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.

Climate Justice Saskatoon

Climate Justice Saskatoon is a group of people who care deeply about Saskatoon and want to help build a just and sustainable future for this city and the province of Saskatchewan. We are organizers, students, engineers, educators, artists, health workers and more. We are all deeply concerned about climate change and the social, economic and environmental injustices that make it the greatest challenge of our time, and we are all hopeful that by working creatively together we can not just survive but flourish and create a better society for everyone – a society based on cooperation and compassion, on meaningful reconciliation, on renewable energy and community.

Climate Justice Saskatoon (CJS) has been organizing events and initiatives in the city for several years, including helping to organize the Saskatchewan Citizens’ Hearings on Climate Change in 2013. In the wake of the Paris climate talks in December of last year, 2016 is a critical year for climate change around the globe, including in Canada and Saskatchewan. For CJS, that means the time is right to push for justice-based solutions to climate change here at home – solutions that will prioritize the needs of those most impacted by climate change, and solutions that create a more just, sustainable, and healthy society for all of us. We hope that this site will serve as a point of contact and an informative resource for those interested in joining this critical conversation.

This site is a work in progress and will evolve over time. You can also find CJS on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. We hope you’ll find these resources useful and that you’ll join us in working towards a more just and sustainable Saskatoon!