Trudeau’s government.
“They want to construct a pipeline. They’re going to do it anyway, regardless of what…”
“But at least, if we have an ownership, we have a say at the table. And when you have a say at the table, it comes a lot bigger than having a say on the outside. You can’t reap the money outside. Because they have the billions of dollars to do it, they’ll do it.”
The town of Blue River has just 260 inhabitants.
Residents here hope the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion will help regenerate their area.
“What we’re really hoping for in Blue River… It’s going to give us some jobs, more exposure. We’re becoming a ghost town.“
“This is where the pipe is going to cross the river. They’re protesting. Yet they’re driving vehicles. They fly to Hawaii or to Mexico…”.
Patti + Robin Tyacke,
Blue River Residents and Business Owners
If the project means employment and a financial boost to the local economy, why has this project so divided the country?
Among the critics of the Trudeau government policy, are the local Indigenous Communities.
Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, spanning 11,000 km2 (4,200 sq mi). Its pristine wilderness is known as “Canada’s postcard”.
The expanded pipeline will literally carve through it.
Across Indigenous land…
The Wesley family, one of the Stoney First Nation communities. This is their ancestral land. The line is laying underneath here.
“If the pipeline bursts, all of this environment here will be destroyed. This whole area would be dead. Bottom line. Nothing will survive.”
Stoney First Nation band
Many indigenous groups still feel marginalised. The Wesley say the Stoney people were not consulted about the pipeline expansion.
“Once all this is gone, with this pipeline, when they’re no use… Are they going to come and clear them out? Trudeau doesn’t own the land…”
Stoney First Nation band
The Burnaby Terminal versus the Tsleil-Waututh Nation
The final stretch of the pipeline to Burnaby is the pipeline export outlet.
The Burnaby terminal (“tank farm”) is the terminus of the Trans Mountain Pipeline (TMPL) mainline. It receives both crude oil and refined products, mainly from northern Alberta.
The terminal provides temporary storage and distribution through separate pipelines to local terminals:
- Chevron‘s Burnaby refinery and
- Westridge marine terminal.
Burnaby is a city of around 233,000 inhabitants.
The residents here are among the fiercest critics of the new pipeline and have joined many protests. Fearing environmental disaster, they are incensed by plans to expand a huge storage facility.
Increased tanker and tug traffic in the Burrard Inlet, and the oil spills resulting from the project will directly impact the Tsleil-Waututh Nation.
Ruben George’s community has been involved in many legal battles with the oil industry, and may bring action to try and stop the pipeline expansion.
His community sits along the broad inlet and it’s here that tanker traffic is expected to increase seven-fold to 250 a month. There are fears for the safety of a pod of killer whales who swim these waters.
“There is an 80% chance of a spill happening here.
It’s just brutal and it doesn’t make sense.”
Tsleil-Waututh Nation Sacred Trust Initiative
The 2015 TWN Assessment was a landmark document that applied Tsleil-Waututh law, policy, and knowledge to a review of the project. Backed by cutting edge, western science including extensive anthropology and archaeology research, the report considered the effects of the pipeline project holistically.
The assessment concluded:
1) oil spills from the project are inevitable,
2) spilled oil cannot be completely cleaned up,
3) if diluted bitumen (dilbit—the tarry product to be shipped by the Trans Mountain pipeline) is spilled, it will likely submerge and linger for years,
4) spilled oil will have dire consequences for human health and the environment, and
5) additional tug and tanker traffic will accelerate erosion of the shoreline along the reserve.
Additional research revealed:
1) the target markets in Asia have no interest in buying dilbit from Alberta,
2) even if they did, Canada has sufficient, existing capacity to move oil for the next 20 years, and
3) building the pipeline is inconsistent with Canada’s climate change policy – all of which argue that the project is not in the public interest.
Climate Change Champion to Environmental Pariah
If Justin Trudeau does approve the Trans Mountain pipeline extension, it might just be the beginning of his problems.
“Well, we gave him a choice. Long time ago, we said you can do this the easy way or the hard way. He chose the hard way. Now, I’m giving him another choice: you can do this the hard way, or the harder way.
We’ll see what he chooses.”
As he heads off attacks that he has done too little on the environment, or too much, PM Trudeau is walking a tricky path forward.
The only true test of a climate change plan is whether carbon is either going up or down.
The approval of the TMX has enormous global implications. And while on the other hemisphere, the Amazon is burning, another crisis is looming that risks turning Trudeau from a climate champion to an environmental pariah…