Shortly after taking office, President Joe Biden has already managed to make his mark on the global environmental stage. On his first day in the White House, he announced executive orders that included rejoining the Paris Agreement and revoking the permit to the Keystone XL Pipeline granted by his predecessor, President Donald Trump.
In short, the Keystone XL Pipeline is a pipeline expansion project operated by Canadian-based TC Energy that plans to transport 830,000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska, USA, and eventually to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. The project is expected to cost USD $8 billion.
Biden’s decision to cancel the pipeline took many Canadian politicians by surprise and outrage. While Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described Biden’s decision as “disappointing,” the Alberta Premier Jason Kenney expressed that he was “deeply disturbed” by the cancellation, accusing Biden of launching an “attack” on the Canadian energy industry.
Those concerned about the rejected pipeline expansion claim Canada’s economy will be at risk, as the energy sector accounts for over 10% of the country’s GDP and is responsible for over 280,000 jobs. In particular, Alberta may face the brunt of the job losses, along with billions of dollars in potential corporate income and carbon taxes that could be used to invest in sustainable energy.
On the other hand, the leaders of the federal NDP and Green parties praised Biden’s decision to revoke the pipeline. Critics of the Keystone XL expansion are concerned that the project infringes on Indigenous land rights and is too economically and environmentally costly. Ultimately, many argue that scrapping pipeline projects is crucial for reducing our dependence on oil and shifting towards a green economy as quickly as possible.
Such a polarizing debate has often left Trudeau at the center of criticism, and as a result, he is often questioned by parties on either side of the aisle for his inconsistent stance on federal climate policies. An example of such inconsistency is in June 2019, when the Canadian federal government approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project one day after declaring that Canada is in the depths of a climate emergency.
To add, while the Trudeau government has promised to prioritize reconciliation and collaboration with Canada’s Indigenous communities, many across the country have expressed staunch opposition to pipelines. Many Indigenous communities are justifiably concerned that such massive projects like pipelines would not only plunder their lands, but also strip away their cultures and livelihoods which are interconnected with land stewardship. For instance, in early 2020, land defenders from the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation led nation-wide demonstrations and blockades against the Coastal Gaslink Pipeline. Recently, a group of Indigenous youth called Braided Warriors have occupied buildings and intersections to halt the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
However, not all Indigenous peoples are eager to see the Keystone XL Pipeline scrapped. President of the National Coalition of Chiefs’ Dale Swampy, for example, has expressed worry about the impacts of short-term job losses for Indigenous energy workers dependent on the project.
Yet amidst this controversy, the Liberals have staunchly argued that in order to combat climate change, Canada must invest in our oil and gas sector to generate revenue to fund future green energy projects. But is this the only solution?
The Promise of a Just Future
A study conducted by the Canada Energy Regulator found that if Canada strengthened climate policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, such as a more robust carbon tax, the production of crude oil in Alberta would decline sharply by 2039 due to significantly less demand. Therefore, the study argues that implementing stricter policies would no longer economically justify either the costly Trans Mountain or Keystone XL pipeline expansions. These findings point to how the Trudeau government is creating a need for pipelines when they could instead better incentivize provinces to enact more rigorous climate plans that decrease the dependence on crude oil.
However, a recent Supreme Court ruling decided that Ottawa has the power to impose a federal carbon tax on provinces, which many environmentalists hope will substantially reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Nevertheless, the Liberal government has thrown energy sector workers under the bus by pushing for pipelines without a clear plan for transitioning away from fossil fuels. In 2019, the Liberals hinted at introducing a Just Transition Act, which would ensure that fossil fuel workers had the opportunity to find training and employment in a sustainable energy sector while Canada works towards targets set out in the Paris Agreement.
If implemented, the Act could also adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by securing funding for Indigenous communities in order to ensure that they have access to empowering jobs that don’t rely on the extraction of their lands.
Shamefully, Canada was one of only four countries that voted against the Declaration in 2007, which acknowledges the Indigenous right to self-determination and control over the use of natural resources on their ancestral lands. While the Declaration is not a perfect solution for restoring the rights of Indigenous peoples by any means, incorporating these aspects of the Declaration within a Just Transition Act would be a great leap for the Trudeau government in its currently disappointing process of reconciliation. However, the federal government has failed to enact any aspect of the Just Transition Act, leaving workers and communities impacted by Keystone XL in the dark.
The Keystone XL pipeline expansion has been used as a political strategy for the Trudeau government. The Liberals appear to justify the project to avoid ostracizing the support of oil and gas workers who are dependent on the expansion for work, at the expense of a well-rounded climate plan and meaningful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. As a result of the project cancellation, a spotlight is shining on the federal government’s failure to prepare a gateway for communities to transition into the sustainable economy that is inevitably coming.
A “Just Transition” is crucial for providing opportunities to those whose livelihoods depend on oil and gas, Indigenous and other racialized communities who face environmental racism, as well as for ensuring a speedy mobilization against climate change. Feeling abandoned by the government can fuel resentment for more radical environmental policies that Canada needs to establish to meet the Paris Agreement, and may slow down the enactment of legislation we urgently need. This transition to a sustainable economy is crucial for both the environment and social justice in Canada.