Unpacking Canada’s fossil fuel industry

‘It’s a recipe for climate chaos’

Students and faculty speak to the urgency of the climate crisis.

When the Queen’s Finance Association (QFA) hosted RBC CEO David McKay on Nov. 5, protestors stood outside Grant Hall to voice their concerns with RBC’s financing of the fossil fuel industry, particularly their subsidizing of the Line 3 pipeline expansion.

Stephanie Sherman, Con-Ed ’22, is part of the student group that organized the Grant Hall protest.

Since first attending a climate action in Kingston over the summer, Sherman has worked with other Queen’s students to generate climate activism in Kingston. Together, they created Kingston Youth Climate Action.

“The climate crisis is caused by an increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere which is caused by the burning of fossil fuels,” Sherman said in an interview with The Journal.

“We are currently at a time where we have no room left to be burning more fossil fuels.”

Most climate scientists have agreed for years that the extraction of fossil fuels like coal and oil needs to end as soon as possible to keep climate change manageable. Canadian leaders have acknowledged this problem, first promising to reduce fossil fuel subsides back in 2009. Despite this promise, Canada is still contributing billions each year to the extraction of fossil fuels.

“Canada is in a position where we are still expanding our fossil fuel industry,” Sherman said.

Despite disapproval from Indigenous and climate activists, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet approved the Trans Mountain Pipeline project in 2019. The controversial decision was called hypocritical, as it was announced only a day after the House of Commons declared Canada was in a “climate emergency.”

The Trans Mountain and Line 3 Pipeline projects have dominated Canada’s climate activism for years, with activists fighting against these expansions.

“Line 3 will double, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline will triple, the amount of oil being extracted.” Sherman said. “They are going to burn more fossil fuels in a time where we critically need to reduce them. It’s a recipe for climate chaos.”

***

Rebecca Hall, assistant professor in Global Development Studies, who studies resource extraction, said Canada is “an extractive giant”.

“The majority of extractive companies in the world are housed in Canada,” Hall said in an interview with The Journal.

In the mining industry alone, Canada had 1,290 companies operating in 2019. Of these, 621 had international operations.

These companies generate profit margins in the hundreds of billions—drawing funders like RBC to invest and keep the fossil fuel industry thriving.

“RBC particularly has contributed 9 billion USD to funding Line 3’s construction. Without money like that, it wouldn’t be happening,” Sherman said.

While fossil fuel extraction may be profitable in the short term, the ethics of the industry are questionable. This goes deeper than the impact of fossil fuels on the climate.

In Latin America, where Canadian companies control most mining operations, anti-mining organizers have been active for years. In countries like Guatemala, Canadian mining companies are notorious for both human rights abuses and dispossession of Indigenous lands.

According to Hall, Canadians are often oblivious to these injustices.

“Canada often likes to see ourselves [sic] as a very friendly neighbor to the world, but the truth is Canadian extractive operations have created huge levels of devastation and social harms in the countries in which they operate,” Hall said.

The ethical problems with fossil fuels are not unique to overseas operations.  The Line 3 expansion has been criticized for violating the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island.

“The Line 3 pipeline passes through treaty territories of the Anishinaabe peoples in northern Minnesota,” Sherman said.

Sherman said he Line 3 expansion is certain to damage Indigenous land, as it travels through wetlands that Anishinaabe peoples use to grow food.

“Pipelines are almost guaranteed to spill, which causes awful destruction and contamination of the land—including in this particular case, the contamination of what would be their best lakes and their wild rice watershed,” Sherman said.

***

On Nov. 4, Canada signed an agreement along with 23 other countries and institutions to end the public financing of fossil fuels overseas by the end of 2022.

“If Canada actually upholds that promise, that would be a big change, and I really hope that we do. Canada heavily subsidizes resource extraction in general, and fossil fuels in particular,” Hall said.

From 2018-20, Canada contributed somewhere between 2 billion and 5 billion CAD to international fossil fuel support.

Although private companies invest huge amounts in fossil fuel extraction, a large portion of funding for fossil fuel extraction comes directly from the Canadian government. When companies can no longer afford projects like pipelines, it’s up to government money to bail them out.

“There’s been this downturn in the oil industry in the last decade and it’s only been able to continue its operations in the way that it has because of financial support from the Canadian government,” Hall said.

“The most widely publicized example of that is the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which was saved by public money.”

While it’s true that public money is a huge part of the fossil fuel industry, Hall said it’s important to continue looking at all parties involved.

“There is no one magic bullet to transitioning away from fossil fuels. Removing public money is one thing, but we can’t take our eyes off of corporate operations,” Hall said.

As world leaders debate the future of fossil fuels, the public must think about what a future without fossil fuels might look like. People who work in the fossil fuel industry often argue that the livelihoods of entire towns are dependent on the extraction of fossil fuels.

“When people worry about us lowering our investment in fossil fuels, we hear the argument that our economy will fall apart,” Hall said.

“While it’s certainly true that Canada has a long history of using resource extraction, including fossil fuels as a major pilar of economic development, I don’t think it means it has to be that way.”

The alternative proposed by activists is to invest in clean energy. Embracing and investing in new energy forms like solar power, wind energy, and hydroelectricity would create new industries in Canada to support workers.

“Canadian institutions, including banks, including the government, should be investing their money in renewable energy sources,” Sherman said.

“Building those industries so that we have the infrastructure, the technology, and the foundation to transition to renewable energy sources and shift away from fossil fuels.”

***

Looking forward, it’s important to remember that public engagement can shape the future of our climate. In a climate crisis, the use of fossil fuels affects us all. If we don’t engage with these issues as individuals, the future of the global climate is solely in the hands of governments and corporations.

The easiest way to engage is simply by staying informed.

“Start by talking to people around you and talk about these issues, because if people don’t know about them, nothing can be done,” Sherman said.

“So many people did not know that Canadian banks have such a huge role to play in the fossil fuel industry survival into [sic] this point.”

The future of fossil fuels is not yet set in stone—whatever decisions we make will define the future of not only Canada’s climate, but the world’s climate.

Investing in fossil fuels might make money, but each person must ask themselves if that money is worth the environmental and human rights disasters that come with it.

“When we think about where our money goes, we want to be thinking about the world that we want to create,” Hall said.

“[Divesting from fossil fuels] is saying that we care about more than just the bottom line, but about the world that we’re making.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.