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Environment Minister Says Canada-U.S. Opportunities Are ‘Bigger’ Than Keystone XL

Jonathan Wilkinson says Joe Biden won a mandate by promising climate action.

OTTAWA — Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson signalled Tuesday that the Canadian government won’t dwell on U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to revoke the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and will instead seek to ensure there is no better ally to the United States on the climate file than Canada.

Speaking on a panel with John Podesta, the former campaign chair to secretary Hillary Clinton, counsellor to president Barack Obama, and chief of staff to president Bill Clinton, Wilkinson said the run-up to Biden’s inauguration had “offered a welcome dose of climate optimism.”

“He won a mandate from the American people with climate action being very much a central pillar of his plan for economic growth,” Wilkinson told the audience, virtually gathered for the chat hosted by GreenPAC.

Biden had put together a team of “thoughtful experts” to deliver on his “all of government effort,” Wilkinson said, noting two former Obama-era appointees, Gina McCarthy, the environmental health expert who ran the Environment Protection Agency, and John Kerry, who as former secretary of state helped forge consensus towards more ambitious targets and financing commitments at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris in 2015, will be back in the White House.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 19, 2020.
Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a press conference in Ottawa on Nov. 19, 2020.

Wilkinson welcomed Biden’s promise to return the United States to the Paris Agreement — a move that happened Wednesday — and said he looked forward to forging new opportunities for co-operation.

While the “Trump administration moved away from multilateral and domestic climate action four years ago,” the minister said, Canada pressed forward with action to fight climate change, by putting a price on carbon and introducing regulations on methane and phasing out coal. “This was not simple, given the integrated nature of the U.S. and Canada economies,” he added.

With the inauguration of the president, the new president, I believe there is significant alignment between his climate plans and our government’s climate agenda and then a lot of scope for collaboration from electricity grids to automotive sector to protecting nature and species at risk,” Wilkinson said, at times appearing to read from a prepared text.

“There is no doubt that the incoming U.S. administration will be looking for strong allies in the fight against climate change, and they will find none more determined than right here in Canada,” he added.

“Canadian energy opportunities with the United States are bigger than any one project.”

- Federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson

Asked about Biden’s decision to scrap the Keystone XL pipeline, a move that happened on Day 1, Wilkinson responded: “Canadian energy opportunities with the United States are bigger than any one project.”

A headline in The Washington Post this week suggested Biden’s decision to follow through on his campaign pledge to cancel the project signals a rocky start with Canada.”

The controversial 1,947-kilometre expansion project is expected to deliver 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Hardisty, Alta., to Steele City, Neb., where it will link up with the existing Keystone pipeline to reach refineries in Texas. With some parts of the project already completed and construction activities underway, its owner, TC Energy, previously expected the pipeline to enter service in 2023.

Amid environmental concerns, TC Energy has tried to argue that, aside from creating more than 10,000 jobs and helping to ensure continental energy security, the project will have net zero emissions by 2023 and be powered by renewable energy by 2030.

Wilkinson said while Canada is fully committed to moving to net zero emissions by 2050, it also believes it “needs to extract value for the resources that it has” and to use some of the revenue generated through that to invest in accelerating the transition to a low-carbon economy.

While the government’s support for the pipeline is clear, Wilkinson said that should not stop the parties from pursuing the other “enormous opportunities” to work together.

Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.

The release from the Prime Minister’s Office said “Canada has made the case for the project, including recently to President-elect Biden, and Ambassador Hillman and others in government have also been speaking with high-level officials in the incoming administration.”

Kenney, whose government invested $1.5 billion in the project and recently offered $6-billion more in loan guarantees, said he urged the federal government to do everything possible to convey a clear message to Biden that “rescinding the Keystone XL border crossing permit would damage the Canada-U.S. bilateral relationship.”

The Alberta government’s response to the conversation suggests Trudeau “agreed with Premier Kenney that a retroactive veto of the border crossing would create a troubling precedent.”

But Ottawa’s public statement about the conversation makes no mention of it. Instead, it suggests Trudeau is eager to work with the Biden administration on shared priorities.

Wilkinson said he was “very optimistic” real changes on tackling climate change were now afoot.

“In addition to having a president in office who will focus on climate,” he said, the investment community is now looking at the climate issue as one of the fundamental bases on which they make investment decisions. “That’s fundamentally different and I think it’s very powerful.”

John Podesta attends a forum in Las Vegas on April 27, 2019.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
John Podesta attends a forum in Las Vegas on April 27, 2019.

Public opinion is also changing, he said. If you asked Canadians 10 years ago about climate change, he said, people believed there was a choice to be made between reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the economic penalty associated with doing that.

“If you look at public opinion polls in this country now, the vast majority of people believe that addressing climate change will be good for the economy and good for their economic prospects,” he said. “That changes the nature of the conversation.”

“I feel like we’ve been pushing this boulder up this hill for many, many years and we’ve finally gotten to the top. And this is kind of the time where you actually start to see the boulder going down the other side of the hill with its own momentum.”

Throughout the one-hour conversation, Wilkinson highlighted several areas where he felt the United States and Canada could work together.

“If I can be so bold, I would like to suggest a few things where we would really like to see American leadership,” he said.

He hoped Canada and the United States could set enhanced methane regulations that could be a standard for the rest of the world. Same in the transportation sector.

Canada is also “looking for U.S. assistance” in the run up to COP 26 on addressing climate and nature together. “I think engaging the United States in that conversation, I think is very consistent with what the Biden folks have been saying, would be very helpful.”

Joe Biden delivers his victory address after being declared the winner in the 2020 presidential election in Wilmington, Del. on Nov. 7, 2020.
AP via CP
Joe Biden delivers his victory address after being declared the winner in the 2020 presidential election in Wilmington, Del. on Nov. 7, 2020.

He also asked for U.S. help with the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a push to rapidly phase out of coal-fired power plants around the world, including those that have taken to decrease pollution emissions, in order to meet the net-zero commitment.

“We certainly can use the enhanced ambition on the part of the Americans to help leverage the rest of the international community. And I think we will be looking for American leadership in part, in particular, to help us with some of the countries that perhaps have been a little bit more recalcitrant on the climate file, major countries, including Brazil and Russia,” he said.

Podesta suggested Kerry would be up for the task. “He knows how to get ambition out of a multilateral system.”

But he warned that the Biden team would first be focused on getting its own house in order.

“The United States lost a lot of credibility over the last four years. So the most important thing the United States can deliver is domestic action that I think can be taken forward to the international system,” he said.

Biden has promised to be net zero by 2050 and to have a 100 per cent clean power sector by 2035 — which Podesta called “ an audacious goal, and one that’s achievable but will be difficult.”

Biden will want U.S. to be ‘good partners’ with allies: Podesta

While Biden’s early focus is on getting the pandemic under control, getting vaccines distributed and restarting the economy, Podesta said there would be a lot of action on climate right at the beginning.

“From rejoining Paris to reversing the actions of the real assault that President [Donald] Trump made on environmental protection across a range of fronts during his four years in office,” he said. The White House will be focused on co-ordinating the decarbonisation of the U.S. economy, while also re-engaging internationally, he said.

“[Biden] will put us back into a framework where we’re good partners with our allies and partners around the world, where there’s a new embrace of responsibility in the multilateral sector. And I think it’ll be a welcome change,” he said.

Wilkinson suggested the United States may want to learn from Canada on some protection projects it has accomplished with Indigenous peoples, such as Indigeneous Protected and Conserved Areas.

Podesta suggested there are many different areas in which to forge partnerships and cooperation.

“I’m not an American who thinks America knows everything about everything,” he said. “And I think we have plenty to learn from the Canadian experience, particularly in terms of Indigenous management.”

The Biden administration, he suggested, will be eager to work on common areas, such as protection of the Arctic, on migratory corridors, and on other files where Trump’s actions will be reversed.

“The wrecking crew is still at work,” he said, citing recent changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that will “need to be reversed.”

The Trump White House recently rolled back the 100-year-old law, saying the government will no longer fine or prosecute companies that unintentionally cause the death of birds — such as in oil spills or in toxic waste ponds. Environmentalists worry that that means companies won’t be encouraged to mitigate bird deaths and they fear more protected species will die.

Last month, the Trump administration also rolled back protections for fish and wildlife under the Endangered Species Act. And this week, it sought to finalize plans to open up 80 per cent of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve to oil and gas drilling, threatening the habitat of polar bears, caribou, and migratory birds.

“You’ll find a strong partnership in the … U.S. agencies, which will be led by people who care about nature,” Podesta told Wilkinson.

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