A new way of seeing one Canadian oil pipeline

We need a fresh way of understanding what oil pipeline propositions mean for Canada if we are ever to get to the values that connect people. 

post-image.jpgPipelines are not a climate issue. This sounds like a contrarian statement, and last week at the University of British Columbia I had the chance to explain why I’ve formed this view. I'm also discussing these ideas in a radio interview today.

To begin with, we have to recognize a couple of fundamental things:

  • The TransMountain Pipeline Expansion project is, undoubtedly, an issue and it undoubtedly carries real risks.
  • Because it is “a thing”, TMX is much easier to rally interest around than an idea or an argument. That is why it has been seized upon by a whole bunch of activist campaigns with a variety of agendas. 
  • For some, it symbolizes overconsumption and imminent climate change catastrophe. For others, it symbolizes the real risks faced today by southern resident killer whales; and then there are issues such as First Nations advancement, protecting the land from spills, ensuring water quality, or the cumulative impact of resource development. I’d be the first to agree these issues are all worthy of recognition. 
One can also have a totally different vision of what the TMX pipeline symbolizes:

An innovation corridor that is causing us to step up to safety and climate challenges.

    • Under the Green Oil Sands Declaration of November 2015, agreed to by environmental groups, industry, government and First Nations, the Alberta oil sands are permitted to expand their total GHG emissions to 100 MT.
    • With this agreement in place, it’s now okay to cautiously stand down on the opposition. It’s getting to be a question of integrity for these groups (Pembina, Equiterre, Stand/ForestEthics) - you made this deal, now you should give it a chance.
    • Let’s give industry and academia a chance to drive the innovation required to reduce emissions and increase safety.
    • There are some very committed programs, including COSIA and Evok, that have been created to stimulate the required actions. Some of this innovation, potentially a lot of it, will happen here in Vancouver.
    • The Alberta and federal governments, which hold the most responsibility here, are accountable for the effectiveness of these commitments. That gives them a lot of motivation to succeed.
    • Canadian crude oil is not inherently dirtier than other oil; we hear this often but it is a myth. The reason that some Canadian products are higher in GHGs is the high energy inputs often required to produce them. If we clean up and reduce those inputs then we are cleaning up the end product too.

A proof point that our civic system of checks and balances works and is protecting the climate.

    • The 157 conditions regulators placed on TMX are mostly the result of pressures brought to bear by citizens and organizations.
    • If we really believe in our system, it’s just wrong to heap impossible conditions onto everything we oppose and then act upset when the proponent take earnest steps to meet them.
    • If TMX can meet those conditions, then it has earned the right to proceed.

An anti-poverty engine that will distribute benefits to workers at all levels 

    • Resource industries in western Canada create more opportunities for the lowest socio-economic groups than any other industry.
    • It will create jobs that cannot be outsourced to other countries or taken over by robots or eliminated by efficiency experts trying to cut corners. Those things are the bane of endangered Canadian manufacturing jobs, but they are far less of a problem with resource industries that we have more control of.
    • These jobs require trades skill sets and must be done properly, and as a result the pay is higher and so is job security.
Just ask the question: if this pipeline was not built, what would change? If TMX was stopped today, not a single one of the issues goes away.
  • Oil sands production will continue to expand.
  • Crude oil will get to market by other means, in the short term by rail cars.
  • “Permanent infrastructure” will still be built to move oil sands products, here or elsewhere. 
  • Developing nations, particularly China and India, will continue to seek alternative energy. For them that means reliable, energy-dense sources like oil and gas as well as other desirable alternatives like wind and solar.  
  • The US will continue building pipelines on a much bigger scale, with or without TMX. President Obama has built the equivalent of 7 TMX’s on his watch yet is hailed as some kind of green saint. This is a double standard and it's not fair for Canada, which is doing far more than the United States to protect the environment, to be judged this way.
  • The crude oil that is consumed will come from places in the world that are not subject to the democratic processes that are forcing us to de-intensify the GHGs of made-in-Canada energy. 
  • There will still be oil shipped through Vancouver harbour.
  • Southern resident killer whales will still face exactly the same habitat threats that they face today.
As a historian of science (I hold an MA from UBC), I’ve always been intrigued by the ancient divide on campuses between the arts and the sciences. It’s the same with the pipeline issue: there is a crippling chasm between culture and technology. To move forward, we have to build common ground between the two houses. There's never been a better time than right now to start.

Stewart Muir is founder and executive director of Resource Works.

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