Queen’s Law Enviro-Chats: The Canada Energy East Pipelines
The Sustainability and Environmental Law Club had its first EnviroChat on November 2, 2016 to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of building the Energy East pipeline. As with many environmental debates, the ideological divide was mostly between economic interests and environmental conservation.
The environmental benefits to not having another pipeline in Canada are obvious:
- The infrastructure itself is destructive.
- The potential spills are destructive, even though the public rarely hears about them.
- Building the pipeline would lengthen the lifespan of an industry that many environmentalists feel should be phased out, especially in light of new obligations set out by the Paris Agreement.
- Canada may meet the targets under the Paris Agreement more easily if we used more biofuel, hydropower, solar power and wind power.
Of course, this industry is a major source of revenue for Canada. It employs people. Oil companies engage in corporate social responsibility projects that have positive impacts. And there is global demand for oil, so we would be putting ourselves at a disadvantage by politely excusing ourselves from this lucrative market. Because we likely will not do that anyway, there is a viable argument that we might as well build the pipeline since it is the safest way to transport oil across land.
In light of a conflict where both sides have merit, many propose compromise. We could tax the oil industry and use the revenue to invest in renewable energy projects. Frankly, I tend to err on the side of compromise as well, especially because I am from Newfoundland which causes me to take two things for granted.
First, the oil industry is good for individuals. These are the “started from the bottom now we here” people who are providing for their families the kinds of lives they never imagined.
Second, renewable energy projects can go very badly. For example, a hydropower plant currently being built in Labrador has damaged the economy, will cause methyl mercury pollution and has seen one journalist arrested after he entered the site with protesters.
Compromise is the best way to peacefully progress, but we know society is moving towards using renewable energy and I think we have to start moving there a lot faster. I especially think this because we probably cannot expect the United States to make a positive environmental impact while Donald Trump is president, so we have to pick up the slack. When we know what our goals are—and in this case, we do—then slow progress is not sufficient progress.
The purpose of the EnviroChats is, of course, to discuss environmental issues using a legal lens. This is difficult because the environment, especially pipelines, is a political issue and legal justifications require some mental agility.
Just to be clear, we do have some legal environmental protections in place, but they are very weak. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was made extremely permissive in 2012. For example, certain regulatory boards like the National Energy Board can technically issue permits for projects without conducting environmental assessments. Provincial legislation in Quebec, Ontario, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is weak as well.
The right to a clean environment is not protected in Canada, but it could be. It is not explicitly in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but a group of lawyers working with Ecojustice are advocating to have it read into Section 7 as a human right. Protecting life could entail protecting the lives of future generations by preserving the environment to facilitate a safe and healthy life.
The framework for progress is there. I think we have to pick up the slack and act on it.
Claire Davis (1L) is a contributor to Juris Diction.