In the context of our carbon budget, fossil fuels are anything but cheap. To illustrate this point consider the fact that market forces recently killed the largest tar sands pipeline ever proposed. When the Canadian government imposed a climate test on the Energy East pipeline project it ceased to be viable. TransCanada withdrew their application when they knew that the project would be subject to carbon accounting. TransCanada had no choice but to take the project off of life support because they knew that a scientific assessment reveals that the Energy East is terminal.
Every new fossil fuel project brings us closer to surpassing a threshold from which we may not be able to recover.
Risks and threats averted
This is a momentous milestone. People interceded to pressure the Canadian government and they succeeded in stopping the $16 billion project. Make no mistake about it protests helped to keep Canada from exporting 1.1 million barrels of oil a day and wasting vast quantities of water.
Most importantly by killing the Energy East, we avoided detonating a carbon bomb that would have released 3,804,000 kg of CO2 into the atmosphere each and every day. Pipelines are also environmental hazards both in terms of the air we breathe and contamination when they leak.
The death of the project also means that we will not see inevitable leaks from the 4,500 km of pipe that would have traversed six provinces. All pipelines leak it is a statistical certainty over time. This could have contaminated waterways across the country and at the proposed terminal in the Bay of Fundy. As intimated in a partial summary of oil spills in 2016 thousands of such spills occur every year. Decades of data demonstrate that transporting fossil fuels by pipe or by any other means is not safe. The pervasiveness of spills adds to the powerful case for arresting the building of new pipelines.
Canadian government and the fossil fuel industry
In a marked departure from the cozy relationship they had with the Harper government, Canada’s oil industry is apoplectic that they are no longer calling the shots in Ottawa. However, those who care for the health of the planet and its inhabitants construe this as a paradigm changing victory.
The governing Liberal party under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are making good on their promises and showing climate leadership on both the domestic and the world stage. At first the newly elected Liberals were criticized for wanting to have it both ways on the fossil fuel front. However, recent events indicate that Trudeau and his Environment and Natural Resource ministers are receptive to the facts about climate change. Unlike his Conservative predecessor, Trudeau appears to be making science-based policy decisions. An understanding of climate science makes it necessary to review the impact of pipelines and other fossil fuel projects.
Many of us predicted that the Energy East would not be built. When subjected to sensible climate and environmental evaluations Canadian fossil fuel projects have not fared very well. This includes the Northern Gateway pipeline project and the $35 billion Pacific Northwest LNG project. The Energy East is the latest in a line of what the Financial Post calls, “abandoned energy proposals”. According to the FP they are worth over $56 billion in the last year alone.
The fossil fuel industry is furious and they have been forthcoming in expressing their displeasure. “The common thread here is that Canada generally has displayed an unwelcoming policy environment and an uncertain approval process – the rules are unclear, there are lots of opportunities to intervene and oppose,” Explorers and Producers Association of Canada president Gary Leach said. In other words, Canada is now conducting objective tests of these projects rather than rubber stamping them as was the case under Harper’s Conservative rule.
According to Association of Petroleum Producers CEO Tim McMillan, fossil fuel companies are saying “We’re done. We’re not going to spend any more money in Canada to build this infrastructure.” This is good news for anyone with even a passing knowledge of carbon budgets.
There is still the issue of the Kinder Morgan in British Columbia and environmentalists are saying that this pipeline should face the same level of scrutiny as the Energy East.
Recent History of the NEB and the Energy East
In 2012, the Conservative government of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper passed its Omnibus Bill C-38 and other legislation. These laws turned the National Energy Board (NEB) into a rubber stamp operation. Harper’s Conservatives made it harder for the public to participate and easier for the industry to expedite applications. Ultimately it meant that without environmental or climate considerations Harper gave his own government the power to approve these projects. The Harper government also meddled in the process (the Energy East got suspended, dissolved, amended, and reset multiple times).
This changed with the election of Trudeau’s Liberals. They made good on their campaign promise to give the NEB the authority that its charter promises. This led to the so-called “climate test” which involves factoring upstream and downstream emissions. The inclusion of this provision was announced by the federal Liberals early in 2017. The NEB announced that it was adding new climate impact rules in August. On September 7th, TransCanada announced that it was requesting a suspension of its Energy East application for 30 days to assess the viability of the pipeline in light of these new constraints. On October 5th, TransCanada announced that it was withdrawing its application to build the Energy East pipeline.
Trump administration’s fossil fuel advocacy
While the Canadian government has made climate action a priority the Trump administration has proven to be a climate and environmental nightmare. They have systematically dismantled the government’s role in environmental and climate oversight. They have been stalwart supporters of the fossil fuel industry and they have reversed the Obama administration‘s efforts to limit the expansion of the oil and gas industry.
The election of Donald Trump has been a catastrophe for the planet. First he named fossil fuel advocate Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA. Then he resurrected two dead or dying fossil fuel pipelines. Trump issued an Executive Order to move forward with the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and The Keystone XL pipeline (KXL). The latter is waiting for final approvals from Nebraska.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is another example of profoundly irresponsible governance from this administration. In the context of everything the Trump administration has done in the short time they have been in power, many are saying that protests have become more necessary than ever.
The power of carbon budgets
Carbon budgets are a powerful tool to resist the waves of post-factual denial emanating from Trump and his administration. Carbon budgets are an essential way of rendering both the problem of climate change and its solutions.
Carbon budgets are also relatively straightforward and accessible. Everyone understands budgets whether in a household or in the context of estimating financing for an organization. Rather than reducing spending to stay on budget, we are talking about reducing emissions. The idea is to develop thresholds that we cannot surpass (ie keep spending within the allocated budget).
Generally speaking the math behind carbon budgets is widely agreed upon. When the Energy East pipeline is examined in the context of carbon budgets we come to the inescapable conclusion that we cannot keep temperatures from surpassing prescribed thresholds and build fossil fuel pipelines at the same time. Building such pipelines, and especially those that ferry dirty tar-sands bitumen is fundamentally incompatible with efforts to reign in climate change.
Carbon budgets are critical because they provide a commonly agreed upon measure of the carbon crisis and the kind of effort required to address it. Assessing carbon footprints against the backdrop of available carbon budgets is an effective climate test. Evaluating environmental impacts including the climate toll of burning fossil fuels is a crucial aspect of appropriate regulatory oversight and responsible policy decision making.
Those who understand the carbon load that the Energy East represented know that the project was always a pipe-dream.
In this video Kevin Anderson, Visiting Professor in Climate Change Leadership, Uppsala University, Sweden, discusses carbon budgets and emissions pathways. He explains what we need to do to stay within our carbon budgets. By 2035 we will have to remove all anthropogenic carbon emissions. At present no country is doing enough to keep us within our carbon budgets. He emphatically states that one way or another our economic notions of growth will submit to the physics of climate change.
Renewables and radical efficiency are the future of energy
To stay within our carbon budget we must significantly ratchet up ambitions. We also have to rapidly reduce demand for energy. We need intense efficiency alongside massive expansion of clean alternatives to fossil fuels. Many dismiss this as impossible, however, as Robert Unger said, “at every level, the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”
In the final analysis, we come to the inescapable conclusion that fossil fuels are fundamentally incompatible with achieving our carbon reduction goals. As Anderson says, to stay within our carbon budget we need a complete moratorium on new hydrocarbon development. It is madness to keep investing in an industry that must die soon if we are to keep our planet from warming beyond critical thresholds. If we surpass these thresholds we will end civilization as we know it. Both smart people and smart money know that dirty energy must go sooner rather than later.
The longer we wait to deal with climate change the more it will cost. A cost benefit analysis reveals that we simply cannot afford to build more pipelines and independent analysis suggest they may not even be necessary. FP states that analysts have pared back their Canadian oil projections leading them to question whether all the proposed pipelines are needed.
The future of energy is obvious to all but the ill-informed and those who are still invested in hydrocarbons. We must wean ourselves off of fossil fuels and massively grow our renewable energy infrastructure. The trend is clear, renewables are on the rise while fossil fuels are waning. The growth and declining price points of both energy storage and renewables like solar make this point convincingly. Even without factoring the costs of carbon solar is already the least expensive form of energy on Earth. However, to stay within our carbon budget this trend must be accelerated.
The fact that Canada is finally beginning to assess the true costs associated with the burning of fossil fuels is welcome news. When we factor science-based carbon budgets the real costs of hydrocarbon projects spiral through the roof. Such analysis suggests that the same market forces that made fossil fuels the dominant energy source can now help to move us towards a cleaner more efficient future.
Carbon budgets give us important cues as to what we can and cannot do to stay within critical warming thresholds. If we apply this mathematical logic to fossil fuel projects and all human activities we can solve the climate crisis.