The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis


In her zeal to promote Alberta tar sands pipelines, the New Democratic Party premier of Alberta elected five months ago recently ran into a political minefield in her neighbouring province of British Columbia. Speaking to an oil industry investment conference in New York on September 30, Premier Rachel Notley suggested that the final leg of the proposed Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline expansion to the Pacific coast should be routed away from the Vancouver harbour municipality of Burnaby to the nearby municipality of Delta.

That would take the pipeline across even more Fraser River Valley farmland than is already the case and would add the large, Burns Bog wetlands in Delta to the route. It would relocate the final export terminal of the project from the busy and fragile Vancouver harbour shoreline to the even more fragile and environmentally sensitive shoreline of Delta on the Georgia Strait (Salish Sea).

​​To say that Notley’s proposal was not well received in British Columbia would be an understatement.

Delta city councillor Sylvia Bishop told CBC news, “I think people are ready to set their hair on fire and run through the streets if this is yet one more [industrial project] coming through south Delta.”

“South Delta has faced enough industrialisation. We’ve lost enough farmland.”

Vicki Huntington, the independent member of the BC legislature for Delta South, also rejected Notley’s suggestion. “I’m sure the Premier of Alberta doesn’t understand that the Fraser River delta is probably the most critical habitat in Canada,” she said.

“It’s home to one of the greatest wildlife migrations in Canada, and the Fraser River is the greatest salmon spawning river in Canada. It’s just an inappropriate place to even consider putting an oil bitumen pipeline.”

Eliza Olso, president of the Burns Bog Conservation Society, wrote an angry, open letter to Notley on October 1. She wrote, “I cannot believe Premier Notley would even suggest that the Kinder Morgan pipeline go through Delta, BC…

“Alberta has some of the best peatland scientists in Canada. Before Notley even considers supporting such an outrageous idea, I strongly suggest that she sit down with a few of them and find out how important it is to protect peatlands in our fight to reduce global warming and climate change. ”

Capitalist politicians in British Columbia were obliged to respond to Notley’s surprise musing in New York. The never-saw-an-oil-pipeline-I-didn’t-like premier of the province, Christy Clark, told journalists with a straight face that Notley’s suggestion would have to pass her government’s toothless ‘five conditions’ review process before it could be approved.

The pro-development mayor of Delta, Lois Jackson, made noises about Notley’s poor choice of protocol, but she, too, talked up the province’s review process. As reported by the Globe and Mail, Jackson says Delta’s existing coal export facility (one of the largest in North America) poses no real ecological threat to the area and she would welcome discussing Premier Notley’s idea.

Notley’s proposal is unlikely to see the light of day. But what was she thinking?

The $5 billion-plus Trans Mountain proposal of Texas-based Kinder Morgan is already facing stiff opposition in BC and internationally. It would see nearly one oil tanker per day load up in Vancouver harbour, navigate the harbour’s narrow entrance and then sail through the biologically rich waters of the Salish Sea en route to delivery of the deadly product to foreign markets.

Residents of Vancouver received a rude shock this past April when a cargo tanker on its maiden voyage spilled several thousand litres of heavy fuel into the city’s outer harbour. Following detection of the spill, the city was witness to an amateurish, keystone-cops style emergency response.

So the premier’s remarks make the project look all the more like the doomed Northern Gateway pipeline proposal across northern BC.[1]

What’s more, Canada is in the midst of a federal election campaign in which the federal New Democratic Party has lost the leading position it held in polls at the outset of the campaign. The NDP hardly needs to give a reminder to the electorate of the party’s pro-fossil fuel policy in a climate-warming world. The latest polls show the Conservatives and Liberals with approximately 32 per cent support each while the NDP has slipped to six points behind.

The premier’s faux-pas is likely also to boost the fortunes of the Green Party, at least in BC. The Greens are in serious contention to win several more seats along coastal BC. They had one seat at the time of dissolution of the federal Parliament. The election is on October 19.

Ecological threats

The shoreline of Delta BC is home to very significant migrations of birds moving up and down the coast of North America each spring and fall. And every summer and autumn, millions of salmon swim through the Fraser delta moving inland to spawn along the river and its tributaries, which stretch more than 1,000 kilometres inland. The Fraser River is the world’s largest salmon-bearing river system.

Burns Bog is a unique peat bog, the largest such bog on the west coast of North America. It was chosen during the 1960s as the location of Vancouver region’s garbage dump. It became something of a cause celebre in the late 1990s when then NDP premier of the province, Glen Clark, proposed that a portion of the bog be paved over to house an amusement park, a relocation of the grounds of the annual Pacific National Exhibition and housing and industrial development.

The Fraser River delta is deeply scarred by a century of industrial and urban development. Industrial development has accelerated in recent years, eating away at the edges of Burns Bog. This includes expansion of highways and railways to the Roberts Bank shipping terminal (including the aforementioned South Fraser Perimeter Road), construction of a shopping complex and urban housing sprawl by the Tsawwassen First Nation on former agricultural lands, and a threatened third coal exporting port on the Fraser River, app. 10 km inland from Delta.

In order to accommodate the proposed new coal terminal as well as other planned industrial expansion on the Fraser, the federal and provincial governments are charging full steam ahead to replace the existing Massey highway tunnel under the Fraser with a multi-billion dollar bridge. (The BC government recently ordered a plebiscite on transit expansions in Vancouver as a condition of its funding. The proposed expansions were defeated. Citizens never get a chance to vote on proposed industrial and highway expansions.)

Burns Bog aside, the Fraser delta consists of extremely rich and valuable agricultural land. Much of that land which had escaped urban sprawl by the early 1970s was made part of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) of the province of British Columbia. The idea was the brainchild of the first NDP government to govern in BC. Today, ALR lands are being constantly eroded by piecemeal exemptions granted by the commission in charge or directly by provincial government edict.

Residents of Delta have long been fighting a proposed expansion of the Roberts Bank terminal. They fear expansion could open the floodgate to increase fossil fuel exports. Presently, the terminal is the largest of the two coal exporting terminals in Vancouver which make the city the largest coal exporting port in North America.

Roberts Bank also has a large container terminal from which vast numbers of trucks emanate to-and-fro every day of the year. Vancouver’s complex geography has given rise to a multiplicity of container shipping terminals with thousands of daily truck movements connecting them.

British Columbia facing unprecedented ecological challenges

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the ecology and citizens of British Columbia are under serious corporate assault.

There are two, proposed pipelines to transport tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean coastline.

Expansion of natural gas drilling and fracking is taking place in the northeast of the province, including at least six new pipelines in all directions that will add to the existing pipeline network. Government and industry want to create a new, liquefied national gas industry on the BC coast to be fed by a vast expansion of gas fracking.

New mineral mines are proposed, of the sort which created the tailings pond disaster at the Mount Polley mine last summer. The only reason why coal mining in the BC interior is not expanding is that world demand for the product is in decline.

A huge, third hydro-electric dam across the Peace River in the BC northeast, ‘Site C’, is proposed in order to power all this industrial expansion.[2]

All this is slated as BC’s longstanding ravaging of its forests continues.[3]

Protests against rising fossil fuel extraction and transport and the pillaging of the last of BC’s unspoiled lands are on the rise in the province, typically also addressing the global climate emergency. But there is weak and ineffective representation for such concerns in the present federal election and in the political system overall.

The federal election campaign’s non-debates on environment

The NDP has waged its election campaign in the name of ‘balanced budget’ dogma, looking to court votes from disaffected Conservatives. Rachel Notley is actively campaigning for the Trans Mountain and even larger Energy East pipelines. (Energy East would traverse the near entirety of Canada to a terminus in Saint John, New Brunswick, on the Atlantic Ocean.)

Following her speech in New York on Trans Mountain, Notley told a business luncheon in Toronto on Oct 2, as reported in the Globe and Mail, “Under our leadership, Alberta’s abundant oil and gas reserves will remain open to investment.”

“There is a lot of work we can do in the province of Alberta to improve the way we produce our product so that people can be comfortable, either in terms of having that product cross over their jurisdiction or sold into their jurisdiction.”[4]

Jeff Gaulin, a vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, told the same Globe article, “Our industry can grow substantively over the coming years and, on a per-barrel basis, be the same as or better than other barrels around the world [concerning greenhouse gas emissions]. But at the end of the day, by growing our energy sector, we will grow emissions.”

Erin Flanagan of the Edmonton-based, climate-watch Pembina Institute says, “The oil sands are the fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada, so it’s hard to imagine a credible climate policy that doesn’t deal with that growth.”

Notley and federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair argue the pipelines would be more saleable to public opinion if the bitumen product they would ship was first ‘upgraded’ (primary refining) in Alberta in order to create “jobs” and to make the cleanup of pipeline spills easier and less costly.

But the oil industry dismisses the idea of more upgrading, saying foreign buyers want to make their own refining decisions.

Mulcair says the two pipelines should first pass through comprehensive and credible environmental reviews. However, the only environmental concerns that have been voiced in televised debates of the party leaders are those concerning pipeline spills, not the global warming consequences of tearing up and burning endless quantities of fossil fuels.

Mulcair has recently announced ‘cap and trade‘ as the centrepiece of his party’s environmental platform. But this market method has been in place for years in Europe and has massively failed, leading environmentalists such as Naomi Klein to oppose it.

The Green Party also says it wants bitumen upgrading in Alberta. Party leader Elizabeth May has said bitumen production of two million barrels per day would be an acceptable level of production for the foreseeable future (provided its use as a transportation fuel is lessened and, instead, its use is directed to petro-chemical production).

Seth Klein is the director of the BC office of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. He is an initiator of the LEAP Manifesto, an initiative to bring into the federal election some substantial debate over the social as well as environmental challenges facing present-day Canada and the world. Defending the Manifesto from accusations of excessive radicalism, he writes in an October 5 Vancouver Sun op-ed:

“True, the Leap is ambitious, but it only seems radical in comparison to the platforms of the major parties. And that’s only because the bandwidth of what is deemed politically acceptable has become so narrow. (Even the Green Party, whose climate plan is mildly more ambitious than the three main parties, has a platform that I’d call more of a hop than a leap.)”

The NDP stands apart from the Conservatives and Liberals in opposing the draconian attacks on civil rights which the Conservatives have legislated or propose to deepen should they be re-elected.

The NDP also proposes more money for social programs, health care and education, even if its devotion to ‘balanced budget’ dogma raises serious questions about how, exactly, it intends to finance that.

But the environmental stands of all the main parties in this election amount to climate change denial. None speak of the urgent imperative to radically reduce carbon emissions and other, destructive industrial practices. They are more wedded to preserving the capitalist system of endless expansion than they are to speaking the truth about the climate crisis.

The political system does not broach discussion of the difficult but necessary social tasks involved with transitioning away from fossil fuel use and all the other harmful excesses of the endless growth capitalist economy. That includes, first and foremost the tasks of providing meaningful employment and livelihoods to the workers presently employed in industries such as oil, auto and aerospace production.

Leave fossil fuels in the ground. Now that would be an interesting starting point for debate over global warming and climate change in this federal election. To get to there, we need parties on the political left with the vision and courage to place it on the agenda.

October 5, 2015


[1] The haughty and bullying performance of Northern Gateway’s proponents was an important factor in dooming it in the eyes of public opinion, even if polls show BC residents split 50-50 on whether to support tar sands pipelines.

[2] Few Canadians will be aware that a protester was shot dead outside of a public hearing over the Site C dam proposal in Dawson Creek, northeast BC on July 16 of this year. The victim was wearing a ‘V for Vendetta’ (Guy Fawkes) mask in the street outside the venue where the hearing was taking place. The man whose protest inside the hearing actually prompted the call by officials for police intervention has recently explained that but not for the grace of God, he may have been the one shot by police. He regrets that his action gave rise to the RCMP’s violent intervention.

[3] The harmful consequences of traditional forest clearcutting are worsening in British Columbia due to rising winter temperatures which are no longer cold enough to kill the larvae of tree-killing insects. There are fewer jobs from forestry as work is offshored via raw log exports and the work processes in sawmills intensify. In 2014, 6.3 million cubic metres of raw logs were exported from the province, compared to 2.34 million m3 in 2000 and .8 million m3 in 1990. According to a 2011 report by the BC Government Employees’ Union, 70 sawmills were closed in BC between 2001 and 2011, eliminating 36,000 jobs.

[4] Current bitumen production in Alberta is approximately 2.3 million barrels per day; the Alberta government has approved expansions of more than double that. ‘Conventional’ oil production in the province is app .6 million bpd.

Neil Young says political leadership has ‘trashed’ Canada, Globe and Mail, Oct 6, 2015

Further reading:

… Mr. Young, who is touring his anti-corporate, environmentally themed album The Monsanto Years, said over the past decade, Canada’s image has changed “immensely” internationally.

… “We’re just digging a huge hole; like that hole in Alberta,” said Mr. Young, 69, clearly referring to the oil sands. “We’re digging a huge hole and we’re going to have to dig our way back out of it because all our children are going to be at the bottom of that hole. … Twenty years from now, the economy is going to be trashed because of what we’re doing.”


More articles by:

Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC. He writes regularly for Counterpunch and compiles his writings on a ‘A Socialist in Canada’. He is an editor of the website The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. He can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.

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