Including upstream and downstream GHG emissions would be a good start, but can’t stop there

The National Energy Board’s review of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline has had more than a few hiccups along the way. Take for example the revelation of secret closed-door industry meetings and the allegations of bias that led to the entire National Energy Board’s panel reviewing the project stepping down last September. In January the newly appointed panel voided all prior decisions, sending the process back to square one and appointing a new panel.

With that black mark behind it, the Board recently announced it would be taking public input on the issues it should consider as part of its review. It’s especially interested in hearing about the issue of the pipeline’s broader environmental effects, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Specifically, the panel is considering looking at the GHG emissions from increased oil production upstream of the pipeline and increased oil combustion downstream of the pipeline. These GHG emissions are potentially huge. It is estimated that the Energy East pipeline could result in 32 million tonnes of upstream GHG emissions a year and a larger amount would result from downstream combustion — downstream emissions are where 89 per cent of GHGs come into play (like in the case of the Kinder Morgan project).

This would be the first time that the Board considers a pipeline’s broader climate change impacts directly in its review. Past NEB panels reviewing projects like Enbridge’s Northern Gateway declined to consider total GHG emissions despite the project’s potential to result in an additional 80-100 megatonnes (MT) of CO2 emissions each year.

The Energy East review panel is right to look at the pipeline’s broader climate impacts, and we said so in our submissions filed on behalf of the community group Transition Initiative Kenora. But despite our enthusiasm, we are well aware that including upstream and downstream emissions in one pipeline review will not be enough. We need the broader climate impacts of all major projects to be required elements of key regulatory reviews – by law.

We need to look no further than Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain expansion project to see the flaws of relying on ad hoc processes. The federal government’s interim EA measures introduced last year only required an accounting of upstream GHG emissions, and did so on the basis of a flawed methodology. It is estimated that Kinder Morgan will result in 60 MT of CO2 per year in downstream emissions. That’s equal to the annual GHG emissions of 12.7 million cars — and a huge amount of carbon pollution to be exporting when the federal government has said urgent action is needed to reduce GHGs.

To put it simply, the federal government cannot continue to say Canada is doing its part to limit warming while major fossil fuel infrastructure projects are approved without a full accounting of their broader climate impacts.

In wake of the ongoing reviews of environmental laws like the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act, it is imperative that new legislation requires regulators to always look at the broader climate impacts of major projects and determine whether they fit into Canada’s climate policy.

In other words, the government has a golden opportunity to finally demonstrate that it is serious about taking action on climate change and ensuring Canada is acting in accordance with scientific imperatives, but it needs to get it right when it starts drafting legislation this summer.

We need our government to start taking its commitments to tackle climate change seriously. The National Energy Board’s newfound openness to looking at upstream and downstream GHG emissions in a pipeline review is an encouraging sign. The federal government must go a step further and ensure that the broader climate impacts of major projects are always required elements of key regulatory reviews.

This piece was originally published in The Hill Times on Monday June 12, 2017