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Canadian Pipelines To Face Climate Test Like the One That Killed Keystone XL

But environmental groups still don't believe there's such a thing as a climate-friendly pipeline
January 28, 2016, 6:10pm
Photo via Hilary Beaumont

Canadian pipeline proposals will have to prove they don't significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions before they can be built, the federal government announced this week.

Two controversial pipeline proposals, Energy East and Trans Mountain, won't be forced to start over from scratch in the review process, but must undergo a greenhouse gas (GHG) test and wait until the government directly consults First Nations groups about them.


The emissions test is similar to the one US President Barack Obama used to consider the divisive Keystone XL pipeline, saying "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." The proponent TransCanada said its pipeline "easily" passed that test, but Obama later spiked the pipeline proposal, calling the US a global leader on climate change. TransCanada then sued the administration, calling the decision "symbolic" and "not based on the merits of the project."

Until now it wasn't clear whether pipelines already in the process would have to start over. During the election, Justin Trudeau said "that process needs to be redone" in an apparent reference to Kinder Morgan's divisive Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, leading to accusations of broken promises as the process marched ahead last week.

Related: Second Worker Dies After Explosion in Canada's Oilsands as Safety Fears Mount

On Wednesday, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna cleared that up, saying it's not fair to make proponents start again from square one.

McKenna added that the plan fits into what the government can do legally. Take Trans Mountain: If it had sent the pipeline review back to square one, the government could have opened itself to a lawsuit from the company.

Wednesday's announcement comes as the government faces pressure from the floundering extraction sector facing ongoing job losses and from pipeline opponents who point to climate change and environmental risks as reasons not to build the infrastructure.


The new plan means more time tacked onto the end of both pipeline review processes to allow for GHG assessment, but activists with environmental group criticized the plan, saying in a statement, "there's no such thing as a climate friendly pipeline."

"A climate test on pipelines is only meaningful if it respects the commitment to 1.5 degrees Celsius that Prime Minister Trudeau made in Paris, and that would mean taking pipelines and tar sands expansion off the table," organizer Cam Fenton said in the release.

But McKenna said earning public trust is the way to get Canada's oil to tidewater. "Because this is the 21st century, and that is the way you get resources to market," she said.

Related: Canadian Agency Tasked With Overseeing Pipelines Only Did Its Job Properly Half the Time, Audit Shows

McKenna and Minister for Natural Resources Jim Carr also promised to appoint a ministerial representative to consult directly with First Nations affected by proposed pipelines. The National Energy Board (NEB), the agency tasked with pipeline review, is facing a long list of court challenges from First Nations who allege they weren't properly consulted.

As for future pipeline proposals, the government intends to modernize the National Energy Board (NEB), the agency tasked with reviewing pipelines.

"There will be a permanent environmental assessment process along with our campaign commitment to modernize and reform the National Energy Board. That can't be done in time to do justice to these projects," Carr said, referring to Energy East and other pipelines currently under review. "So these principles are interim that will have impact only on those projects that are currently under review."

The clock hasn't started yet on Energy East's NEB review. The government promised to "undertake deeper consultation" with First Nations affected by the proposal, review the proposal's upstream greenhouse gas emissions in a report that would be made public, and expand public input into the NEB process.

The NEB has faced accusations of not being public enough in its reviews. During the NEB's Trans Mountain hearings in Burnaby, BC last week, activists staged a sit-in at the event to draw attention to its restricted public access.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont