Many environmental groups are totally opposed to the construction of any new pipelines anywhere in Canada, whether to move conventional oil, tar sands bitumen or natural gas. I find it difficult to support this view and I want to tell you where my doubts come from.
Canadians enjoy a standard of living that ranks amongst the top countries of the world. That standard of living has come, in part, from developing our country’s natural resources. These resources have, over the past 350 years or more, been exported all over the world, starting with beaver pelts in the mid 1600’s and continuing with tar sands oil and more.
Developing these resources has led, in many cases, to significant environmental impacts. At the same time, developing the resources has made Canadians sufficiently well off to allow them to donate more than $300 million annually to environmental organizations and given them the leisure time to donate many thousands of volunteer hours each year to help remedy some of the past mistakes and mistakes there have been, let there be no doubt about that.
Oil and natural gas are a necessity of modern life, at least for the foreseeable future. There is no known way to produce energy that doesn’t have some environmental impact so while it makes sense to work towards significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption, let’s not pretend that suddenly we can do away with oil and natural gas and maintain some semblance of a life style that is above the subsistence level.
Oil can be moved in bulk by either pipeline or rail car. Because there have been no new major pipelines built in the past decade or so, significantly more oil is now being moved by rail car. Canadian oil producers were shipping about 200,000 bpd (barrels per day) in late 2013 and it is estimated this number will be about 700,000 bpd by the end of 2016. That is almost 1200 rail cars per day or about 425,000 cars per year and without new pipelines this number will continue to grow.
For comparison, the catastrophe in Lac Megantic was caused by the derailment of 63 cars. Pipelines have proven to be a safer way in general to move large volumes of oil, but like everything that is manmade, they are not 100 per cent per cent safe. My personal opinion (shared by at least some other environmentalists) is that we should not prohibit all pipelines. Instead we should work towards making pipelines safer. One notable failing under our current system is that when a pipeline is approved, the National Energy Board usually sets a number of conditions which must be met by the pipeline builders (in the case of the Northern Gateway Pipeline there were more than 200 conditions set by the NEB) but there is no effective way for the NEB to verify that the conditions have actually been met. This is a ridiculous situation that needs immediate remedial action. A special tax on oil moved by pipeline might be the way to pay for the engineers and technicians that would be needed by the NEB to ensure compliance with the conditions set by them.
Should we approve all pipelines that are proposed? Probably not, but neither do I think we should oppose every pipeline. The Energy East pipeline might be a good place for a new start since more than half of it already exists. The approval process could include such things as a significant cap on tar sands emissions – we can think outside the box and we can do old things in new (and better) ways.
The next meeting of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club will be Feb. 25. The public is always welcome. Check out our website (southokanagannature.com) for details about our monthly speaker.
Bob Handfield is president of the South Okanagan Naturalists’ Club but the views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Club.