Copyright © 2018 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” is used to describe someone having to make a choice between two difficult options. It is indeed where our politicians in the Alberta and Canadian governments have found themselves with regard to building the Trans Mountain Pipeline that would transport diluted oil sands bitumen from Alberta to Canada’s west coast.
On the one hand, the pipeline would allow Alberta oil producers to sell their heavy crude oil in Asian markets, offering an alternative to the lower priced American market and increasing revenue to both the oil companies and the Alberta government. It would also employ many workers in its construction from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia, as well as maintain or increase jobs in the oil sands. That’s important here in Petro Alberta, where our economy is welded to the ups and downs of the petroleum market.
On the other hand, the pipeline would increase the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and help accelerate climate change. Bitumen is heavy petroleum that does not flow freely (think tar or molasses) and requires much refining to break it down into components that can be used by industry and as fuel (the bitumen going through the pipeline would be diluted with a petroleum distillate to allow it to flow). All these processes require the expenditure of energy that comes from burning fossil fuels. Such burning creates greenhouse gases and warms the environment. And indeed, many of the products produced from bitumen end up being burned, expelling more greenhouse gases. The process of breaking down the bitumen releases a host of other pollutants into the air that eventually fall to the ground and enter soils and water, affecting people and wildlife downwind and downstream of the plants. As well, it has created over 200 hundred square kilometres of settling ponds where a toxic soup kills waterfowl and other wildlife, and poisons the soil, water and surrounding communities. In other words, bitumen is a very dirty petroleum product.
The transportation of petroleum, whether by pipeline or rail, risks the environment along the way. Spills occur, and as highlighted in British Columbia, the increased tanker traffic off the BC coast would threaten marine ecosystems.
Then Why Build It?
With all these risks to our environment, why are we so interested in getting this pipeline built? Simply, it’s about the economy. Although governments are aware of the need to reduce carbon entering the atmosphere, and indeed many have set targets to do so, if the economy is sacrificed in the process, they know they will not survive long as a government. If you don’t have a job or are otherwise worried about your future, you are quick to blame the government in power for not looking after your interests. That’s why “jobs, jobs, jobs” and “it’s the economy, stupid!” are often the watch phrases of a political campaign.
As a result, governments often shelve concerns for the environment when economies start to lag. This is especially true if protecting the environment requires citizens to make sacrifices, such as paying higher prices for goods and services or training for new jobs. And, if you are of the small-c conservative persuasion, you don’t like government meddling in the economy and generally believe the economy will take care of itself if government doesn’t interfere. That’s how our Progressive Conservative government of 44 years (1971 to 2015) often acted, and as the oil sands were developed, many environmental concerns were ignored and we are just starting to pay the consequences of those decisions.
A Recent History
When Rachel Notley’s NDP government came to power in Alberta in 2015, they sought to correct many of the problems the previous governments had ignored. For example, they created wildland parks to protect woodland caribou habitat in northern Alberta and help protect some of our headwater regions in the mountains. They also established a carbon tax to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and assist Albertans in reducing their energy use and costs. At that time there were three pipeline projects being proposed to move dilbit (diluted bitumen) out of Alberta and to markets other than the US: 1) the Trans Mountain expansion from Edmonton AB to Burnaby BC (Kinder Morgan), 2) the Northern Gateway from Bruderheim AB to Kitimat BC (Enbridge), and 3) Energy East from western Canada to eastern Canada (TransCanada), where much of the petroleum currently used is imported from the US and overseas. Notley understood how closely tied the Alberta economy is to petroleum and promoted both the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines. Both would involve the expansion of already extant pipelines and thus require less disruption of the environment along the right-of-ways. On the other hand, the Northern Gateway Pipeline would require a new route across some large wilderness areas and threaten the northern coast of British Columbia.
After winning the federal election in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government banned oil tanker traffic on the northern British Columbia coast, effectively killing the Northern Gateway Pipeline. This left the Energy East and Trans Mountain pipelines as the logical ways to get Alberta dilbit to overseas markets. However, both of these pipelines were opposed by many Canadians, including First Nations, municipal governments and environmental groups because of the concerns about spills and global warming. As a result of this opposition, TransCanada cancelled the Energy East Pipeline in October of 2017, leaving Trans Mountain the only pipeline on the table for getting Alberta dilbit to markets other than the United States. (Currently, Alberta dilbit is shipped to the US by existing pipelines and railroad tanker cars, both of which, we are told, are at or near capacity.)
Although there is considerable opposition to the pipeline in British Columbia, including the provincial government, the federal government continues to support the pipeline. As a result, several municipalities and First Nations have sued the federal government to prevent pipeline construction. When Kinder Morgan, the pipeline owner, threatened to cancel the pipeline as a result of all the delays, the Trudeau government purchased the company and pipeline in May of 2018 for $4.5 billion, fully assuming the risks.
With such federal support, it would seem the pipeline will go ahead despite the opposition. Indeed, several of the law suits seeking to stop the pipeline have failed before the courts. However, on August 30, 2018, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled on a suit brought forth by coastal BC First Nations, quashing the federal approval of the pipeline. The court determined the National Energy Board’s review of the pipeline was flawed, especially with regard to protecting the marine environment, and the federal government had failed in its duty to engage First Nations in consultations. As of this writing, the construction of the pipeline is stalled while the federal government decides whether to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court or comply with recommendations of the appeal court to address the shortcomings. That place between the rock and hard place has suddenly become rockier and harder.
The Pipeline and Climate Change
Having long studied global warming and climate change, I realize the dangers of putting more carbon in the air. As well, I have concerns about the dangers to the terrestrial and marine environments and the possibility of oil spills. But as an Albertan, I also understand the need to maintain our economy such that people have sufficient opportunities to find jobs and prosper.
The problem is that Alberta is indeed a petrostate where oil companies say jump and governments ask how high. Government after government has failed to diversify our economy sufficiently to better ride out the ups and downs of petroleum pricing. A more diversified economy would have made it easier to transition from petroleum to renewable energy sources. But that didn’t happen, and for the present, petroleum drives the economy of our province. As long as there is a market for our heavy oil, we will sell it.
That said, the hard reality is that we are in a massive and rapid change of the earth’s climate as evidenced by the warming, sea level rise, severe weather, wildfires and mass human migrations being experienced around the globe. Yes, climate has changed in the geologic past but not at this rate, and we humans are definitely the cause of this change. In fact, the climate change we are experiencing is but one symptom of the much larger problem: our consumption of more resources than the planet can replenish (see also: Scientists Warning). In other words, we are heading towards a catastrophic failure of our environment to support us in the ways in which we have become accustomed.
To continue down this road is insane but we seem incapable of changing course. Our economic system is built on constant growth, and until we change to a system that acknowledges our dependence on a sustainable environment, we will continue our race to the cliff edge, much like Thelma and Louise with the peddle to the metal.
What is frustrating is that we had a chance in the 1980s to act on climate change and prevent much of what we are experiencing today. As documented by Nathaniel Rich in the August 1 New York Times Magazine: “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change”, both conservatives and liberal politicians had agreed that human-caused climate change was a reality and something had to be done. But the ball was dropped and the momentum swung to the fossil-fuel producers who designed campaigns to deny the truth. As a result, we are now fighting over pipelines, the plans for which shouldn’t have seen the light of day.
But that’s the past. Now, both the Alberta and Canadian governments need to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline built if either has a chance to be re-elected within the next year. The court ruling laid out a reasonable course for the federal government to comply and proceed. If followed, we will see shovels in the ground within the next few months (whether that will mean the re-election of the Notley and Trudeau governments is another issue). In the short-term, the economy will react positively. But in the long-term we are placing our children and our children’s children between a rock and a hard place the pain of which is hard to imagine. They will not forgive us.
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