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Pipeline Versus Rail 'Debate' Sticks Canadians With A False Choice

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When we debate whether transporting oil by rail or through pipelines is worse for our communities and our environment, we are looking at the wrong question.

Imagine sitting down at a restaurant and finding only two dishes on the menu -- Pipeline Pie or Rail Ragout. The dishes look slightly different and one costs a little more but the basic ingredients are the same. Both dishes are cooked hot in the kitchen and without A/C the restaurant's atmosphere gets increasingly stifling. Both dishes are messy and hard to clean up if spilled. They can both make you sick from poisoning. Do you think you'd be content with your choices? Or would you wonder how this place stays in business at all? Welcome to the False Choice Café, home of the pipelines versus rail "debate."

It won't surprise you to learn that we reject the premise of the pipelines versus rail question. Why? Because it asks the wrong question and sticks Canadians with a false choice. Instead of asking how to move more and more crude oil, let's start asking how we can have a cleaner, greener economy that keeps people safe, the environment pristine, and delivers good green jobs. Once you start asking that question two big things become clear.

First, Canada needs to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because the earth is warming rapidly, changing the climate, and we are not doing our part to slow it down. We produce and consume far too much fossil fuel energy. Sticking with the restaurant analogy, let's call this the "portion size" problem.

There are good moral reasons to reduce our fossil fuel use. Most of you already know that the GHGs we emit today will create negative consequences for our children and grandchildren. But did you know that these consequences will continue to play out over thousands of human generations? Recent research shows that, if we don't act quickly and decisively to reduce GHGs, sea levels will keep rising until they are about 50 metres higher than today, and then will stay there until the year 12,000.

The protection of our communities and environment must be the first priority.

There are also good economic reasons to move away from more fossil fuel infrastructure. The leading economies of the 21st century will be those that adapt and thrive in a decarbonizing world. This is already starting to happen. Doubling down on a legacy fossil fuel sector is yesterday's game plan. Like Wayne Gretzky, we should skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.

The crucial time to start reducing GHG emissions is now -- in this decade -- not 15 or 20 years from now. For Canada, curbing oil and gas production is unavoidable because it is our largest, and fastest-growing, source of GHG emissions. But building new pipelines and scaling up oil-by-rail transport will lock-in fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come. Think of it this way -- if you've ordered and paid for your Pipeline Pie you're probably not going to leave the restaurant without eating it. The prudent thing is to hold that order in the first place.

Second, whether you think it is riskier to transport crude oil by pipeline or rail, the fact is that both pose serious risks to people and the environment. Are these risks worth it? Spills and derailments have happened all over the North American continent -- in our rivers, on our fields, in our forests. And explosive oil train derailments take these risks into the hearts of our towns and cities. Any crude oil moved in Canada -- whether by pipeline or rail -- must be transported safely or not at all. The protection of our communities and environment must be the first priority.

At its heart, the pipeline versus rail "debate" is an old fashioned circular trap that leads us nowhere. Concerned about pipeline spills? But moving oil by rail is even more dangerous! Now you're concerned about rail? Well, the oil is going to move anyway so you're really just supporting pipelines! And on and on we go.

The way to break out of the trap is to step back and reject the premise of this false choice. Think about where we want to go (a cleaner, greener economy that keeps people safe, the environment pristine, and delivers good green jobs) and whether moving more oil, by whatever means, is really a part of that future. Next time you're headed for the False Choice Café, keep on walking -- there's something better just around the corner.

This piece was written by Ecojustice lawyer Charles Hatt. As Canada's only national environmental law charity, Ecojustice is building the case for a better earth. Learn more by getting updates on the most pressing environmental issues delivered straight to your inbox here.

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