It’s time to start trusting the judgment of those most affected by development

Recently, I attended a visit to Ottawa by a delegation from Germany. Virtually the whole discussion was taken up with energy issues, something one of the participants remarked would not have even been mentioned five years ago


Over the last five years, much has changed. Canada’s burgeoning production of oil and gas is looking for new markets overseas. Germany needs new energy sources, as it shutters its nuclear industry and seeks more reliable sources than Russia. Add in a recently-concluded free trade deal between Canada and the EU, and you have the basis of an interesting friendship.

There were several notable points made during the discussion. First, if pipelines cannot be built to the Pacific coast, there is ample overseas demand for energy shipped to the Atlantic coast. New pipeline capacity to Montreal will open this October, and an extension to Saint John would allow oil to be shipped to the whole Atlantic Basin and even the Pacific via the Panama Canal, which expands in 2015 to serve bigger ships. The US is building a large liquefied natural gas terminal for export on its Gulf Coast, explicitly targeting markets in Asia, a reminder that other countries will fill the void if Canada cannot build pipelines to its coasts. So if activists think that blocking pipelines to the West Coast will keep oil and gas in the ground, they are sure to be disappointed.

The second point is just as interesting. Canadians around the table suffered cognitive dissonance listening to Germans, with impeccable ‘green energy’ credentials, talk about shutting down their nuclear power industry and turning to coal. After all, Ontario just went to great lengths and expense to close all its coal-burning power plants on the grounds that they were a major source of pollution. When queried how they squared using more coal with their green energy beliefs, the Germans replied that their technology for producing ‘clean coal’ is more advanced than in North America, which they regard as primitive: “It’s not like the coal-fired plants in Ohio,” sneered one participant.

Meanwhile, the Germans were equally intrigued and mystified by the fracking revolution that has led to surging output of oil and gas in North America. While very interested in non-Russian sources of stable and low-cost supply, fracking’s environmental reputation in Europe is about as low as coal’s in North America. Europe has potentially large reserves of natural gas, especially next door in Poland, but environmental concerns have slowed development everywhere but in Britain. Now it was the turn of Canadians at the table to explain that fracking is a well-regulated and environmentally-safe way to drill for oil and gas, with no recorded instances of polluting ground waters. As outlined by Russell Gold is his new book The Boom, the biggest environmental complaint about fracking is the traffic congestion it can create on some roads.

The lesson is that the people who live next door to a particular technology know best what its safety and environmental record is, not people living on the other side of the ocean who get their information second hand, often from dubious sources. Nobody in North America would tolerate a dangerous and unsafe way of drilling for fossil fuels. No one in Germany would consider burning a fossil fuel that markedly increased pollution. It is time we learned to trust the judgment of people who are most affected by energy development.

Philip Cross is a research fellow at Resource Works.

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