Sask’s Big Oil-loving government won’t admit its fossil foolishness
Climate Change | Gregory Beatty
Fresh off using the constitutional equivalent of an Uzi to kill judicial scrutiny of a sloppily drafted, widely criticized parental rights bill, the Saskatchewan Party government is heading back to court to battle another group of citizens over another backwards policy.
This time it’s the government’s climate change inaction and perverse promotion of fossil fuel interests.
The applicants filed suit in March, arguing that the government’s plan to expand gas-fired electricity generation violates s.7 of the Charter and Rights and Freedoms which guarantees the right to life, liberty and personal security. The application asks that the court order SaskPower to develop a realistic plan to decarbonize and achieve net-zero emissions by 2035.
“The 2035 target comes from the International Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, where Canada, the U.S., EU and UK committed to transitioning their energy supply to net zero by 2035,” says Harold Pexa, who is one of seven applicants in the case. The case includes five other people, and Climate Justice Saskatoon.
“The 2035 goal is being formalized in the upcoming federal Clean Electricity Regulations. Not having a Net Zero 2035 plan in Saskatchewan would cause Canada to miss that target,” Pexa says.
The Sask. Party government has asked the court to dismiss the case as “non-justiceable”. A hearing is set for next March, where the parties will make their arguments, and a judge will decide if the case will go to trial.
A few years ago, the government’s argument would have been a slam dunk. But in the last while, climate litigation has gained some traction in the courts.
“Before, respondents would have it thrown out because it was non-justiciable, which means it’s not a matter for the court to address,” says Pexa.
“But that changed in June with Mathur v. Ontario. Now, the plaintiffs didn’t win the case. But it was ruled justiciable, where the judge decided the case was appropriate to be heard in a court of law,” says Pexa. “For me, that’s huge.”
Another recent case — this time, a win — came in Montana, says Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.
“It might be overturned because the state is appealing,” cautions Prebble. “But for the first time in the U.S., a case actually got to trial [and] evidence was presented by the young people.
“The advantage in Montana is that you have a constitutional provision that citizens have the right to a clean and safe environment. The judge ruled that climate stability is part of that,” says Prebble.
“The judge also ruled that climate change is caused by fossil fuel use, and that every added tonne of GHG emissions warms the planet. Basic statements like that are going to be really helpful for future climate litigation in North America,” Prebble says.
Climate litigation is even further advanced overseas, says Prebble. He points to two recent court decisions in the Netherlands. In one, Shell was ordered to reduce its GHG emissions by 45 per cent.
“Shell is furious, and may look at relocating their head office because of the ruling,” says Prebble.
“The court also ruled the Dutch government has to achieve a 45 per cent GHG reduction by 2030. They’re being forced to reduce speed limits, increase energy efficiency, and introduce more renewable energy onto the grid. It wasn’t like they weren’t doing some good things already. They are way ahead of where we are, but the court said they had to do more,” he says.
Hostile & Combative
Should the Saskatchewan case proceed to trial, says Pexa, the applicants have a two-pronged argument.
The first prong will highlight the government’s dismal record on climate change.
“They have always been hostile and combative towards any type of mitigation measures. They have to be dragged kicking and screaming into everything, where there’s a threat of having something else imposed if they don’t act,” says Pexa.
“They did pay lip service to climate change in 2009, when then-environment minister Dustin Duncan introduced Bill 95. But the Management and Reduction of Greenhouse Gases Act was never proclaimed. Then 10 years later they amended it and passed it into law as part of the Prairie Resilience plan. But it didn’t consist of anything substantive,” says Pexa.
The trio of gas-fired power plants the Sask. Party government is building are Exhibit A on their disdain for climate action, says Pexa. Swift Current was commissioned in 2019, Moose Jaw will open next year, and the government plans to build a third plant near Lanigan to power BHP’s new potash mine.
“We’re in a time of great climate change, and it’s scientifically accepted that carbon emissions have to be ramped down as quickly as possible,” says Pexa. “Yet the government is accelerating dangerous climate change by directing SaskPower to build new gas-fired stations which will have a service life of 50 years.”
The case’s second prong will show that if the government was committed to climate action, Saskatchewan could reach net zero by 2035.
“Our expert witnesses have laid out a detailed plan with expanded wind and solar, and greater interprovincial transmission, and that is being made even more possible by the federal budget which is offering all kinds of incentives to help Alberta and Saskatchewan decarbonize our grids,” says Pexa.
“And Scott Moe is fighting it every step of the way,” he says.
The fight has been dirty too, with lots of fearmongering and misinformation.
“In 2022, the Moe government released a white paper that claimed federal environmental regulations would result in $111 billion in compliance costs to Saskatchewan by 2035. But that was grossly inflated, and didn’t take into account the carbon tax rebate, plus any cost savings, and especially the cost of not lowering emissions through things like wildfires and crop production,” says Pexa.
Moe went on the offensive again this spring, claiming the clean electricity regulations would double power costs.
“One of our witnesses asked SaskPower for their methodology on that, and they were not forthcoming with any information. We don’t know how they came up with that number,” says Pexa.
Most of the climate litigation that’s happened so far has pitted citizens against their governments. But in September, California sued the five biggest oil companies (ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP, and American Petroleum Institute) accusing them of knowingly misleading the public on climate change and fossil fuel use.
It’s been well-documented that the industry did in-house research into climate change in the 1970s. When the science was confirmed by their own researchers, industry proceeded to mount a multi-billion dollar propaganda campaign to deny the link between tobacco use and cancer.
I mean fossil fuels and climate change. Sorry about that. Brain fart.
But it is a case of history repeating itself. Because when research in the 1950s and ’60s showed that tobacco use caused cancer, the tobacco industry did the exact same thing, launching a shameless propaganda campaign to deny and discredit the new science.
But as the certainty grew that tobacco caused cancer, public demand to hold the industry responsible for its lies grew, and states began launching (and eventually winning) multi-billion lawsuits to recover healthcare costs and other damages.
If a similar scenario plays out here, it will be richly deserved, says Prebble, pointing to recent moves by the fossil fuel industry to walk-back green energy commitments, and expand production and development of new fossil fuel reserves.
“Exxon Mobil just entered into a $60 billion purchase of a shale gas rival in the U.S.,” Prebble says. “Suncor’s CEO has also said he is going all out on oil sands development in Alberta. There is no doubt the fossil fuel industry is planning on going full tilt, and governments here are not in any way getting in their way,” says Prebble.
The toll that climate change is already taking, let alone what the future will hold, is undeniable, and in Pexa’s mind, qualifies as a Charter violation. [see sidebar]
“In the 2021 heat dome in B.C. over 600 people died. And in summer 2022 in Europe, over 60,000 people died of heat related causes. So obviously, it’s life-threatening. And it’s becoming clear through the economic disruption we see on a regular basis that it’s threatening the fabric of civilization,” says Pexa.
“Future generations have no way to defend themselves. They have no agency at all,” says Pexa. ””It’s up to people who are alive now to try to mitigate the situation, and that’s what we are trying to do.” ■
The Charter vs Climate Complacency
How is climate change violating our Charter rights, let us count the ways — starting this year with wildfires. In Saskatchewan, a record 1.8 million hectares burned. Nationally, 18.3 million hectares have burned.
That’s more than six times higher than the national 10-year average of 2.7 million hectares.
Approximately 200,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes this summer across Canada due to wildfires. Saskatoon and Regina shattered records for smoke hours. Saskatoon had 282 hours, breaking the old record of 162 in 1981. And Regina had 221 hours, beating the 2021 record of 184.
“If we start getting this year after year, it will have really significant health implications, especially for children, when they are being exposed to fine particles that get into their respiratory tracts,” says the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s Peter Prebble.
The heat domes were also remarkable. Phoenix went the entire month of July (31 days) where the daytime high was 44 C (110 F) or higher. That broke the old record of 18 days. Baked by sunlight, pavement temperatures hit 82 C (180 F), posing a severe burn risk to people and pets.
“The heat dome in Phoenix was really frightening, and there were lots of examples around the world of extreme heat,” says Prebble.
“People who don’t have air conditioning, or if they happen to be homeless… they are incredibly vulnerable. And we are seeing in many parts of the world temperatures getting over 50 C (122 F),” he says.
Drought is another threat Prebble flags.
“There has been a prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa that has left over 20 million people food insecure,” he says. “There was also severe drought in Europe, along the Mississippi River, all the U.S. southwest, and the Yangtze River basin in China.
“In terms of damage done to infrastructure and property, flooding and extreme weather are significant. But in loss of life and agricultural productivity, heat waves and drought are huge,” says Prebble.
Speaking of extreme weather, in the past 50 years the number of weather disasters (as recorded by the World Meteorological Organization) has increased by a factor of five.
Ocean temperatures also hit record highs in 2023, says Prebble, putting shellfish, coral and other marine life at risk. “In July, off the Florida coast, it hit 101 F. And more than half the world’s oceans experienced marine heat waves this summer.”
There is also the spectre of sea level rise as ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland melt at a shocking rate.
“I don’t pretend to know the mindset of people who support fossil fuel expansion,” says Prebble.
“In a 2021 report, the IPCC said if you want to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius, 60 per cent of oil and gas reserves need to stay in the ground, and 90 per cent of coal reserves need to stay unburned. The fossil fuel companies are fully aware of these numbers. They are just deciding to proceed and make as much money as they possibly can,” says Prebble. /Gregory Beatty