Pipelines: How They Became a Political Odyssey

Across the U.S.-Canada border, energy policy is trapped among the dictates of market orthodoxy, political obstinacy, technological innovation, and the threats posed by climate change and conservation practices

In the face of the looming climate crisis, changing how we produce, distribute, and consume energy is non-negotiable. And yet, across the U.S.-Canada border, energy policy is trapped among the dictates of market orthodoxy, political obstinacy, technological innovation, and the threats posed by climate change and conservation practices – or lack thereof. Of the challenges in this constellation, the regional, national, and international politics involved in navigating reform tend to read as a quixotic adventure tale, though there’s hope to be found in its telling.


Pipelines as source of international political debate: U.S. -  Canadian examples

At the heart of contemporary battles over climate policy and state-provincial and national relations, we find pipelines. Most recently of note is the clash over the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, which supplies the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec with oil and natural gas from Saskatchewan and Alberta, and which passes through American states along the Great Lakes. The most prominent of those states is Michigan, where Governor Gretchen Whitmer has ordered the pipeline shut down, citing the climate crisis, but also fearing a spill in the Straights of Mackinac – where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet between the upper and lower peninsulas of the Great Lakes State. In closing the pipeline, the governor is fulfilling a 2018 campaign promise with populist aplomb. Enbridge insists on a court order and intends to keep the line operating until one is produced.

The Canadian federal government in Ottawa considers the matter to be an energy security issue and supports the pipeline. As the Financial Post’s Geoffrey Morgan reports, Canada has filed an amicus briefing in Michigan, noting “shutting down Line 5 would ‘harm’ the relationship between Canada and the United States, cause fuel price spikes and layoffs, in addition to contravening a 1977 treaty.” Canadian Natural Resources minister, Seamus O’Regan, says the line must continue to operate while President Biden may – at least officially – stay out of it. Meanwhile, Canada’s House of Commons Special Committee on the Economic Relationship Between Canada and the United States released a report which includes a list of recommendations for solving the Line 5 crisis – a report that passed the House on a vote of 330-2, including support from the left-wing New Democratic Party, with 23 of its members of Parliament voting for it and none voting against it.  

Predating the Line 5 dispute is the Keystone XL debate, which lingers still. Biden campaigned against the proposed addition to the pipeline system that would have moved oil from Alberta to a pipeline in Nebraska. In 2015, President Obama opposed it. Later, President Trump supported it. Finally, after winning the November presidential election, Biden revoked the project’s permits in January. Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, shared his “disappointment” with the decision, while Alberta premier, Jason Kenney, called the decision a “gut punch” and an “insult.”


Energy exports as trade asymmetry

While pipeline issues across the U.S.-Canada border implicate each state, on balance the relationship is asymmetrical in notable ways. Canada is the primary energy provider to the United States. As Natural Resources Canada reports, in 2019 the country exported CAD $134.3 billion in energy among 158 countries. But of that trade, oil and gas exports made up $122 billion, with the U.S. making up a staggering 96 percent of that market and 90 percent of energy export overall. Canada imports a comparatively low volume from the U.S. – CAD $47.5 billion in 2019 – but, again, America is the primary trade partner, making up 74 percent of those imports. Perhaps unsurprisingly, energy makes up a significant part of Canada’s GDP at 10.2 percent, mostly concentrated in Alberta, but with a notable and critical presence throughout the country. In the United States, energy comprised 6.2 percent of GDP in 2018


Energy and economic security: a political conundrum from the regional level to the international level

So it is clear that the energy and economic security of Canada and the United States are bound up together – and both are bound up in what happens to the climate. And yet, underlying the pipeline battles are other political policy battles and concerns. For instance, a federal government in Canada that supports pipelines as it pioneers a national carbon pricing scheme, provincial governments in the West that rely on pipelines for their provinces’ bottom lines, a president who campaigned on energy reform – including semi-opposition to fracking – and state governors with their own mix-and-match agendas. In Alberta, for instance, mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction accounted for CAD $91 billion of the province’s GDP in 2019 and 79.9 billion in 2020 – these industries are also, of course, tied to other industries including construction, finance, insurance, and service. So, pipelines are not only an environmental issue, but also an immediate labor issue for unionized and non-unionized workers in equipment operation, pipe fitting, welding, operations engineering, and so forth; as well as the communities in which these workers live and are employed. As Alberta struggles to diversify its industries and economy in the face of environmental policy and an evolving energy industry, pipeline politics take on an existential sheen that must be understood through the lens of a just transition – or a lack of one – that affect political concerns and calculations along, more importantly, workers and those around them. In Canada, these provincial politics echo state-level challenges in the United States that conflict with national and international climate goals.

While pipeline conflicts are complicated, and while no worker or community should be left behind by policy choices, climate goals are goals focused on national and international survival.


Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation?

A promise to reach net-zero emissions is central to Canada’s national climate plan. But if that priority would seem to clear matters up on first glance, a second glance raises new questions. Canada’s roadmap to net-zero is flawed, vague, and lacking in sufficient accountability mechanisms to ensure realization. Indeed, the net-zero approach itself is contested by climate scientists. In the United States, Biden has adopted the net-zero goal, too, with an interim greenhouse gas reduction goal of roughly 50 percent less than 2005 levels. Still, a 2020 estimate from the U.S. EIA suggested that by 2050, “79% of U.S. energy will come from fossil fuels in 2050.” That might help explain that even oil companies appear to be on board with the net-zero pledge, further confusion the pipeline-climate goal debate and even obfuscating who the main players are and on which side you might find them.

As climate activists Tzeporah Berman and Nathan Taft argued in The Guardian, it’s a “sham.”

"If it wasn’t so serious, the premise would almost be comical: oil companies are claiming that not only can they keep their current levels of production, but expand their operations that extract and refine fossil fuels. They would have us believe that by planting trees and using largely unproven, expensive, and thus far inefficient carbon-capture technologies, they can reach “net-zero” and solve the climate crisis – all while continuing to grow fossil fuel production.

This argument is delusional and based on bad science. To have any realistic shot at maintaining a 1.5C world, we need to be winding down and phasing out fossil fuel production, not growing it – as its executives are incentivized to do."

Berman and Taft argue that in addressing climate change and hitting the goal of keeping “a 1.5C world,” we ought to adopt a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty “paired with local actions to constrict fossil fuels…” The idea speaks to the need to adjudicate – in short time – local, regional, national, and international tensions and interests in the name of preventing widespread disaster and breakdown. Hundreds of organizations and a handful of cities – including Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Barcelona – have signed on to the idea thus far. They won’t be the last. Whatever one might think of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, the intricacies and challenges of the Canada-U.S. relationship across national and regional borders speaks to the need of an ecumenical approach that takes the needs of workers and communities seriously, but ultimately focuses on the needs of the many in the face of existential threats related to climate change.

The United States and Canada are bound up together in their energy and climate futures, their respective and collective economies in tow. However, national and international goals—indeed, imperatives—will exacerbate regional economic issues and tensions. In Canada, a country defined by inter-regional and regional-national squabbles and contests, that’s an old story. Regions are often at odds – for instance, British Columbia and Alberta disagreed on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion – and provinces routinely excoriate the federal government, complain of raw deals, and even agitate to separate from the country with varying degrees of commitment. Successfully meeting energy demand across each border while addressing climate change threats will require strong national leadership and cooperation from each government, just as it will require just transition plans for states and provinces hit hard by evolving practices, technologies, and policies. The recent history of pipeline clashes suggests that there is a long way to go before the two can work out a coherent, consistent, and adequate strategy – but those conflicts also suggest an evolution in how we think about energy and the future as we consider new models, such as a non-proliferation treaty alongside a just transition that protects workers and communities. And therein lies a possible way forward, even if it will be difficult and imperfect.

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