Approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline leads to questions about Canada’s commitment to fighting climate change. CNS photo/Larry Smith, EPA

Cathy Majtenyi: Carbon tax gains are lost in the pipeline

  • July 10, 2019

It’s a frustrating paradox. The Canadian government’s carbon tax is a bold, brave move that models to the rest of the world how to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, cabinet has approved the Trans Mountain pipeline, a project that flies in the face of the carbon tax and other measures to combat climate change.

The carbon tax has been under fire in recent months, particularly by Ontario and Saskatchewan. On June 28, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld Ottawa’s right to levy the tax on industries that emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas and primary contributor to climate change. Ontario Premier Doug Ford had challenged the legality of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, arguing the legislation interferes with areas under provincial jurisdiction. Ottawa responded by saying climate change is a national concern. 

The federal government is right. Under the Paris Agreement, an international initiative to address climate change, Canada has committed to pricing carbon at $10 per tonne starting in 2018 until it reaches an amount of $50 per tonne in 2022. A carbon tax has proved to be a “core policy” in reducing and eventually eliminating fossil fuel use. Since Canada is made up of provinces and territories, action for cutting greenhouse gases must filter down to the provincial level.

Understandably, taxes and high prices are never popular. In the case of climate change, perspective is everything. The extra dime or so we pay at the gas pump now is far less than the huge costs — flooding, forest fires, extreme weather events, infrastructure damage, premature deaths — that will occur more frequently and severely if we refuse to address climate change.

Pay now or pay later.

Sadly, industries and taxpayers seldom do the right thing when their bottom lines and comforts are at stake, hence the need for them to be forced to pay for the damage they’re causing to the environment. So far, it’s the environment that’s been paying the carbon tax. 

Climate change is a scientific fact that can no longer be disputed. It’s particularly dire in Canada. A research study released in June says that a “series of anomalously warm summers” has led to permafrost thawing up to 240 per cent above historic levels at three sites in Canada’s Arctic; previously, scientists had projected that this thawing would take place in 2090. An April 2 report by Environment and Climate Change Canada says that Canada’s climate is warming twice as fast as the global average and it is “effectively irreversible.”

These and other scientific studies led the House of Commons on June 17 to declare climate change as being a “national emergency” and re-affirming Canada’s commitment to meeting its Paris Agreement targets. 

Against this backdrop, why on Earth would Ottawa allow Trans Mountain Corporation to build a pipeline that will transport almost one million barrels of crude oil and refined products each day from the oil patch in Alberta to the coast of British Columbia?

Crude oil is a fossil fuel. The burning of fossil fuels is the main source of greenhouse gases, which, in turn, warm the planet. 

Justifications for the Trans Mountain pipeline boil down to the usual: job creation, economic growth, the maintenance of international competitiveness — pretty much the same arguments used to oppose the carbon tax. “Every dollar the federal government earns from this project will be invested in Canada’s clean energy transition,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. 

But Trudeau’s justification for using the pipeline project to boost Canada’s clean energy sector is a red herring. The oil flowing through those pipelines is destined for Asian markets; the whole point of the project is to expand our customer base beyond the United States. Will the countries receiving our oil also invest in clean energy? Maybe, maybe not. The point is, by expanding our oil sales and distribution, Canada is contributing to the increase of fossil fuel supply and use in the world even as we’re decreasing Canadian carbon emissions through our carbon tax.

While investing the project’s earnings in Canadian clean technologies may seem noble and strategic, in reality the gains we’d make could be offset by increased fossil fuel use abroad. The Trans Mountain project could even negate positive outcomes from the carbon tax. It’s frustrating to see the Canadian government take the bold move of the carbon tax on the one hand, but capitulate to economic concerns on its other hand.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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