Oil vs Democracy: to whom are Wall and Trudeau accountable?

CBC reported on December 20th that the Saskatchewan government was ignoring the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s recommendation that it release records and information relating to inspection of Husky Energy’s pipelines.

Following the Husky heavy oil leak of July 20th which threatened the water supply of North Battleford, Prince Albert and several First Nations, a Freedom of Information request was sent to the Commissioner seeking information about the bigger context for this spill.  Specifically, there is widespread concern that the inspection regime had been inadequate.

It is a matter of concern that it is possible for government to override the Commissioner in this way.  This is not the first time that Saskatchewan’s right-to-know process has been found ineffective.  The limited powers of the Commissioner – together with the reluctance of the present government to require his recommendations to be acted on – has, for example, made it virtually impossible for citizens of the northern village of Pinehouse to hold their elected and unelected officials to account for their use of public money.

At CJS, we believe that the public has a right to the Husky information.  We have a right to know how critical areas of environmental protection are being dealt with, especially when it impacts the drinking water of thousands of people.  True democracy requires a well-informed public, able to push for good government decisions made on the basis of established fact.  The Commissioner has made it clear that, in his expert opinion, release of the documents would not jeopardize the ongoing investigation of the July 20th leak.  So the Saskatchewan government’s claim to the contrary looks very much like a bogus excuse being promulgated in the interests of one oil company – and also generally for an industry plagued by environmental mishaps.  The decision to ignore the Privacy Commissioner’s request shows just how intertwined the Brad Wall government is with the oil industry.

It is time for Premier Wall to put the people of Saskatchewan first instead of the oil corporations that fund his political party.

But it is not only Brad Wall that is using poor information and undemocratic process to put the interests of the oil industry ahead of those of the public.

In an interview on December 20th regarding his approval of new diluted bitumen pipeline projects, prime minister Justin Trudeau justified his position by claiming that:

“We’re a country of rule of law.”

However, the law in question was rushed through parliament without meaningful debate as part of the massive C-38 omnibus bill in 2012 – and involved dramatic and targeted weakening of existing environmental protections at the behest of the oil industry.  “Rule of law” becomes problematic when it is the corporate lobbyists who are writing the law governing their own companies’ activities.

Mr Trudeau further asserted:

“We’re a country where we have processes for consultations.”

Despite promises made before the 2015 election, Mr Trudeau maintained a biased process for consultation on the Kinder Morgan project.  Neither climate impacts nor Indigenous land rights could be adequately considered (and intervenors on these grounds were excluded), citizens did not have the right to cross-question industry presenters, and the commissioners represented a National Energy Board with a well-attested pro-industry bias  – indeed which can reasonably be described as “captive” to the industry it regulates.

The prime minister went on to say that:

“We have regular elections.”

Yes, using a system which puts 100% of the power in the hands of a party elected by about a quarter of those eligible to vote.  And – in the current case – a party which promised one thing and is now doing another.

Finally, Mr Trudeau stated:

“We have ways of protesting to make your feelings heard, and that is all par for the course and that will happen.”

We are not interested in merely “making our feelings heard”.  This is not about emotional release.  It is about protecting the life-support systems of this precious planet from the multiple impacts of corporate Big Oil, and especially from runaway climate change.  It is now clear that the government of Canada is not prepared to take seriously its responsibility to do that.  For that reason, the informed citizens whose voices have been marginalized in the “processes for consultations” will provide the necessary leadership, and will use all honest nonviolent means available to block any project which threatens climate stability or Indigenous rights.  Mr Trudeau stated repeatedly during the 2015 election campaign that “governments can grant permits, but only communities grant permission”.  Climate Justice Saskatoon stands in solidarity with communities which refuse that permission, whether on grounds of sound scientific analysis or in defence of their inherent rights and livelihood.

The premiers’ Pan-Canadian Framework

Discussions among federal and provincial ministers have finally yielded a result.  In an 80-page document, they have set out their agreement on action to address climate change.  At least, most of them have.  The Manitoba government is withholding its support for the framework as a bargaining counter until its concerns about healthcare funding are met.  And the Saskatchewan government is refusing to play, complaining in now-familiar shrill tones that carbon pricing proposals would hit export-exposed energy-intensive industries – a concern which, as we will later show in these pages, can be adequately addressed within a carbon pricing system.

The content follows a pattern familiar to those who participated in the public consultation on the subject in the spring and summer of this year.  Subject matter is divided into 4 sections – carbon pricing; complementary emissions-reduction measures; adaptation and resilience; and new technology, innovation and jobs.  Within those categories, many of the specific policies which citizens called for at town hall meetings across the country (including our own in Saskatoon) appear in the document.  So at first sight there is reason for optimism.

The framework includes commitments to:

  • a shift towards zero-carbon electricity, with an exit from coal as a first priority.
  • federal infrastructure funding (though with no dollar figure attached as yet) for interprovincial interconnections and smart grids – two things which would seriously help provinces such as Saskatchewan to increase their targets for wind and solar power.
  • a national building energy code, and renewed support for both efficiency improvements to existing houses and high-performance new ones.
  • better emissions standards for vehicles; and active encouragement of “zero-emissions vehicles”, including a stronger network of charging stations for electric vehicles.
  • financial support for public transit.
  • support for energy efficiency in industry – including investment in the necessary technology.
  • regulations to reduce “fugitive emissions” of GHGs from venting, flaring and leaks at oil and gas installations.
  • delivery on the promise of $2.65 billion to help the lowest-income countries transition to clean energy and adapt to those impacts of climate change which prove unavoidable.
  • investing in resilient infrastructure, and supporting Northern and First Nations communities in adapting to the impacts of climate change.
  • supporting Northern and Indigenous communities in adopting clean energy technology.

But unfortunately that isn’t the whole story.  If the purpose of this policy framework is to reduce Canada’s emissions to values consistent with the Paris temperature goals (substantially less than 2degC of warming compared to pre-industrial levels, with the ambition of staying below 1.5degC), then there is a lot more work to be done – and quickly.  Apart from the vagueness of some of the commitments (which can possibly be excused in a framework document), we have a number of serious concerns:

Problem #1:  Canada’s 2030 emissions target – 30% below 2005 – is inadequate.  If all the national targets (in the jargon, NDCs, or Nationally Determined Contributions) currently submitted to the UN are met, we are still heading for at least 2.7degC of warming.  And, of the NDCs submitted by wealthy industrialised countries (which have both the greatest responsibility and the greatest ability to act), Canada’s is one of the weakest.  If most other countries were to follow Canada’s approach, the world would be heading for more than 3degC of warming, most likely more than 4degC.  So the target itself needs to be strengthened.

Problem #2:  Of the 219 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year which the target requires Canada to cut by 2030, the document provides adequate explanation for only 175 megatonnes.  The other 44Mte are said to come from “additional measures such as public transit and green infrastructure, technology and innovation, and stored carbon (forests,soils, wetlands)”.  No details are given in the document as to how this amount is to be achieved by these means.

Problem #3:  There is apparently no attempt to account for the increased emissions to be expected as a result of projects which the government has recently approved.  Emissions from production of fossil gas for the Petronas LNG plant have been calculated at 13Mte/year.  The Kinder Morgan Transmountain twinning and Line 3 replacement would enable increased bitumen production resulting in upstream emissions of to up to 19 and 17 Mte/year respectively.

Problem #4:  The document raises the possibility of international emissions trading under Article 6 of the Paris agreement.  The idea is that if we can’t get our act together to meet our target then we pay someone else who has exceeded theirs.  This is merely a lazy way out, a failure to take our responsibilities seriously.  As Pope Francis put it in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’,:

The strategy of buying and selling “carbon credits” can lead to a new form of speculation which would not help reduce the emission of polluting gases worldwide.  This system seems to provide a quick and easy solution under the guise of a certain commitment to the environment, but in no way does it allow for the radical change which present circumstances require.  Rather,it may simply become a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors. (para 171)

Furthermore, some international emissions trading schemes have been at the expense of vulnerable populations in low-income countries.  John Dillon of Kairos cites a number of examples where this has happened in this paper.  The pope also addresses this type of injustice:

Some strategies for lowering pollutant gas emissions call for the internationalization of environmental costs, which would risk imposing on countries with fewer resources burdensome commitments to reducing emissions comparable to those of the more industrialized countries.  Imposing such measures penalizes those countries most in need of development.  (para 170)

It is also inefficient.  During the first seven years of the EU’s emissions trading scheme – the largest in the world – up to two-thirds of emissions credits did not represent real emissions savings, as a result of poor baseline establishment, double counting or fraudulent practice.  And it provides a bonanza for financial speculators, who can profit by gaming the regulatory system.

Finally, it is necessary to challenge one of the basic presuppositions of the document, which is enshrined in its title: “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change – Canada’s plan to address climate change and grow the economy”.  It has been said that anyone who thinks unlimited growth in consumption is possible on a finite planet is either insane or an economist – and climate change is a clear sign that we are close to the limits to growth (if not already beyond them).  It is clear from the government’s own figures on page 5 of the report that we can achieve faster emissions reductions with lower GDP growth.  Given the inadequacy of GDP as a measure of genuine human wellbeing, especially in a wealthy society, surely there is a fundamental problem here with the premiers’ approach – why continue to fetishize one particular cell in an economist’s spreadsheet when it makes the more urgent task so much more difficult?  Why not instead work on building a new economy which can meet real human needs – including those not addressed in financial transactions – more effectively?  Again, the pope has something to say about this:

…It is a matter of redefining our notion of progress.  A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.  Frequently,in fact, peoples’ quality of life actually diminishes – by the deterioration of the environment, the low quality of food or the depletion of resources -in the midst of economic growth.  In this context, talk of sustainable growth usually becomes a way of distracting attention and offering excuses.  It absorbs the language and values of ecology into the categories of finance and technology, and the social and environmental responsibility of businesses often gets reduced to a series of marketing and image-enhancing measures. (para 194)

We cannot afford for national marketing and image-enhancing to take the place of just and effective action to address the climate crisis and build a society in which everyone’s legitimate needs are met.

Answering Brad Wall’s talking points

In discussions of climate policy with opponents of decisive action, certain talking points inevitably get raised.  Some are more common than others, some are more subtle than others, and some require more knowledge and thought to debunk than others – but our current premier seems to be happy to use all of them.  We are gradually compiling a set of responses on this site – mostly as an educational resource.  You can find them here.

The Saskatchewan White Paper on Climate Change

Last week (on Oct. 18, 2016) Brad Wall at last announced his climate policy… sort of.  It turns out that there is nothing new in the White Paper as regards actual policy – but there are some new twists in the demands that he is making of the federal government.

It is encouraging to see that there is no overt climate science denial in the document – indeed it explicitly acknowledges the reality of climate change and the human role in its causation.  However, there are other sorts of denial.

There is the ideologically convenient denial of the effectiveness of carbon pricing – whether a carbon tax or cap and trade.  To do this Mr Wall’s researchers have needed to quote economists out of context and leap to conclusions on the basis of scant cherry-picked evidence.  (What was that about “grim leapers”, Mr Wall?)  For a more detailed treatment of this, I recommend Brett Dolter’s economic analysis.

And then there is the attempt to claim that Saskatchewan isn’t really such a high emitter after all.  There are two talking points here.  Firstly, the authors direct our attention away to China and India – countries which, because of their much larger population, have higher total emissions (but whose per capita emissions are a small fraction of ours).  Secondly, they argue for adjustment of our own emissions figures by introducing effective credits for legume production, for agriculture generally, and even for uranium mining.  The claim is that legume nitrogen-fixing and zero-till agriculture provide effective carbon sinks, and that uranium supply reduces fossil fuel use elsewhere in the world.  We will address this separately in other blog posts, but let’s just say for now that it amounts to creative carbon accounting – and that the sheer chutzpah of these claims took me by surprise.

Denial can take other forms, too, and one of them is fantastical thinking.  At the centre of Mr Wall’s supposed strategy is the assumption that SaskPower’s experience of retrofitting a carbon capture and storage facility to the Boundary Dam 3 power station will give the province some ability to market this technology in Asia.  Firstly, it isn’t working to specification – and as a result they’ve had to reduce their annual target from 1 million to 800 thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide captured.  Secondly, it is expensive – the Boundary Dam installation cost of about $1.5 billion works out at about 15 cents per kilowatt-hour generated.  Wind power typically works out at between 5 and 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, and solar photovoltaics at 12 (and rapidly decreasing).  And, thirdly, SaskPower doesn’t even own the patents for the adsorption unit – the key element in the CCS facility.  Perhaps, when he talks about “more research and development” to produce “next generation” CCS, Mr Wall is hopeful of overcoming that last hurdle.  But it’s all speculative, the timescale is unspecified, and it is difficult to envisage what changes would merit the label of “next generation”.  There is no grounding in reality.

And maybe it is this naive faith in expensive big technology that lies behind the truly poisonous suggestion that the $2.65 billion federal money pledged to the Global Climate Fund be diverted into research and development for projects like this.  That money is earmarked to help the poorest in the world to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change (for which high-emitting wealthy societies like ours bear the bulk of the responsibility) and to enable them to pursue their own low-carbon path to development.  Mr Wall’s proposal amounts to stealing from the poor to give to wealthy corporations.

There is more to be said.  I have said some of it here. We will be publishing further responses on this blog to some of Mr Wall’s favourite talking points – not so much to show how wrong he is as to present the reality. We will also be posting some positive proposals which make more scientific sense – and more economic sense – than anything that the present government has come up with so far.

Powershift: more about the “justice” in “climate justice”

Listen to Janelle Pewapsconias and Rachel Malena-Chan talk about this September’s PowerShifting Saskatoon event. How does climate justice relate to the rights of Indigenous people? To anti-poverty action? How can we best address these vital issues together?

You can catch the recording of this CFCR Saskatoon (90.5FM) interview here

Letter to Justin Trudeau and Catherine McKenna

from concerned citizens of Saskatchewan, convened by Climate Justice Saskatoon
c/o 615 Main St, Saskatoon, SK, S7H 0J8


Rt Hon Justin Trudeau and Hon Catherine McKenna
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A6

Dear Mr Trudeau and Ms McKenna

We write as citizens of Saskatchewan, concerned that government needs: to take decisive action consistent with the latest science to mitigate the global climate crisis; to facilitate job creation in the new clean green economy; and to recognize with genuine respect the original custodians of this land and their rights. To that end we call upon you to:

(1) Improve our national emissions targets. We owe it to the world to increase the ambition of our emissions reduction targets – the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution referred to in the Paris agreement. The current Canadian targets, set by the Harper government, are amongst the least ambitious in the industrialised world. Canada’s target amounts to a mere 15% reduction compared to 1990. Because of Canada’s arbitrary choice of a 2005 baseline, the pro rata target for Saskatchewan would actually amount to an 8% increase from 1990. By contrast, the European Union’s INDC is a 40% reduction by 2030 from its 1990 emissions – itself probably an inadequate target given the urgency of the crisis. Taken as a whole, current INDCs take the world’s 2030 emissions to about 33% higher than is needed to keep us below 2°C of warming.(ref 1)  Canada has a particular responsibility as a historic laggard to raise its game. Your failure to do so is deeply regrettable, and totally inconsistent with your support for the Paris 1.5°C goal.

However, targets are meaningless without a programme to achieve them. Hence:

(2) End fossil subsidies and introduce fair, transparent, comprehensive and serious carbon pricing. A useful starting point for a credible emissions reduction programme would be the rapid elimination of all the subsidies given by the federal government to the fossil fuel industry. The latest figures for those total more than USD1.5 billion a year.(ref 2)  But eliminating that piece of corporate welfare is not enough. It does not account for the hidden subsidies in the form of increased medical expenses, increased infrastructure expenses, increased climate impact expenses and so on. When those are included, the figure comes to USD46 billion a year.(ref 3)  That is the first reason why we need carbon pricing. The second reason is that it is a very effective tool for shifting the economy from waste to efficiency and from carbon polluters to clean energy. But it must be open and transparent, it must involve minimal extra bureaucracy, it must be comprehensive, it must be able to weather sudden changes in the economy, and it should be constructed so as put more burdens on those able to pay and give more opportunities to those who cannot currently afford them. It is difficult to see how a cap and trade system could meet most of those criteria. But there are at least two options which can. Fee and dividend involves charging a fee at the point where fossil fuels enter the economy, and giving it back to the people in equal cash payments. Or a more complex system could return a fraction of the funds to people on low income and use the rest to fund green initiatives.

(3) Say no to new pipelines. But fiscal measures alone won’t deal with the crisis, for a couple of reasons. Some of the shifts we need cannot be achieved by market manipulation. New infrastructure is also needed to enable people to choose efficient and clean. At the same time, some old infrastructure needs to be retired or rejected. A recent, meticulously researched report found, using industry data, that, in order to satisfy the Paris agreement’s temperature commitments, no new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be build, and some of the existing infrastructure needs to be closed down.(ref 4)  That is why you must say no to all existing or new bitumen pipeline proposals – NO to Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain pipeline, and NO to Energy East. But it is also unanswerable grounds for saying NO to the Lelu Island liquefied natural gas plant, NO to the pipeline to transport the gas, NO to the expansion of fracking in northeast BC to supply the gas, and NO to the site C hydro dam which would power the fracking operation. Your recent approval of two of these elements is deeply regrettable – and indeed puts at risk Canada’s ability even to meet the inadequate Harper emission targets.(ref 5)

(4) Exit from coal. It also means an exit from coal before 2030. The Alberta government has already made that commitment. Detailed calculations for Green Energy Project Saskatchewan lead us to believe that, with the political will, Saskatchewan could easily replace all of its coal-fired power stations with clean renewable energy facilities by 2025.(ref 6)

(5) Cut methane leaks, venting and flaring. And it means a dramatic reduction in what are called “fugitive emissions” – the leakage of methane especially from fracking operations, and the unnecessary venting and flaring of methane at a variety of oil and gas installations. Sometimes this practice is necessary for safety reasons, but most of the time it isn’t – it merely exemplifies a culture of waste.

(6) Build the green economy. But we don’t just need to stop doing harm. We need to build a new energy economy and new green infrastructure. A shift to renewables for electric power could be achieved very quickly given the political will provincially, backed up by both sticks and carrots from Ottawa. We just need to look to Denmark, Scotland, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, just to name a few, to see how it can be done. SaskPower’s renewables target for 2030 is an improvement on past policy, but it is still far far too modest. We know that we can build buildings to vastly better standards of energy performance than is currently the norm – Saskatoon’s first house which complies with the tough international Passivhaus standard is nearing completion. The shift to clean electricity should go hand in hand with a shift to electric vehicles. Norway, the Netherlands and India are already constructing plans for an end to new petroleum-fuelled vehicles before 2030. We could join them, but to do so in our climate and with our long distances between population centres we need funding for a stronger network of electric fuelling stations and for accelerated research for better batteries.

(7) Implement a holistic transport strategy. Electric vehicles aren’t the only way to clean up our transport, though. Let’s have generous federal funding to expand our municipal public transit – and our intercity public transit – and make them attractive and convenient. Most developed countries have managed to do this. Is it really too difficult for Canada?

(8) Roll out an ambitious green jobs strategy. And this shift to a green economy involves creating jobs. If planned correctly, it can create them in very large numbers. According to one recent report, if government invested in green energy to the same extent as it has subsidised the oil industry, it would create between 6 and 9 times as many jobs.(ref 7) They will be clean jobs, many more of them will be
available within peoples’ own communities, and there can be real possibilities for local ownership of the businesses which a green transition would create.

(9) Equip workers to enter the new economy, and ensure they are properly supported in the transition. But it can take time for workers to transition from the old economy to the new. So your government must ensure adequate EI protection and retraining for all energy workers affected by a transition to renewables. And let’s start now. People are losing their jobs in the oil industry because of the drop in the international oil price. There is no reason to expect that price to rise much for several years to come. Let’s enable those workers to become the vanguard of the new clean economy.

(10) Give Indigenous people the respect they deserve – including a proper recognition of their inherent land rights. There would be no Canada were it not for First Peoples’ traditional knowledge in how to live in this land. There will be no Canada – at least not the country that we recognise – if we do not learn from that traditional wisdom to live in harmony with the land and with all the other species which it supports. When Indigenous people say NO to pipelines, or to mines, or to oil installations, it is not because they are perverse, nor is it because they are angling for more money. It is because they are protecting the land, because they understand what it means to be in right relationship with the land. And although it was the support and the proper care of First Peoples that made Canada possible, Canada has treated them with one injustice after another – it is not necessary to rehearse them here. The clean green economy which we want to create needs their participation, it needs their leadership, and it must be created in a way that does right by them. Every element of it needs their free, prior and informed consent. So, as a first step – and this is only a first step – towards building a just relationship, we are calling on both federal and provincial governments to adopt and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and to adopt a natural interpretation of Article 19, which calls for free, prior and informed consent.

At present we are all forced into an addiction to fossil fuels which threatens to destroy some of our basic life-support systems. Federal government has the power to change that. Just as you don’t help an alcoholic by giving him a drink, you don’t help fossil addicts by giving them an LNG terminal or a pipeline. And just as you don’t help an alcoholic by letting him persuade you that just a few more drinks won’t hurt, you don’t help a fossil addict by letting him block real climate action at first ministers’ meetings.

Mr Trudeau, you need to act to protect our climate, to protect the most vulnerable, to protect our children, indeed to protect your own children. You need to act comprehensively. And you need to act now.

Yours respectfully,

[signed by 60 Saskatchewan-resident citizens]



(1) Sir Robert Watson, Dr Carlo Carraro, Dr Pablo Canziani, Prof Dr Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Dr James M McCarthy, Dr Jose Goldemberg, Liliana Hisas (2016), The Truth about Climate Change, FEU-US.
See also: Joeri Rogelj, Michel den Elzen, Niklas Höhne, Taryn Fransen, Hanna Fekete, Harald Winkler, Roberto Schaeffer, Fu Sha, Keywan Riahi & Malte Meinshausen (2016:Jun:30), Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2°C, Nature, vol 534 pp 631-639

(2) Yanick Touchette (2015:Nov), G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production: Canada, Overseas Development Institute / Oil Change International / International Institute for Sustainable Development

(3) David Coady, Ian Parry, Louis Sears & Baoping Shang (2015:May), How large are global energy subsidies?, IMF working paper, Fiscal Affairs Department, International Monetary Fund

(4) Greg Muttitt (2016:Sep), The Sky’s Limit: why the Paris climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production, Oil Change International

(5) J David Hughes (2016:Jun), Can Canada expand oil and gas production, build pipelines and keep its climate change commitments?, CCPA / Parkland Institute / Corporate Mapping Project.

(6) Mark Bigland-Pritchard (2015:Mar), Can Saskatchewan make the shift to a renewables-only electricity grid by mid-century?: a technical modelling exercise (interim report), Saskatchewan Eco-Network / Green Energy Project Saskatchewan. Available from the author on request.

(7) Blue Green Canada (2012), More Bang for our Buck

Tune in: From the Ground Up on CFCR90.5FM Weds 6:30pm

CJS is now responsible for a weekly slot on Saskatoon’s community radio station, CFCR (90.5 FM).  From the Ground Up is broadcast on Wednesdays at 6:30pm, and a number of us will take turns to host the programme.

After broadcast, we are posting the audio file on SoundCloud.

In the second episode, broadcast on September 28, Mark Bigland-Pritchard interviewed Julee Sanderson from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers and experienced environmental and labour activist Cat Gendron on how climate and environmental justice can go hand in hand with labour rights and job creation.

Here it is on SoundCloud

In the first episode, Julia Gonzalez and Mark Bigland-Pritchard launched the programme with an interview with Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society about the Husky Oil spill.

And here is that first episode on SoundCloud