The ‘Big E’ Election—Energy and the Environment

This editorial first appeared in Policy Magazine.

In a country that remains a major oil producing nation and whose energy policy landscape includes political, regional, jurisdictional and Indigenous rights considerations, the term “pipeline politics” doesn’t begin to cover the complexity of the issue. In an election year, things get more interesting.  

This year’s federal election should be the “Big E” election. The E stands for both energy and environment, and in political terms, how they interconnect in a country and for a government that has to balance the interests of a powerful energy industry, a tradition of passionate environmental advocacy and the sustainability of the planet.

That dynamic is the biggest issue facing the country, an issue of national unity, of economic development, of employment, of this country’s environment and Canada’ s international commitments.

The Trudeau government’s approach to reconciling the immediate interests of the oil industry and its 300,000 workers, the environmental necessity to transition to clean energy and the urgency of fighting climate change has been a combination of environmental activism and pipeline development. This seemingly contradictory policy juggle mirrors similar tacks by other governments, including, pre-Trump, Barack Obama’s “all of the above” approach that both supported fracking toward energy independence and increased solar power production by 2003 per cent, among other outcomes. The difficulty of the approach is that relies heavily on communications that effectively explain the overlap to the general public because neither the energy industry nor environmental activists will be completely or consistently satisfied. 

In Canada, that balancing act is complicated by issues of government finance, federal and provincial political and jurisdictional tensions, and the debate over taxes on individuals and corporations. When it came to power four years ago, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government had an energy and environment plan it thought would cover all the bases. It would support and encourage the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries Alberta oil sands oil to a tanker terminal in Vancouver harbour. It would also seek to limit Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and work towards meeting Canada’s climate change commitments.

That was to be achieved by having the provinces put a price on carbon; either by a direct tax or through a cap-and-trade system of sharing carbon credits. Provinces that refused to go along would have the federal government impose its own carbon tax in those recalcitrant jurisdictions, scaling up to $50 dollars per tonne by 2022. The money collected by the federal tax would then be rebated to the province in which it was collected—not to the provincial government, but to individual taxpayers.

Twinning the pipeline would almost triple its capacity to 900,000 barrels per day, opening the potential for oil exports to Asia, particularly, it is hoped, to China. But environmental organizations and some Indigenous leaders have decried the proposed expansion of Trans Mountain, and they have repeatedly fought and delayed its construction in court.

Things became so bad for the Trans Mountain expansion plan that in the spring of 2018, its American owner, Kinder Morgan, said it was dropping the proposal. To save the project, the federal government bought the existing pipeline and the expansion proposal from Kinder Morgan, for $4.7 billion.

But that didn’t improve the expansion’s chances. Three months later, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled Ottawa had not sufficiently consulted with Indigenous groups, or taken into account possible adverse effects on maritime populations in the waters off Vancouver from a dramatic increase in tanker traffic.

Earlier this summer, almost a year after the court ruling, the federal government said both of those issues had been addressed, and the pipeline expansion was approved for a second time. But some environmental and Indigenous groups are already threatening new court challenges. They will join the government of British Columbia, which is already in court trying to stop the twinning of Trans Mountain, and a start date for the new pipeline remains in doubt.

Moreover, in the four years since the pipeline/carbon tax plan was devised by the Trudeau government, a lot of things have changed. Provincial elections in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick have replaced governments sympathetic to Ottawa’s pipeline for carbon tax proposal with Conservative governments that support the pipeline expansion, but have been scrapping carbon reduction programs and challenging Ottawa’s constitutional right in court—so far unsuccessfully—to impose a carbon tax.

On the winning side so far, the federal government is preparing to impose its carbon tax in the recalcitrant Conservative provinces. But the federal Conservatives have opposed the carbon tax from the beginning, claiming that it is just another tax that will not reduce carbon emissions. And if they win the October election, the federal carbon tax will disappear.

This past spring, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer revealed his own energy and environment plan. It would have no carbon tax per se, but would force large commercial emitters to pay into a fund, which would then be used in the development of green technologies.

The Conservatives support the Trans Mountain expansion but they want to go a lot farther. They want to develop “resource corridors” across Canada. These would be dedicated rights of way negotiated across the country into which new pipelines, high voltage electricity transmission lines, and other ways of moving energy—perhaps even railways—would be routed. Such corridors are necessary, the Conservatives say, for Canada to be the “energy superpower” it must become.

The negotiations over and potential court challenges to such an ambitious plan boggle the mind. But it does lay out a proposal and a vision of an energy future that is much more reliant on pipeline development, without the carbon tax to help transition to an economy with fewer GHG emissions and less global warming.

For its part, Elizabeth May’s Green Party, the national branch of a global brand built on environmental and climate change activism whose positions have been mainstreamed over the past two decades, has labelled its 2019 energy policy Mission: Possible, a title widely seen as overly ambitious when it was published in May.  

The next government will be formed by either the Liberal party or the Conservatives. The only chance the New Democrats or the Greens have to play any meaningful role is if Canadians elect a minority Parliament with one or both of the NDP and Greens holding the balance of power.

But as the campaign gets underway, the lines have been firmly drawn between the two parties who can actually win, on the “Big E” election issue that will do more to shape Canada’s future than any other.  

Policy columnist Don Newman is Senior Counsel at Navigator and Ensight Canada and a Lifetime Member of the  Parliamentary Press Gallery.