Over the past year, my work has shifted considerably to reflect the growing urgency I feel about stopping climate pollution. While I seem to live and breathe carbon mitigation strategies and clean tech talk these days, it’s always a bit of a surprise when I see what has for too long been a niche issue of environmentalists and climate activists pushed into the forefront in public policy discussions. But that’s what seems to have happened this week.
I spent the past day and a half listening to and providing comment to the Ontario Energy Board’s meeting of provincial stakeholders around the proposed Energy East pipeline project via webcast. Despite that climate isn’t even among the list of issues the national regulator will consider in reviewing Energy East, here at the OEB, climate concerns were front and centre.
Over the day and a half, we heard testimony from experts commissioned by the Ontario Energy Board to investigate the structural safety of pipelines, to document risks to the natural environment, to look at climate impacts, to comment on any economic benefits, and to assess the impacts of the project on natural gas consumers. At earlier community consultations, the Board heard that Ontarians are very concerned about putting their water at risk. What we heard from the provincial stakeholders echoed that Ontario stands to shoulder a substantial risk to its lands and waters – even in best case scenarios, accidents could still happen and potentially at a catastrophic magnitude – and for relatively little economic benefit.. Rather, the project could result in significant costs being offloaded to gas consumers, who will be expected to bear the long-term maintenance costs of a system with diminished gas distribution capacity.
But the panel presentation that drew the most discussion focused on climate impacts of Energy East.
A few months ago, Ontario announced jointly with Quebec conditions it would seek to apply to Energy East: seven conditions which included a commitment to examine the greenhouse gas impacts of the project. But mere days later, following a visit from Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, Ontario dropped its insistence on holding Energy East accountable for its carbon pollution impacts. Nevertheless, the OEB has remained committed to hearing what Ontarians have to say about the climate impacts of Energy East.
No one denies that a lack of pipelines limits the economically viable ways that the producers have to move tarsands products to market. What climate advocates argue is that by continuing to constrain these distribution chains, if products have no means of getting to markets, production should eventually slow accordingly. And marginal oil resources that are extraordinarily expensive and energy-intensive to produce – products like tarsands bitumen, that have disproportionally higher GHG emissions to develop than conventional oil products – must be kept in the ground say climate scientists, including the authors of a recent paper in Nature that suggested that 75% of Canada’s bitumen resource must remain untapped if we are to hold the Earth below the critical 2 degree warming threshold over the coming century.
To better understand the climate impacts specifically associated with Energy East, the OEB commissioned Navius Research to model climate impacts of the pipeline project, and Jotham Peters presented their analysis to the stakeholders. Operating from different base assumptions than an earlier analysis by the Pembina Institute, Navius’s predictive models resulted in an analysis that challenged earlier estimates of the severity of the GHG impact of the project, but they still found that the project does have significant net contributions to emissions at around 4.7 Mt CO2 emitted per year. Following the Navius presentation, four presenters representing environmental organizations with a national to a local scope took it in turn to speak about the serious climate challenges presented by the project.
Despite the Ontario government’s waffling position with respect to holding Energy East accountable for its climate impacts, the Ontario Energy Board has certainly heard Ontarians loudly and clearly on the issue. In this morning’s discussions around economic impacts of the projects, where groups favourable to Energy East argued for the project, climate concerns still dominated the conversation. When the representative of Canada’s Building Trades Unions attempted to dismiss Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions as insignificant at 2% of global emissions, one of the moderators cut him short, stating definitively that climate analyses have clearly demonstrated that the project stands to produce serious contributions to Canada’s growing carbon footprint. Moreover, she continued, through this Energy East consultation process, Ontarians have overwhelmingly made known their grave concerns around climate impacts of energy production in Canada.
As the OEB stakeholders’ gathering wound down, elsewhere in Ottawa the provincial premiers were meeting. As they entered the venue, the provincial leaders were met with a giant inflatable elephant, decrying Energy East for its massive climate impact. Let us hope that when the OEB delivers its final report to Ontario later this season, climate will cease to be that big elephant in the room that no leader will touch for lack of a mandate from the people. We are here, and we will continue to make our voices heard, loud and clear.
 McGlade C. and Ekins P. “The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2 °C”, Nature 517(187-190). doi:10.1038/nature14016