All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

On the pipeline front

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Pipeline ruptures and media leaks

Wow, pipeline news have been coming fast and furious in the last few weeks.  In case you’ve been out of the country, here’s the scoop:  there are plans to build a pipeline (Enbridge’s Northern Gateway) from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat.  This plan is encountering some opposition and a fair bit of media attention.  There are also plans to build a second pipeline (the Kinder Morgan project) from the same tar sands to Burrard Inlet in Vancouver.  This second project is garnering little attention.  Finally, there are also plans for several gas pipelines to bring Alberta and BC’s Peace area natural gas to the coast.  All of this requires, aside from the pipelines, new deep water harbour facilities and, in the case of the gas pipelines, works to cool and liquefy the natural gas.

The opposition to the pipelines for environmental grounds is simple, and repeats what has been said about the now-defunct Keystone pipeline through the US: the consequences of a spill are enormous, and a spill is bound to happen sooner or later (Enbridge has leaked 132,000 barrels in 610 separate spills to date; see here).  Also, building the pipelines further ties our economy to fossil fuel development, a sure way to worsen climate change.

But the recent avalanche of news has come mostly on the economic and social fronts, particularly regarding the Enbridge project.  Enbridge proponents would love to portray the debate as an environment v economy situation, where the economy is bound to prevail.  They couldn’t have expected economic commentators to come down on them as they did this week.

First, Emma Gilchrist comes swinging with a punchy op-ed piece outlining why shipping oil to Asia is not in Canada’s interest.  It’s worth repeating her five points: protecting BC’s coast means protecting BC’s coastal jobs (45,000 of them in fisheries and tourism related industry, against 560 created by Enbridge); the pipeline would worsen Canada’s Dutch disease; exporting raw bitumen is exporting Canadian jobs; it undermines Canadian energy security, since half of Canada (the eastern half) is reliant on imported oil; and it dissipates an asset that will only increase in value.

The Canadian jobs part of her argument comes from a position paper of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 145,000 workers.  In their estimate the export of raw bitumen would be tantamount of exporting up to 50,000 high quality jobs overseas.  Their submission can be found here.   The Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada (130,000 workers) have also stated their opposition.

Then came the paper submitted by economist Robyn Allan to the review panel (found here – follow the links).  Journalists Andrew Nikiforuk and Stephen Hume nicely summarized the key point (here and here): accessing the Asian markets enables the oil companies to sell their oil at a higher price.  While this is good for the companies, it would increase the cost of oil in Canada, creating inflation and putting the brakes on the economy.  This is hardly a desirable outcome for the country as a whole.

What is true for Enbridge is also true for Kinder Morgan.  Earlier this week, the Chevron refinery in Burnaby stated its concerns that it may have to cease operation if Kinder Morgan sells its oil at the premium price commanded in the Asian markets – markets that the twinning of the pipeline would enable Kinder Morgan to access.

This, of course, raises the question of energy security.  Why are we in such a rush to dissipate our energy resources? It’s not as if the markets risk disappearing tomorrow.  Even during the economic downturn of recent years, the price of oil has hardly dropped, and in fact is on an upward trend.  Writers as diverse as journalist Eric Reguly, economist Jeff Rubin, scientists James Murray and David King, and research director Thomas Homer-Dixon all point out that cheap oil is a thing of the past (see their articles here, here, here and here).  Which means that a prudent portfolio manager, just as much as an energy security consultant, would advise to keep much of the resource in the ground while it appreciates in value, and retain a strategic asset likely to be needed in the future.

In fact, several nations are already reconsidering the exports of fossil fuels.  Even tiny Myanmar announced this month that it was suspending its exports of natural gas to China – in order to keep and use the resource at home.  Shouldn’t Canada pay attention?  Terry Glavin penned a scathing criticism of our government’s push to sell everything in a hurry in two articles in the National Post, of all places.

Instead of being prudent, we are embarking on huge and costly export development projects such as the new BC energy plan announced this weekend.  Up to three LNG facilities are to be built to export our natural to Asia.  This is likely to increase the price of natural gas at home, but also, ironically, the price of electricity.  Liquefying natural gas requires a huge amount of electrical energy; accordingly, the energy plan no longer requires BC Hydro to be fully self-sufficient.  The irony is that we risk electricity shortages, or the purchase of dirty, coal-fired electricity, in order to export gas out of the country.  This hardly seems prudent in the long run.

And what about the damage to our social values?  Andrew Nikiforuk points out (here) that oil wealth is “fouling our character” and eroding our democracy.  Oil wealth must be distributed equally across society, and most of the times it isn’t.  Examples abound; I like these two (here and here) that show how oil brought nothing but misery to places as diverse as Uganda and the Hobbema reservation in Alberta.

Instead, natural resources minister Joe Oliver labels pipeline critics “enemies of Canada” – hardly a demonstration of democratic values – and threatens to overhaul the environmental review process to expedite approval.  The panel’s objectivity is put under question. More worrisome, the government bullies environmental and social NGOs and threatens to withdraw charitable organisation status to those who voice criticism, as witness by Andrew Frank in his affidavit.   (Andrew’s blog is well worth following for developments on the Enbridge story.)

Most notorious has been the relations of the pipeline companies with First Nations.  The mixture of arrogance, threats, and divisive monetary offers has had the unprecedented result to completely unite the affected First Nations against the Enbridge project.  Possibly worse, the nations affected by the Kinder Morgan project have complained about a complete lack of consultation.  The whole pipeline fiasco is souring the relations between the federal government and First Nations.

And, of course, what goes around comes around.  Absent social justice, groups that feel slighted take matters in their own hands.  From Nigeria to Palestine to Mexico, disenfranchised or oppressed groups use pipelines as handy targets for sabotage – with the inevitable environmental consequences.

protest march in Prince Rupert

But there are plenty of reasons for optimism.  Just yesterday over a thousand people marched in Prince Rupert, and similar protests and other activities are organised everywhere.  I’ll just mention three.

Andrew Frank has created a “causes” group, asking Canadians to join him in asking for the truth from our government.  The Wilderness Committee is organizing a letter-writing event against the Kinder Morgan project on Wednesday, February 8th, 2 to 8 pm at the Rhizome café (317 East Broadway Vancouver), with the support of Sierra Club and other groups.  And Kwantlen’s own SAFE (our environmental club) has invited MP Nathan Cullen to speak about the Enbridge pipeline on Tuesday, February 14, 4 pm, in room 1205C of the Cedar Building, Surrey Campus (12666 72nd Avenue) – nothing like getting all fired up before a Valentine date!


Written by enviropaul

February 5, 2012 at 10:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Where can I see a BIGGER version of the, “Pipeline ruptures and media leaks,” picture?


    February 5, 2012 at 10:20 am

    • Hi Tom.

      I wish I knew. I just liked the picture when I saw it on a friend’s facebook page – it must be floating on the web somewhere.


      February 5, 2012 at 10:44 am

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