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Climate activists call out federal environment minister's "silly" comment about oil extraction

"Wilkinson's comments show just how out of touch this government is with the stark reality of climate change"

by David Gray-Donald

Federal Liberal Environment Minister Joathan Wilkinson. Photo: CBC Twitter
Federal Liberal Environment Minister Joathan Wilkinson. Photo: CBC Twitter

Last week, Canada’s environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, MP for North Vancouver, was on the CBC Early Edition radio show, out of Vancouver, talking pipelines and climate policy. This conversation happened while prime minister Trudeau and the Liberals prepare their throne speech for this Wednesday, Sept 23rd. Among other big questions, people are asking: will the Liberals finally act appropriately on climate, or will they continue the status quo of ever-expanding fossil fuel extraction in violation of Indigenous consent?

The Liberal environment minister was asked on the radio show if the new oil export pipeline, Trans Mountain expansion (TMX), was needed, and whether it helps with an energy transition. Wilkinson immediately pivoted to a stream of well-used oil industry talking points, sowing confusion and blaming consumers along the way. Let’s look at the exchange, then analyze it along with comment from climate activists.

Host Steven Quinn: “It seems every time I speak with a member of the federal Liberal Party they want to tell me that we need to have the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and, you know, we need the oil and gas industry to finance the transition to greener fuels. Do you think anybody’s buying that?”

Minister Wilkinson: “Well I think it is. And I’m not sure how you get to work Stephen, but most folks they get in their car and they put oil, they put gas in their car. I mean by and large oil is used as a transportation fuel. So in the short term, in the next number of decades, it’s not like oil is completely going away. I mean the number of zero emission vehicles on our roads right now is about three percent. So what we need to do is actually make choices as consumers, and governments need to incent those choices, as to how we’re going to move forward to the point where we are using electricity or hydrogen as a fuel for transportation and not oil. But at the present time we continue to use oil. We need to move through that transition. But in the next number of decades it’s important that Canada continue to extract value for its resources. We would be silly not to. But certainly there must be a transition and folks, you know, need to either make choices or be incented to make choices that actually move in that direction.”  

First, as has been repeatedly stated, the Trans Mountain Pipeline is an export pipeline, meant to allow for increased daily extraction from the tar sands, not just to maintain current levels or decrease them. Making this about peoples’ transportation choices is a deflection.

But even if it wasn’t, transportation makes up only 24% of national emissions, and rarely grows year to year, whereas emissions from oil and gas extraction have been growing. Within transportation, Wilkinson is saying that car travel is inevitable, instead of saying that we need to reduce car travel through better urban planning and expanded public transit. Instead of proposing big change, Wilkinson is reinforcing oil-dependent car culture. 

But again, why focus on domestic transportation when talking about an export pipeline, if not to change the conversation?

Wilkinson also does not address the question of how the pipeline funds an energy transition, when taxes and royalties on oil and gas extraction are very low, and the government provides generous subsidies, including spending billions buying the pipeline in question, TMX.

Asked about Wilkinson's comments, here’s what Alison McIntosh of Climate Justice Edmonton had to say: "It's silly for the Liberals pretend the oil sands will be viable for ‘decades to come,’ and it's fully heartless to ignore that propping them up kills people via wildfires, hurricanes, and land theft. We can't let them continue to put billions into TMX instead of investing in a green recovery that puts workers and communities first. We are living through so many overlapping crises right now, and wasting money on pipelines and subsidies to oil and gas companies solves none of them. A government with the public interest at heart would stop propping up oil, [would] tax the rich, and defund the police and invest this money in universal public services, employment programs, community infrastructure, and a just transition towards renewable energy we urgently need instead." 

And here’s Canada Team Leader for 350.org Cam Fenton's reaction: "Wilkinson's comments show just how out of touch this government is with the stark reality of climate change. That the Minister can dismiss climate science telling us we need to rapidly transform our economy away from fossil fuels as 'silly', while wildfire smoke makes it hard to breathe in his own riding should be unthinkable. Unfortunately, Wilkinson and Trudeau continue to show us, time and time again, that they're all talk, not enough action, when it comes to tackling this crisis." 

If the tar sands continue to grow, which is the point of TMX, they will take up an increasing portion of the already-weak climate target Canada has agreed to. A 2018 Policy Options article explained “How the oil sands make our GHG targets achievable”. And a Pembina Institute study from March 2020 explains that,  “Based on the federal government’s projections, as of 2030, absolute emissions from the oilsands would account for 110Mt CO2e, or 22% of Canada’s total climate target .” This 22% is just the oil sands, and so the oil and gas industry’s overall portion (if fracking and offshore and other sources were included) would be much larger. Anything other than a significant reduction of the tar sands, going down to zero in the foreseeable future, is going to make meeting Canada’s climate targets very very, hard. And we don't have decades, the climate crisis is unfolding now, and swift action is needed.

Activists have been ringing the alarm on the Liberals inadequate action on climate since they came to power in 2015. Will the COVID crisis and being in a minority position in parliament push the Liberals to bolder action? If the Liberals' past informs their future, we can expect a flashy announcement that, in the end, doesn’t change a whole lot. That doesn't need to be accepted, and actions land defenders are taking along pipeline routes and the Sept 25 climate strike can show and amplify demands for the future we want.


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David Gray-Donald (David Gray-Donald)
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