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Pipeline Decisions Based on Short-Term Payoffs Are Dangerously Irrational

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Last week, Lorraine Mitchelmore, the top Canadian executive for Royal Dutch Shell, broke with industry narrative, stating that "the argument for environmentalism is not an emotional argument. It is just as rational as the argument for growing our energy industry."

There is an important underlying realization in Mitchelmore's statement that some conservative pundits, as well as our own government, seem to willfully miss. Sustainability -- smart environmental decision-making -- has everything to do with prosperity. It has everything to do with people's jobs and their quality of life, with the opportunities they want for their kids. It is, in fact, the rational decision to carefully steward, protect, and invest in the natural capital on which our communities and future livelihoods depend.

What is dangerously irrational is making decisions based on short-term economic pay-offs that we know will undermine our future prosperity, perhaps catastrophically.

This is exactly what the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline threatens to do. Our government is apparently determined to move unprocessed diluted bitumen by tanker through the Great Bear Sea, which by Environment Canada's own assessment, is one of the most treacherous sea passages in the world. No one can guarantee that there will not be an accident. Indeed, given the extremely dangerous waters of the Hecate Strait, it is rational to argue that an accident is simply a matter of time. And as two recent reports point out -- one commissioned by the Province of B.C. and the other by the Federal government -- Canada is woefully ill-prepared to deal with an oil spill in these waters.

What is at risk is very clear. Just talk to the people who live in this region, and they will tell you. It's their jobs -- the fishing and tourism industries -- and their cultural identity. And it's the spectacular ecosystem upon which all of that depends. A place that is as unique a global treasure as the Great Barrier Reef or the Amazon rainforest. It is no wonder that so many Canadians exercised their democratic rights by participating in the review process for this project. More than 9,500 people wrote to the Joint Review Panel, 96 per cent against the pipeline. The overwhelming majority of the 1,000+ people who provided oral testimony were also opposed. There is no question that the concerns raised by this project are the legitimate concerns of Canadians who value their livelihoods.

The real question is why we would take such a huge risk in such a special place.

If the answer is "to defend jobs", it is misguided and misleading. More jobs will be destroyed by an oil spill than will be created by Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. Coastal First Nations' traditional territories and coastal communities depend economically on the Great Bear Sea. Marine-dependent activities in these territories represent significant economic value. B.C. seafood and tidal recreational fishing generate $2.5 billion per year - and support more than 30,000 jobs. Exporting raw, unprocessed bitumen creates far more jobs outside Canada than it does here.

It is also irrational to repeat mistakes that we now have the knowledge and ability to avoid.

A generation ago, the Exxon Valdez ran aground and foundered, off the coast of Alaska. The resulting oil spill was an ecological, economic and social disaster that crippled coastal communities and deprived a generation of its livelihoods. The loss of the herring fishery alone cost the economy $400 million. Many communities have not yet fully recovered. In fact, some never will.

It's a fate that we have the power to prevent in the Great Bear region, by pragmatically acknowledging that the risks of this proposed oil pipeline outweigh the benefits.

Yes, the argument for environmentalism is a rational one. For the people whose lives would be destroyed by an oil spill, it is also an emotional one. And for Canada, particularly at this moment, it is the one that will determine our future as global leader or laggard.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Post on Dec. 17, 2013

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