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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


The Energy East pipeline and Christian ethics

In the first week of October TransCanada announced it would no longer pursue the Energy East oil pipeline that would have carried unrefined product from Alberta and Saskatchewan to New Brunswick.

Reaction was swift, predictable, diverse and loud.

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre called the abandonment of the project “a major victory,” while Premier Brad Wall declared, “It’s a bad day for the West.” Federal Conservative politicians blamed the “disastrous energy policies championed by Justin Trudeau.” Liberal politicians countered that the company was merely making “a business decision.” For their part, environmental campaigners gleefully claimed success.

It is hard to know what Christian leaders may have thought. They were silent.

Christians might think their leaders have nothing to say, and their faith has nothing to do with such major public issues. Yet, Catholics may recall that, in 1975, their bishops released a pastoral letter titled “Northern Development: At What Cost?” Then, the bishops specifically called for a moratorium on the proposed McKenzie Valley Pipeline. And Citizens for Public Justice took a case to the Supreme Court then (and won), arguing that the chair of the National Energy Board should not judge that pipeline’s worthiness, since he previously headed one of the companies vying to build what was at that time Canada’s largest infrastructure project.

Today, what are some ethical considerations for Christians considering pipeline politics?

Resource development economics

On the day in August 2013 when TransCanada introduced the Energy East pipeline project, the price of oil was US $107 a barrel. Canadian oil production was expected to double in the next 15 years to more than 6.5 million barrels per day — so pipelines seemed to be desperately needed.

Today, oil prices are less than half what they were in 2013.

Besides the economics, several other considerations make massive resource projects publicly contentious.

Ethical considerations of economic matters are traditionally centred on who would benefit, and who would lose. Today, ethicists also ask if such massive developments are even necessary — do they strengthen over consumptive societies that threaten Creation itself, or assist those without energy to improve their lives?

Climate change

The federal government’s “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change” is designed to “meet Canada’s emissions reduction target and grow the economy.” The federal government is encouraging the replacement of coal-fired electricity generation, introducing a carbon-pricing benchmark for all provinces, and will soon outline new clean fuel standards.

Nonetheless, in late 2016 the federal Liberals approved two other pipeline projects: Enbridge’s $7 billion Line 3 project (from Alberta to Wisconsin), and Kinder Morgan’s $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline (from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.). It is almost impossible that the (already too feeble) federal emissions reduction target will now be met. Worse, these large developments lock our country into a carbon-intensive future.

Development and Peace — CARITAS Canada has quoted the International Energy Agency’s research to say, “In terms of energy, there is no alternative but to transition to a world free from fossil fuels. In order to contain temperature rise as far below 2º C as possible, more than two-thirds of currently commercially viable fossil fuels will need to remain in the ground.”

TransCanada was encumbered by the National Energy Board’s recent decision to require consideration of all the carbon emissions from a pipeline. In other words, not only emissions related to the pipeline’s construction would be measured, but from all the oil extracted, refined and transported (upstream) and burned (downstream). Environmental Defence reported that, “Preliminary estimates suggest that Energy East would enable upstream GHG emissions of the equivalent of operating 68 coal plants.”

This did not sound like adherence to Pope St. John Paul II’s call in 1990 for an “ecological conversion,” echoed in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, Laudato Sí (#217.)

Human rights

Some politicians argued that the Energy East project was needed to avoid importing oil from countries like Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. Ethically, Christian consumers would not want to support violators of human dignity and rights — but more than half of Canada’s oil imports come from the United States, with Venezuela not even among the top 10 countries. Nonetheless, as the Canadian bishops’ recently released guide Living Out Laudato Sí argues, Christians must be concerned about human and environmental rights: “Bishops of Latin America, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have denounced the actions of some Canadian extractive companies for their impact on people and the local environment.”

If politicians want to take authentic action against human rights violations overseas, both Development and Peace and the bishops have recommended we should start by appointing an ombudsman to report and act on reported violations of Canadian companies.

Indigenous rights

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) be used to concretely move reconciliation forward. Free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities is the basis of that declaration and its application to massive resource development projects. The ecumenical social justice organization KAIROS reported that 59 First Nations are opposed and 51 groups express support for the Trans Mountain pipeline. Some 22 municipalities have joined First Nations groups who oppose the project.

Canadian churches (including the Catholic bishops in March 2016) expressed support for adoption and implementation of the UNDRIP. Ensuring adequate consultation with, and hopefully consent from, indigenous peoples before large projects are undertaken is a fundamental ethical consideration.

Christians can interpret current events based on their religious values. Resources for ethical discernment are available in the stated reflections of their various faith communities — even on complicated issues like major development projects.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.