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Protesting the tar sands pipeline(s)

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This morning the Vancouver Sun treated its readers to a condescending guest editorial from the Calgary Herald: pipeline protesters ignore some inconvenient truths, it said.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the smirking “inconvenient truth” reference.

The editorial’s main point is that the tar sands are unfairly targetted by protestors.  In this case, the writer is referring to the current protest in Washington DC against the proposed XL pipeline designed to bring tar sands oils to US refineries.  Scores of people, led by Bill McKibben, have already been arrested, including a few Canadians.   But the same point could be made about the Northern Gateway pipeline, also proposed for conveying tar sands crude to markets (Asian, in this case).  In both cases environmentalists are pointing out the dangers inherent in such pipelines, especially oil spills, given the less than stellar record of the industry.  In the BC case, a specific concern is spills on the coastline and in, or near, the protected habitats of the Spirit Bear rainforest; in the XL case, it is the contamination of the giant Ogallala aquifer.

But apart from these concerns (nicely omitted in the editorial), there is a more fundamental worry: large scale invesments into the further development of the Tar Sands will lead to huge increases in carbon emissions, to the point where NASA scientist James Hansen warns that we may as well forget any attempts at control.

The editorial claims that this is misguided; protesters should instead target coal, because it has a much larger footprint:

In 2007, greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands were 37 megatons. Emissions from U.S. coal-fired electricity the same year were 1,987 megatons.

Never mind the either-or fallacy: environmentalists are protesting the coal industry as well, thank you very much.  And never mind the apples-and-oranges nature of the comparison: the footprint of the tar sands, as calculated, only includes the delivered product (crude), ignoring the footprint from refining and combustion.  By contrast, the full footprint is considered for coal-based electricity.  And never mind the fact that the tar sands are but one source of oil among many – it just happens to be the dirtiest – against the whole thermal coal sector.

For the record, I include myself among those opposed to either pipelines.  I think, though, that the tar sands have a role to play in our energy portfolio; but a much reduced one from what its proponents would like to see.  In particular, I don’t understand the rush to develop: hydrocarbon prices will continue to climb in the long term, and we will continue to need hydrocarbons as a feedstock, if not a fuel, for a very long term.  The tars sands are like money in the bank – why spend it all in one generation or two?  Where does that leave Alberta’s great-grandchildren? With a mess to clean up, and very little to show for.  If at least decent royalties were obtained, Norway-style!  But the resource is developed as if by a drunken sailor.

No, what is really obnoxious about the editorial is not that it is wrong – that can be argued, or disagreed with.  It is the patronizing tone it uses: these activists, willing to risk jail for their civil disobedience stand, are “spunky but naive”, and make their protest in a case where “hysteria outweighs reason”.  They are portrayed as being lazy since the tar sands, as opposed to the coal industry, are “a big fat bull’s-eye”.  I don’t whether the Herald’s writer has ever contemplated risking jail for civil disobedience, but I doubt it.  Otherwise, I think the thoughts of “naive” and “lazy” would have been struck out.  It may be plain fun to participate in an environmental protest, to be sure, but the decision to risk jail is never done lightly.

The editorialist might as well have just patted the readers on their collective heads, and said “there, there…don’t worry about the environment, Uncle Oil is here to look after you.”  Equally unconvincing, equally infuriating.

Poor tar sands officials.  They complain about being unfairly targeted, from their dead ducks to their Athabaska Lake cancer rates.  Grow up, I say.  Engage with the public, lay it all out, let us – Albertans, Canadians, environmentalists, whatever community is appropriate – see and decide.  Make your case; stop hiding behind smoke and mirrors.  Talk to the public as if the public were adults: that is the essence of democracy.

Currently, not only do you have a black eye in terms of public relations, but you are giving Canadians a black eye on the world stage.  It’s not just ennoying, but it is also demoralizing.  And this has consequences.  The Ontario feebate program, modeled after successful European programs, is in jeopardy because many think “what’s the point; any progress we make is negated by tar sands expansion”.  Activists in Quebec are bringing up the specter of separatism (again): “if we were a separate country, we would be found to abide by the Kyoto protocol.  Alberta’s the monkey on our backs”.  Ditto for all environmental or energy conservation program; even the remarkable “ride the wind” light rail system in Calgary (fully wind electricity powered) is tainted by association, as if it were a mere PR gesture.

No, tar sands: talk to us.  Straight.  No talking down, please.

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Written by enviropaul

August 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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