On June 18 the federal government will announce a final decision on the future of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX), a project which will triple the flow of oil travelling 1,150 kilometres by pipe from Alberta’s oil patch to tankers on B.C.’s coast. While the Supreme Court ruled last summer that more consultation with Indigenous groups and better marine-related assessments were needed, the National Energy Board (NEB) approved the pipeline again in February, along with 16 recommendations to protect marine life, further paving the way for the project to go ahead.
Christian Courier’s Editor spoke with Kings’ University professor Dr. John Hiemstra of Edmonton to find out more about the $7.4-billion pipeline expansion and our insatiable appetite for oil. Hiemstra teaches Political Studies and has been researching and teaching about Alberta’s oil sands industry for over 10 years.
Christian Courier: What ruling do you expect to hear in June?
Dr. John Hiemstra: The NEB has said it’s fine to go ahead, based on the marine review of the tankers and sea life. Killer whales – that can all be handled. The second angle that the court brought forward is the need for discussion with First Nations – in a legal, consultation manner, which didn’t actually happen properly in the first NEB review. So now that’s being re-done, overseen by a Supreme Court judge. Different sectors of the Indigenous communities do not agree with each other. [But] my guess is the government will find a way to go ahead with it.
CC: How are different First Nations groups responding?
Hiemstra: The Indigenous leadership running the reserve governments set up by the Indian Act need more resources; they have very little territory and resources and want to make deals that will bring some economic activity. Then other elements of the community say that, “in our overall traditional view, we don’t accept [pipelines] at all,” so there’s a division between those groups. The same thing is happening with the natural gas pipeline in Northern B.C.
In the Indigenous communities at the oil sands development, one large group is not happy with developments; and then another large group is not happy but they will participate – they have companies; they work in the oil sands; they’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars of investments. The Mikisew Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan – they have large companies running oil sands operations. They’re willing to invest in the pipeline. Their own people say, “But we really don’t want to!” Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Adams said he’s deeply torn by colonialism himself; he says, “We don’t have any choice; we’ve been pushed into the corner.”
Meanwhile, the oil sands developers say, “See? We hire Indigenous people.” But they’re also destroying their land in violation of Treaties.
CC: Pipeline supporters in the United We Roll convoy from Alberta were “nervous to enter Ontario,” or so I read. Is there that much division between provinces?
Hiemstra: I don’t think the major divisions are territorial. Though the Alberta government is pushing for and many Albertans are in favour of building the TMX pipeline, there are still many here who are ambivalent or oppose it. It doesn’t start at the Ontario border. They were probably referring to the overall climate of opinion: a long-standing tradition of Alberta’s Western alienation, going all the way back to the founding of the province in 1905 and even earlier. The federal government had a colonial attitude towards the Western provinces; they hung onto the constitutional right to develop resources for Alberta and Saskatchewan – they didn’t give the province the right to control its own resources until 1933. And those sorts of things lag in the memory of the West, as well as the National Energy Program – you’re fiddling with our resource development – that kind of antagonism comes into play with comments about entering Central Canada, the East.
CC: Has the current federal government done any better?
Hiemstra: We tend to frame this debate as one between three or four policy proposals: 1) We should build the pipeline; 2) Alberta should get a fair return on public resources; 3) We should reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Trudeau government and the [provincial] Notley government have followed the great Canadian tradition of pragmatism, and said, “Let’s find the middle way; let’s balance these good things.” We’ve tried to have a win/win/win situation. Alberta gets to sell more oil; the pipeline gets built; and we get more protection for the environment by having a carbon tax. And everybody’s happy! Sort of happy.
My argument is that this is not done normatively. This pragmatist way of finding solutions ends up creating a new problem. It makes one of the problems far worse rather than better – Yes, Alberta sells more oil; people get to build the pipeline, but greenhouse gas emissions actually get worse rather than better with the Climate Change Act.
What Notley has done with her 100-megaton cap on oil sands development has increased output. Production in 2014 was 65.6 megatons, which means it’s going up. The legislation is actually for 110+ with some exceptions, which means we can increase greenhouse gases by 52 percent in the future from where they are now. This is opposite to what we agreed to in the Paris Agreement. The compromise gives a yes, yes to the first two, but on climate change it actually makes it worse. It’s pictured as a real step forward by Trudeau and Notley, but it’s actually worse.
They argue that the rest of the Canadian economy will be able to shrink their emissions enough to meet the slack of what Alberta is producing, but if you look at an expansion scenario, “the rest of Canada’s economy needs to shrink 48 percent of its emissions by 2030 to meet the Paris targets – an unlikely prospect barring economic collapse,” according to [earth scientist] David Hughes.
CC: What does the oil sands industry say about us as humans?
Hiemstra: You see an obsession with economic growth, science and technology as solutions for all of our problems accompanied by promises to make us happy. So in a sense these instruments are idols. We believe we can move ahead and do as we wish and all things will turn out well. But that’s fundamentally anti-Christian, anti-normative. It’s not the way God intends the world to work. We reduce the world to an ends/means form of decision making in our economic and ecological interests, that ends up not working because it’s not a realistic picture of how creation really works.
Christians can be a liberating influence in this debate by drawing attention to these problems and saying we need to think in different, more normative terms. We need to come to grips with the ways we’ve seen human capacity as idolatrous. A more humble approach can put this into a better perspective.
Instead of asking, “Should we build more pipelines?” ask, “How much energy do we need?” “What are fair, equitable, just and sustainable ways of moving forward?”
We can’t just let the market or democracy mechanically determine the outcome; we need to take direct responsibility as image-bearers of God.
CC: Does anyone offer an alternative to this mechanistic model?
Hiemstra: A lot of environmental groups are not fundamentally critical of the dominant mechanistic model.
None of the mainstream parties are offering a radical vision that goes to the root of the problem, although the Greens are somewhat better.
If we really want to get out of the dilemma that our civilisation has pushed us into, we need to find ways to fundamentally reorient ourselves and society. We can’t any longer vote in political leaders who lack a sense that this deep kind of change is necessary.
Our dilemma is deepened because there’s really no way we can live our current lifestyle and still go off fossil fuels to the degree necessary to slow climate change. Alternative energies cannot support our current consumption; we have to downsize. That doesn’t mean going backwards; we have a lot of technology that can develop new ways of being “more simple,” but without becoming more simple, it can’t be done. Nobody wants to consider that option – that ongoing economic growth is not possible anymore. We need some levels of normative de-growth. People can have a lot less and still be happy – be happier, even. How can we move to an ecologically sustainable lifestyle, in ways that are more socially and economically just? We have many great examples of people changing personal lifestyles, but we need a larger societal approach too, and that’s not happening. None of the political parties dare to tackle this; they all preach continued economic growth.
CC: How can Christians speak hope into the pipeline debate?
Hiemstra: As Reformed Christians, we say we live in covenantal response to God; there’s a sense of blessing and judgment built in. We can fundamentally re-orient our lives and economy; in fact, there are thousands of alternatives; we’re not locked in. God does not run the creation as a mechanism, but loves it into being each moment. But will we grab hold of God’s hand, and pull in faith? On that level, I don’t know. I hope and pray we do.