From West to East, a UU conversation about pipelines, principles, and the future

In one of the many UU forums out there, a UU from Alberta expressed the view that not all UUs think pipelines are a bad thing. This person wrote:

I do not see an end to the need for fossil fuels in my lifetime, even if all of our governments immediately agreed on a plan to properly support alternative technologies in a committed and sustained way.  It will take decades to make the shift.  I cannot see how it would be otherwise. […]

I fully support those who want to protest and demonstrate in favour of more intelligent and sustainable energy policies, but “STOP!” in my view does not fall into that category.  Stop the Kinder-Morgan pipeline?  Then you will get far more oil coming by rail in smaller containers on aging rail lines running through some of the most beautiful and important watersheds in the country.  Each rail car is another potential leak.

The world needs oil, for now.  The country needs oil, for now.  And if we stop using our resources, then the oil will keep coming as I said…by tanker running into BC ports on a daily basis.

You probably won’t believe it, but Alberta actually does some good for the environment.  There is a strong commitment to wind and solar power development and significant investment in green technology research.  We are phasing out coal-fired power plants.  Our major cities are going green in infrastructure and city buildings whenever possible. Our province is helping with private home energy audits that includes free low flow shower heads and efficient light bulbs.  Our waterways are clean and our sewage treated.  This has been the case for some time.

But it seems that we have a lot of oil and natural gas that, for now, every single Canadian needs.  Why should we not exploit it and bring it to market?

CUSJ Board member Andy Blair, from the East Coast, had this to say in response:

I respect what you are saying about Alberta. I was there in the oil & gas sector myself some years ago. I know that its cities and, to some extent, the province has made great strides in reducing ecological footprints, including GHG emission reduction, especially lately. The adoption of the carbon tax is a good sign. Albertans I know care about the environment and are willing, like most Canadians, to make real sacrifices to preserve our natural heritage (and that includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions to fight dangerous climate change). However part of the trouble is that, for many Albertans, their regional identity is so tied in with the oil & gas industry that anything that appears to criticize it is taken as an attack on Alberta and Albertans’ way of life. It shouldn’t be.

Here is where the “responsible search for truth and meaning” applies to the issue. Albertans’ significant GHG reduction efforts have been completely neutralized by the expansion in hydrocarbon production – indeed, all of the GHG belt-tightening in the rest of the country combined is neutralized by vastly increased emissions from this sector alone. Within that sector, the expansion of oil sands production is the countries largest single source of emissions and also the fastest growing, increasing from about 15 Mt CO2 eq in 1990 to about 73 Mt CO2 eq by 2015, the last year for which we have full statistics. It’s also a principal reason that Canada is, and will be, unable to meet its international treaty obligations, such as the Paris accord.

It is hard to see how another pipeline, spurring significantly more production (if Kinder Morgan is to be believed) will help this. Or how investing more in fossil fuel infrastructure is a smart thing to do, in the long term. But the pipeline is a problem for reasons completely aside the environmental ones.

OK, but Albertans do have to make a living. Please excuse many people for being skeptical about the economic benefits exporting a raw resource, relatively unprocessed, out to foreign markets. And of the number of jobs that will be created, despite the spin from KM. This was one of the fatal flaws in the Energy East pipeline as well…if it was designed to provide a measure of much-needed energy security and value-added production for Canada – including BC – the project would be more palatable to people.
Sadly, contrary to spin, the pipeline will reduce safety: bitumen shipped by rail is a solid and does not spill even in the case of derailment. Diluted bitumen piped in pipelines is a heavy liquid that sinks and there is no known way to clean it up in the case of a leak into water bodies. Not to mention the diluent used is a volatile liquid as well – it has to be piped back over the mountains again so it can be added to the bitumen in Alberta. Shifting transport of the bitumen from rail to a pipeline is a step backwards in safety.
Finally, the business case for the TransMountain pipeline expansion is extremely weak. KinderMorgan’s case for it has been taken at face vale by the NEB, the Federal Government, and the Alberta Government without any serious examination…and now with the real suggestion that the Canadian government sink billions of taxpayer money into it to help shield KinderMorgan from financial risk. Say what? Read about the lack of a credible business case.

This may not be someone you want to hear from, but also please listen for only 5 minutes to the devastating reasoning this politician lays out:

It is hard for me to see how this project helps us respect the “interdependent web of all existence, of which we are all a part.”

With some local First Nations quiet about the project, while many others along the route are dead-set against it, I also fail to see how supporting the project helps us respect right relations with our First Nations peoples.

However, I recognize the fact that Alberta is at the precipice of a dire economic situation. The following will spark reaction but it is truth: Unlike Norway, for generations Alberta has failed to (a) save anything more than a token sliver of natural resource royalties for when the non-renewable resource runs out or becomes obsolete (even Lougheed knew better), and (b) it has failed to diversify its economy away from this non-renewable resource, indeed today it is dependent on it to pay for basic services. I would also say the federal government, overly gun-shy since the NEP, has also failed to help do anything on these two points…even failed to advance any sort of national energy strategy (unlike every other G8 nation), which could conceivably have included a cross-Canada pipeline to tidewater to help ensure economic security and energy self-sufficiency. Now Albertans dependant on the oil industry are in a bit of a desperate situation largely of their own making.

Alberta needs to do much more to diversify away from fossil fuels – and do it yesterday. Long-term, oil prices will fall as other energy sources become more cost-competitive, and countries turn away from it for environmental reasons. In this situation, could TransMountain’s expansion help? Sadly I am skeptical it will create anything more than short-term profits for a Houston-based corporation (and even that is dubious). Instead of doubling-down on a sunset industry, Alberta needs to be rapidly diversifying away from it.

1 thought on “From West to East, a UU conversation about pipelines, principles, and the future”

  1. I am definitely against the building of the Kinder Morgan pipeline. I can imagine the devastation that any spill along the BC coastline would cause. Thus, I support BC’s and our native peoples’ objections to the construction. I think that the development of the tar sands is very destructive to our land, very polluting, and the oil produced is considered dirty. Some countries have refused to buy it. So is there really a reliable market for this product? All in all, we should not be considering a project that will be even more damaging to our environment.


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