“Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned last week. He decried the “litany of broken climate promises,” adding that “some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.”
As if on cue, the Canadian government stepped in two days later to provide yet another example of moral and economic madness. It fell to Steven Guilbeault, former environmental activist and now Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, to announce federal approval for the $12-billion Bay du Nord deep-water petroleum project.
The plan is for the new offshore platform to go into production in 2028, and to stay in production until about 2058.
No worries, though – the Canadian government also promised last week to give billions of dollars to oil companies for carbon-capture-and-storage research, and assured us that all new oil and gas projects will become “net-zero emissions” by 2050.
Canada so far has a consistent record in the “litany of broken climate promises” department – it has missed every carbon emissions reduction goal it has set. Few people have faith that the current iteration of the Justin Trudeau government will be much different. To understand that cynicism, it’s worth reviewing Trudeau’s more notable entries in what Guterres called the climate action “file of shame.”
When Justin Trudeau pulled off a come-from-behind victory to become Prime Minister in 2015, he took over from Conservative Stephen Harper, a man widely renowned as a “climate villain”. Part of Trudeau’s appeal was that he promised to restore Canada’s good name at international climate talks, starting in Paris just a month after his election.
In 2015 the mainstream political consensus was still that 2°C represented the “safe” limit of global warming. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C was not widely accepted as an important goal, though many climate scientists as well as the leaders of small island nations were warning that even 1.5°C of warming would cause devastating damage. That being said, the 1.5°C limit did seem within reach to many scientists and activists in 2015, unlike the miracle such a limit would require today, after six more years of climate action stalling.
The Trudeau government surprised the world, therefore, when newly minted Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna went to the Paris talks and announced her government’s support for the 1.5°C warming target. McKenna and Trudeau were praised around the world for injecting new hope into global climate negotiations.
Alas, that was probably the high point of McKenna’s career as Minister.
The Trudeau government swerved through scandal after scandal – Canada’s ethics commissioner twice determined that Trudeau had violated ethics rules – and its track record on meeting climate goals was no better than previous governments’ had been. To cite just one example, in September 2019 CBC fact-checked Trudeau’s campaign claim that “Canada is on track to reduce our emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.” Even in the best-case scenario, CBC found “all the climate-related policies that were on the table as of January this year would get us 63 per cent of the way to the 2030 target.”
By that point Trudeau had established a peculiar formula. In order to appeal to environmentalists without scaring established business interests, his government would enact a small carbon tax while also supporting, both politically and financially, the continuing expansion of Canada’s oil and gas industry. The increased national wealth from this growing fossil fuel output, we were asked to believe, was the key to financing an ambitious transition to clean renewable energy. To reduce carbon emissions in the coming generation, apparently, we had to increase carbon emissions in the present.
The tragic comedy reached a dramatic inflection in the summer of 2019. Activists were calling on governments around the world to demonstrate they were ready to get serious about climate action, by making official declarations that we are in a “climate emergency.” Trudeau let it be known that his government was on board with the idea.
On June 17, 2019, Catherine McKenna introduced a motion in Parliament, it passed, and the government was on record recognizing that the country is in a national climate emergency. (How serious was this emergency? Well, Trudeau and two other party leaders missed the debate and vote because they were on more pressing business – attending a Toronto Raptors victory parade in Toronto.)
And the very next morning the government announced its approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion, designed to triple the flow of bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to a tanker terminal on the BC coast.
Trudeau defended the project with the claim that every dollar the federal government earned from the pipeline would be invested in clean energy projects. (The government had purchased the pipeline a year earlier, and thus had become the proponent of the expansion proposal, because its private sector owner had determined there was no longer a valid business case for the expansion. Since that time, the cost of the expansion has swelled from the May 2018 estimate of $7.4 billion, to $21.4 billion as of March, 2022.)
It must have been a bitter humiliation for Catherine McKenna to be tasked with defending a climate action policy that surpassed the wildest hopes of satirists. At any rate she stepped down as Minister of Environment and Climate Change before the end of 2019, and left politics in 2021.
Somehow, though, Trudeau was able to attract a climate activist with deep credibility to take the key ministerial post in 2021.
Steven Guilbeault was still new to political office, but his career as an environmental activist was strong enough that fossil fuel defenders sounded an alarm when Trudeau appointed him as Minister of Environment and Climate Change.
One legend says that a five-year-old Guilbeault “refused to get down from a tree that he had climbed, in an effort to block a land developer from clearing a wooded area behind his home” (Wikipedia). His action in 2001 was more fully documented: representing Greenpeace International, he and activist Chris Holden climbed 340 meters up Toronto’s CN Tower and unfurled a banner reading “Canada and Bush Climate Killers”.
The appointment of Guilbeault had the potential to awaken a stirring of faint hope in the heart of a jaded observer of Canadian politics. We now have a minister of environment who actually cared enough about the environment to be arrested for his convictions! Could this mean the Trudeau government will turn in a new direction?
Well … no. Not yet, anyway.
Instead Guilbeault is now the front man for yet another expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure. Assuming the project finds financing and is completed on schedule, Bay du Nord will start adding to the world’s oil production in 2028 – at a time when, if we were at all serious about climate action, we would be well into a drastic reduction, not an increase, in fossil fuel outputs and fossil fuel consumption.
It was painful to consider the rationalization for the project. This increment of 300 million barrels of new oil production, Guilbeault said, was approved “subject to some of the strongest environmental conditions ever, including the historic requirement for an oil and gas project to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”
Does it comfort you to imagine that somewhere near the end of the project’s lifespan, if lots of new technology and processes are invented, the final barrels of oil might be produced without emitting carbon? Even though, as Guilbeault surely knows, the great preponderance of emissions from petroleum happen during combustion by end-users, and not from the extraction process?
Given Guilbeault’s background and his current role as a loyal foot soldier in the government of Justin Trudeau, it must have stung to hear Antonio Guterres’ words last week:
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”
Photos at top of page: Justin Trudeau, speaking at Carleton University’s 2021 Graduation Celebration, photo via Wikimedia Commons; Catherine McKenna in Vancouver, 2016, photo by Stephen Hui, Pembina Institute, Creative Commons license, via flickr; Steven Guilbeault, au Salon international du livre de Québec 2014, photo by Asclepias, via Wikimedia Commons.