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Read between the pipelines

Big stakes lie behind controversies

With a federal cabinet decision on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline due by June 19, and a decision by President Obama on Keystone XL still hanging in the balance, pipeline issues loom large on the horizon.

Along with Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, Energy East, the Trans Mountain Expansion and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline – the five projects worth $50 billion and stretching over 9,000 kilometres – will make headlines and political waves.

But pipelines are no longer just pipelines. They are the focal point for a key challenge facing humanity: How to deal with our energy appetite in a warming world.

Unless a multitude of scientists and governments are flat wrong, we have a big problem. Climate change is not going away. Nor is the global demand for energy.

The magnitude and complexity of the challenge demand nuanced, thoughtful public debate. Sadly, both sides, including government on the pro-pipeline side, are too quick to dismiss, rather than discuss, the legitimate opposing view.

Consider Northern Gateway, the proposed Enbridge line between the Alberta bitumen sands and the B.C. coast. I have interviewed numerous people along the proposed Gateway route as well as two senior Enbridge representatives. I also reviewed the December report of the federally mandated Joint Review Panel (JRP) that held public hearings into the project.

Like everyone, I have biases – climate change worries me, I’m skeptical of big oil and I give Aboriginal people the benefit of the doubt. But I try to understand the best arguments on all sides.

The essential case for Gateway is economic. It would boost national GDP by $312 billion over 30 years, Enbridge says, creating 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term jobs. Opponents say the numbers are lower and that raw resource exports inflate the dollar and hurt manufacturing.

The economic argument was made more convincingly for me by a young father I met in northern B.C. “Jobs are cool,” he said. “I’ve got kids.”

Enbridge and Ottawa say Gateway is in the “national interest.” This does not invite open discussion. It implies that anyone who questions the proposal is against Canada. It implies an adversarial posture toward the dozens of First Nations who, after carefully considering Gateway, oppose it. That posture is not in the national interest.

Enbridge’s appeal to national interest is even more dubious as six of its 12 board members, including the chairman, live in the United States. The rest live in Calgary or the Greater Toronto Area.

The JRP, which functions at arm’s length from Ottawa, used less loaded language, saying “the project’s potential benefits for Canada . . . outweigh the potential burdens and risks.”

They said this despite all the Aboriginal opposition they heard and despite the fact that of the 1,161 citizens who made oral presentations to the panel, only two supported Gateway. While the JRP process is not a popularity poll, the contrast between the weight of public input and the panel’s conclusions hurts its credibility.

The other arguments in favour of pipelines are that they are safer than rail transport and that we all use oil. Valid points.

Moral responsibility

On the other side, two arguments dominate. First, the environmental risks, which are also economic, are too high. Many people along the proposed route say a major spill on land or at sea could do lasting, widespread and potentially irreparable harm.From his office across Douglas Channel from where Gateway bitumen would be loaded into supertankers, Haisla First Nation councilor Russel Ross Jr. said if he consents to the project he would bear moral responsibility for effects of a future spill on his descendants and neighbouring peoples

Like all Aboriginal leaders I met, he has considered Gateway carefully and is resolutely opposed.

Opponents like Ross also point out mountainous terrain – susceptible to landslides and tectonic activity in areas – as well as notoriously harsh weather, increase the chance of a spill and the possibility of near-impossible response conditions.

The odds of a big spill are minimal, but not zero.

Enbridge and government highlight plans to minimize the risk of a spill and maximize response capability. The JRP report says that in the “unlikely” event of a spill, effects “would not be permanent and widespread.”

If the project moves forward and there is no big accident in the decades ahead, proponents will be vindicated while opponents will worry about aging steel. If a spill does occur, no one really knows how bad it could be.

The other main objection to pipelines arises from a general discomfort with the entire conventional energy sector. This brings us back to climate change.
Many opponents of Gateway and Keystone XL worry if we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, we’ll cook the planet. They say pipelines enable that process.

Others say there is no direct link between pipelines and climate because the oilsands, to use that example, will be developed regardless of how oil is delivered to market.

Pipelines themselves don’t emit greenhouse gases.

The JRP report concluded “connections to oilsands development were not sufficiently direct to allow consideration of their environmental effects,” and “downstream effects would be hypothetical and of no meaningful utility to the panel’s process.”

The U.S. State Department similarly said Keystone XL is essentially unrelated to climate because trains would largely replace the pipeline if the latter were rejected.
These assumptions are not shared by opponents, who say humanity has no choice but to scale back energy development as a whole.

As a country, we face clear choices: Will our primary contribution to a to a climate-unstable world be maximized delivery of diluted bitumen? Is that our optimal path, ethically and economically? Will we look soberly and creatively at the various options before us?

We will not all agree on the answers, but the climate question deserves to be on the table.

In coming months, we will all be reminded regularly of pipelines, regardless of when Washington comes to a decision. Each such reminder calls us to do the hard work of considering the full spectrum of views.

  • Will Braun writes for Canadian Mennonite magazine, in which a different version of this article first appeared.

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