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Environmentalists ‘anticipated higher’ of Trudeau as Canada backs gas projects

Canada’s commitment to fighting climate change has been questioned after the Liberal government, led by Justin Trudeau, announced conditional approval for a C$36bn liquefied natural gas project in northern British Columbia.

The decision – the Trudeau government’s first on a major energy project – was announced late on Tuesday. “The government approved the Pacific NorthWest LNG project,” Catherine McKenna, the environment minister, told reporters in a Vancouver suburb.

Backed by Malaysia’s energy giant Petronas, the project would ship 19m tonnes a year of frozen, liquefied natural gas to markets in Asia. The government promised the project, one of Canada’s largest resource development projects, would create thousands of jobs – as many as 630 direct and spin-off jobs and 4,500 construction jobs – and add nearly C$2.4bn per year to the country’s GDP.

The government’s approval was contingent on the project meeting 190 conditions, including keeping greenhouse gas emissions capped at 4.3m tonnes per year, a drop of about 20% from the project’s initial proposal. Upstream emissions are not included in this cap and could add as much as 8.7m tonnes of carbon emissions to the project, according to estimates from a draft report released by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in February.

McKenna said the decision had been informed by rigorous environmental assessment as well as meaningful consultations with First Nations groups. “The only way to get resources to market in the 21st century is if it is done in a responsible and sustainable manner. This decision reflects this objective.”

Environmentalists 'expected better' of Trudeau as Canada backs gas projects
Environmentalists ‘expected better’ of Trudeau as Canada backs gas projects

But despite claims by the British Columbia government that the exported fuel would offer an alternative to coal-fired plants in Asia, environmentalists warned the approval of the project would undermine Canada’s climate change commitments.

“How can Prime Minister Trudeau claim to be a climate leader on the international stage, while approving this new project that will become the single largest source of climate pollution in the country?” Karen Mahon of Stand Earth asked in a statement after the decision was announced. “Honestly we expected better.”

Since taking the reins of Canada’s government last year, Trudeau has sought to position himself as a climate change leader on the world stage while assuring Canadians that the government would strike a balance between caring for the environment and bolstering the country’s struggling energy industry.

The Pacific NorthWest LNG project, which includes a nearly 600-mile (900km) natural gas pipeline and an LNG facility near Prince Rupert in British Columbia, was widely seen as one of the government’s first tests of this commitment.

During last year’s federal election campaign, Trudeau courted environmentalists with promises to invest millions of dollars in clean tech and confront climate change.

Tuesday’s approval was a betrayal to the many who voted for action on climate change, said Caitlyn Vernon of the Sierra Club of British Columbia. “The Trudeau government’s lofty rhetoric on climate has been proven nothing more than sunny ways talking points.”

In May, 90 scientists and climate experts from Canada, the US and Australia urged Trudeau and his government to reject the Pacific NorthWest LNG project in an open letter. The 190 conditions set out by the government provided a chance to meaningfully address some of the concerns, said Merran Smith of Clean Energy Canada. Instead, the bar was set too low. “What’s shocking about this approval is that other LNG projects are proposing much cleaner operations,” she said. “Ottawa should have required Pacific NorthWest to run on clean electricity and use available technology to reduce its carbon pollution by more than 40%.”

Even before the government announced its decision, six First Nations affected by the project said the project had so far failed to meet their expectations for respecting indigenous rights. “Providing a green light for this project at this time will only lead to protracted litigation which benefits no one,” the Skeena Corridor Nations said in a statement.

In the wake of Tuesday’s announcement, analysts pointed out there was little guarantee that the project would be built. The government’s decision comes amid weakening demand and oversupply in the global natural gas market. While those behind the project welcomed the approval and described it as a significant milestone, the company said a total review of the project would be carried out by the company and shareholders before any final decision is taken.

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