Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is pledging to subject existing oil sands pipeline proposals to tougher environmental assessments, as the Liberal government looks to boost its international credibility at the upcoming Paris climate-change summit.
Ms. McKenna, who is in the French capital this week for a ministerial meeting to prepare for the United Nations conference, said Canada is bringing a more constructive and ambitious outlook to the international negotiations.
"People are extraordinarily happy to see that Canada is seated at the table, and that Canada accepts the scientific evidence that climate change is one of the greatest threats of our time and will be doing our part," she told reporters in a phone call from Paris.
But with the summit only three weeks away, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will have few concrete commitments that he can offer beyond the pledge that he will quickly meet with premiers afterward to hammer out a national climate plan and new emission-reduction targets.
Ms. McKenna said the federal government will make climate change a diplomatic priority at upcoming meetings, such as the Group of 20 in Turkey next week and the Commonwealth heads of government meeting later this month. And Ottawa will push for an ambitious agreement that will include provisions for progressively improving the commitments made in Paris.
The minister noted the Liberals promised a number of climate-related policies during the election campaign that will form the bases of a new climate strategy, including working with the provinces to establish a price on carbon, funding traditional infrastructure such as rapid transit and financing green infrastructure and a green investment fund to assist the transition to a clean-energy economy.
One of the biggest challenges is how the government proceeds on proposed pipelines that would transport crude oil to Canada's east and west coasts. U.S. President Barack Obama last week rejected TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL project, saying it was inconsistent with U.S. leadership on climate.
While Mr. Trudeau has opposed the Northern Gateway project in British Columbia, he has given qualified support for two other controversial proposals: Kinder Morgan Inc.'s major expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver Harbour and TransCanada's Energy East pipeline, which would carry crude to Eastern refineries and an export terminal in New Brunswick.
In both cases, companies have submitted their proposals to the National Energy Board and the Trans Mountain review is nearly complete. But under rules imposed by the former Conservative government, the federal cabinet will have the final say after the board makes a recommendation.
Noting that she has been in the job only six days, Ms. McKenna was vague about how Ottawa will proceed, except to note that the assessments will be "based on science" and ensure Canadians can participate in the hearings. During the campaign, the Liberals slammed the review procedures – put in place during Conservative rule – as inadequate and pledged that pipeline assessments would include upstream impacts of crude extraction.
The government will revise the environmental assessment process, but Ms. McKenna said it would also require higher standards for existing applications. Mr. Trudeau committed explicitly to a tougher review of the Trans Mountain project.
"We need to build trust," the Environment Minister said. "The principles I've expressed will certainly be part of how we review these pipelines."
On a conference call Monday, several environmental advocates urged the federal government to put both the Trans Mountain and Energy East projects on hold until new environmental assessment rules can be fashioned, and they insisted that any approval of "fossil fuel pipelines" is inconsistent with Canada's desire to have a credible climate policy.
In Alberta, the New Democratic Party government is finalizing its own climate plan, and insists that a more ambitious program will help win public support for pipelines. "We hope that showing leadership on climate change will allow future energy infrastructure projects to be debated on their own merits and increase the likelihood of getting our product to tidewater," Cheryl Oates, spokeswoman for Premier Rachel Notley, said Monday.
The industry is watching closely as new governments in Edmonton and Ottawa pursue more ambitious environmental agendas and promise a payback in terms of public support for the industry. Tim McMillan, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said it would be wrong to retroactively impose a new environmental assessment process on existing pipeline applications.
"All Canadians expect that, in Canada, the rule of law is solid and everyone knows what the rules are when you enter into a process," he said. He added that Canada has among the most rigorous and transparent environmental regulations among global oil producers.