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A Look Back at How Canada Fucked Up the Environment in 2015

Canada started 2015 as pretty much just the worst and ended the year not quite the worst.

by James Wilt
Dec 15 2015, 5:00pm

A pipeline in Alberta. Photo via Flickr user jasonwoodhead23

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada

At the start of 2015, Canada was widely regarded as an environmental pariah. As the year draws to a close, Canada is widely regarded as, well, an environmental pariah. But at least we now have a federal government that acknowledges the existence of climate change, yeah?

Over the past year, there has been a staggering quantity of both intensely exciting and depressing green-tinged moments in Canada, a trend capped off with our strong showing at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. What follows is a speedy survey of the highlights and the shit that we'll have to one day try to explain to the next generation—that is if they don't drown us in conveniently high ocean levels because we completely fucked up the planet.

Indigenous People Stood Up to Industry and Government

Conflating the struggles of bougie environmentalists and Indigenous people tends to be a dangerous game, as outlined by Dene scholar Glen Coulthard, who has suggested that anti-pipeline activism "not be framed as simply an environmental issue but one of decolonization and framed through the lens of Indigenous sovereignty." With that caveat out of the way, it's indisputable that Indigenous people have had a stunning impact on environmental discourse in Canada over the past year, following on the successes of Idle No More, 2013 protests by Elispogtog First Nation in New Brunswick, and the ongoing Unist'ot'en Camp blockade in northern British Columbia.

Take for instance the Tsleil-Waututh Nation's recently launched lawsuit against the National Energy Board for its alleged failure to adequately consult with the Coast Salish people over the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Or the resistance by Dene trappers in northern Saskatchewan to infringement on their territory by uranium mining companies. While all that was going on, First Nations and Métis people in British Columbia beefed with the province's hydro company over the construction of the $8.3-billion [$6 billion USD] Site C project, which will flood over 100 kilometers [62 miles] of prime agricultural land. Indigenous people are stepping up and fiercely demanding both land and ecological rights, with young figures like Erica Violet Lee, Clayton Thomas-Muller,and Maatalii Okalik leading the way.

The Energy Sector Got Bodied

It's obviously been a horrific year for the oil and gas sector in Alberta: the bisection of global petroleum prices and decimation of share prices resulted in thousands of lay-offs, gobbling up of major players such as Talisman Energy, and shuttering of developments like Shell's Carmon Creek project. Such occurrences slayed the country's dollar and saw a hike in prices for healthy shit like avocados and tomatoes. Many people, ranging from arch-conservative activists to radical leftists, have attempted to attribute the trend to the Alberta NDP and fervent environmental activism, respectively. However, every economist who knows what they're talking about will tell you it exclusively has to do with the global oil price, so take that for what it is. Over 100 scientists also called for a moratorium on tar sands development. Then the Keystone XL pipeline was vetoed by Obama. Rough year.

Weird-Ass Squabbles


Environmental issues tend to get people pretty worked up, which can be both hilarious and distressing depending on who's talking. Take, for example, David Suzuki, who recently compared the oil and gas industry to the Transatlantic slave trade, which presented fierce competition to Neil Young's description of Fort McMurray to Hiroshima for the most unnecessarily rude environmental-themed statement ever. But BC Premier Christy Clark really stepped up her game when she dismissed criticism from Pamela Anderson and Miley Cyrus about the province's failed wolf cull by bizarrely stating: "When they open up their closets, they probably don't find a lot of clothes." In addition to federal NDP candidate Linda McQuaig getting slammed for reiterating the International Energy Agency's belief that most bitumen will have to stay in the ground to achieve climate targets, Conservative candidate Sabrina Zuniga suggested that oil spills don't matter that much because the ground will absorb it, which is just an amazing thing to think about.


Earth, Wind, and No More Coal-Fired Power

Despite the former federal government's insistence that renewable energy technology such as wind and solar isn't worthy of significant incentives, the sector grew by 88 percent in 2014 with Ontario leading the way. But the country needs so much more than that if it's going to cut emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 as was surprisingly committed to by former prime minister Stephen Harper. There have been some sources of hope, such as the construction of 80 solar panels on the Lubicon Cree First Nation in Northern Alberta and Saskatchewan's commitment to generate half of its electricity by 2030 with renewables.

Yet the decision by Nova Scotia's government to cancel its feed-in tariff—a mechanism that guarantees long-term coin for investors in renewable energy—was triggered by the potential of spiking electricity rates, something which the Ontario government is currently trying to wiggle its way out of as a result of its poorly implemented 2010 Green Energy Act. While constituents may enjoy the concept of greener energy, it can be difficult to convince them that it may cost slightly more money in order to avoid broiling the planet.

Three Reasons We Still Don't Trust Oil Companies

1) An oilsands pipeline operated by Nexen Energy busted a huge load in mid-July, spilling tens of thousands of barrels of bitumen. We found out after the fact it may have been leaking for two weeks prior to discovery.

2) The MV Marathassa spilled 2,800 liters of bunker fuel into Vancouver's pristine English Bay, which reminded everyone the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station by the former federal government probably wasn't a great idea.

3) Justin Trudeau's campaign co-chair was forced to resign after he was busted for sending a memo to TransCanada—the company responsible for the construction of the Keystone XL—explaining how to best approach the new Liberal government. Like what the fuck even is that?

Water, Water Everywhere

Jonathan Franzen, the textbook definition of a bougie jerk and quite good novelist, was widely criticized for pointing out in a New Yorker feature published in April that climate change has kind of hijacked the environmental conversation and alienated citizens from engaging in real-world ecological issues. Perhaps the greatest counter to his piece could be the fact that Canada is phenomenally good at fucking up our water supplies, forcing communities to engage in very real ways with local ecologies. Most notable was the fact Shoal Lake First Nation—whose eponymous pond provides Winnipeg with drinkable water—has been under a boil water advisory for almost two decades, which is objectively fucked.

Then there was the time Montreal—maybe inspired by Victoria—decided it was a good idea to dump its sewage in the St. Lawrence River despite resistance from First Nations people and, really, anyone who doesn't like the idea of living near a literal river of shit. Following that tip, controversy flared about the plan to bury radioactive nuclear waste within a few kilometers of Lake Huron, which is currently experiencing spikes in mercury levels. Topping that all off was the toxic algae bloom off British Columbia's coast, which killed a couple of humpback whales and the major decline in water levels in the Athabasca River, the Alberta tributary that oil and gas companies largely rely on for getting bitumen out of the ground. Franzen should feel blessed he doesn't have to deal with this shit.

Alberta: a really beautiful place with silly voters. Photo via Flickr user Thank you for visiting my page

Alberta Stopped Being a Total Piece of Shit

It's probably difficult for people who don't live in Alberta to understand how monumental the last six months has been for the province on the environmental front. But after four decades of treading bitumen—with spectacular negligence since the early days of Ralph Klein—the doubling of the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation (the convoluted mechanism that charges large emitters for pollution) and the release of Alberta's new climate change strategy means a whole hell of a lot.

With the release of the aforementioned strategy, which was endorsed by everyone from Greenpeace to Suncor, Alberta pledged to phase out coal-fired power plants by 2030, cap oil sands emissions at 100 megatons per year, slash methane emissions, and boost investments in renewable energy sources. Albertan voters have already punished the NDP in the polls for deciding to give a shit about the future of the globe and the ability of the province to export its primary products. And these have been fairly safe moves. The Pembina Institute, for instance, has previously called for a $100/ton [$70 USD/ton] economy-wide price on carbon. The province settled for $30/ton [$20 USD/ton]. You can blame Alberta's voters for being silly fucks. Also the province's former environment minister was recently appointed the president of the Coal Association of Canada, which is pretty neat.

Mining Companies (Still) Don't Give a Shit

With all the talk about Alberta's oil and gas sector, it's easy to forget that Canada is also a global asshole on the mining front, with the sector producing enormous amount of potash, gold, nickel, aluminum, and copper at enormous environmental costs. The Mount Polley mine disaster, which kicked off in early August 2014, is still far from resolved: investigators raided Imperial Metals' headquarters in February to try to figure out how the company fucked up so badly. In October, two Alberta-based coal mining companies were charged over a massive 2013 tailings spill. Meanwhile, Imperial Metals have faced resistance in Alaska for its plan to open the Red Chris mine on account of potential damages to the local sockeye salmon population.

Well, at Least Someone Cares

At what point can we all wake from this tremendous dream in which Canada's prime minister actually hosts a conference between premiers to chitchat about environmental bullshit as opposed to his predecessor who left us no other choice but to imagine him skipping meetings to jack off using warm bitumen as lube while watching There Will Be Blood? For real, the fact that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was a key participant in COP21—the recent UN climate change conference—seems beyond miraculous. Remember when the previous environment minister opened a national park that had been around for over a decade instead of attending an international climate change conference? The future looks fairly bright on that front, especially when augmented with provincial efforts from Manitoba, Ontario, and Alberta.

And sure, Canada doesn't account for much of the global emissions pie. But when we zoom out, it becomes very clear that our per-capita emissions are tremendously high and that tar sands production and coal-fired power plants could continue to be a black mark on our global reputation for some time, crippling our ability to export diluted bitumen and boost the dollar. The last six months have been undoubtedly refreshing, with a tag team effort from Alberta's NDP and the federal Liberals resulting in significant (albeit non-binding) pieces of legislation. The real legwork will occur in the coming years. As witnessed with previous instances, voters don't always adore rapid change regardless of potential long-term benefits. In that sense, the country's environmental reputation may largely depend on the kind of country Canadians want it to be. It should be quite the year.

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