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A rally against Kinder Morgan's proposed pipeline expansion in 2014. (Photo: Mark Klotz/flickr/cc)

Will Canada's New 'Climate Test' for Pipelines Have Sharp Enough Teeth?

As pipeline approval process faces overhaul, new federal audit shows "systemic" failings within Canada's National Energy Board

Deirdre Fulton

On the same day a report from a federal watchdog found that Canada's national energy regulator is failing to properly ensure the safety of pipelines, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to subject the multi-billion dollar projects to a "climate test" that will determine their impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The developments taken together provide more evidence that the National Energy Board (NEB), tasked with overseeing pipeline approvals and operation, requires significant reform—and that to do so, as Council of Canadians campaigner Andrea Harden-Donahue told Common Dreams on Tuesday, "the Trudeau government has a big job ahead of it."

Environmentalists and First Nations communities have long demanded a so-called "climate test" for proposed fossil fuel projects, which would assess not just the greenhouse gas emissions from a pending pipeline but also its "upstream" effects, meaning those from oil production. While the NEB has long refused to consider emissions impacts, Trudeau promised to implement such a review on the campaign trail.

In this context, Tuesday's news is a victory for "the thousands of people across Canada demanding climate tests on fossil fuel development in this country," said Cam Fenton,'s Canadian tar sands organizer.

"It's very encouraging news to hear that the federal government plans to unveil a climate test," Tim Pearson, communications director for Sierra Club BC, added in a statement to Common Dreams. "It's a critical tool that, if done right, can help Canada meet its commitment to keep global warming below 1.5°C."

But simply putting such an assessment in place is merely the first step, climate activists say.

"We need a climate test that combines scientific rigor with real teeth to deliver measurable progress on emissions reduction," said Pearson, pointing to his group's recent report, Blind Spot: the Failure to Consider Climate in British Columbia’s Environmental Assessments, which he said could serve as a model for a federal environmental review. 

Indeed, as Fenton noted, "any credible climate test that meets Canada's commitment to a 1.5°C limit on climate change should mean the end of projects like the Energy East and Kinder Morgan tar sands pipelines."

Meanwhile, Tuesday's report from Canada's Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development provided more fodder for pipeline opponents, pointing to what Harden-Donahue called "systemic" failings within the NEB.

The Globe and Mail reports:

In an audit released Tuesday, the commissioner, Julie Gelfand, said the Calgary-based federal regulator did not adequately track the implementation of conditions that the board itself required in approving pipelines, nor did it consistently follow up on deficiencies in companies’ overall regulatory compliance.

With the proposed expansion of oil-and-gas pipeline capacity, “it is clear that the National Energy Board needs to do more to keep pace with the rapidly changing context in which it is operating,” Ms. Gelfand said in a statement.

With $25 billion worth of pipeline megaprojects—such as Energy East, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion, and Northern Gateway—having been approved or currently under review by the regulator, these findings are troubling to say the least.

"The report's damning findings show that the NEB is failing to ensure that the safety conditions placed on energy projects like pipelines are met," said Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence. "In the past, the NEB has relied on these safety conditions to justify its approval of highly controversial pipeline projects."

He continued: "We are thankful that the federal government has committed to a complete overhaul of Canada’s regulatory laws for energy projects, including reforming the National Energy Board. But none of the pipeline projects currently being proposed can be reviewed under the old, deeply flawed system. All major energy projects must wait until the NEB is rebuilt before facing review."

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