The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline carrying raw bitumen to the B.C. coast is a bad idea, but it's ultimately the wrong fight.
If built, Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway $5.5-billion pipeline would ship half a million barrels per day of raw bitumen from Alberta's oilsands to Kitimat, B.C. to be loaded onto tankers for shipment to Asia.
Yes Enbridge is a cowboy-culture company, with a spotty record and Chinese backers, pushing a project dripping with government-industry collusion. The messy, goopy diluted bitumen coursing through the pipeline could threaten some 800 waterways, endangered species habitat and a rainforest. It's opposed by celebrities, 60 per cent of B.C. residents, First Nations, and even obsessed wonky citizen experts.
The Northern Gateway pipeline has brought Canadian energy policy to the front of the headlines and the public is gripped by the drama. But where is the fight going? What is the goal?
Naomi Klein said the activist community is ready to stop any scheme oil companies "come up with to carry their climate-disrupting, cancer-causing, water-polluting, community-destroying oil out of northern Alberta."
"The pipelines are the bloodlines of the tar sands," said Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians. "If we can keep these arteries from being built, then they can't expand the tar sands."
If stopping the expanded flow of tarsands oil out of Canada is the goal, there are of number proposed pipelines besides Gateway that would have to be killed, such as Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion, the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. Gulf Coast, the reversal of Enbridge's ageing Line 9, and a reversal of a TransCanada gas pipeline.
As well, Enbridge has proposed two other U.S. pipeline projects, the Seaway and the Flannagan South pipelines, to help reduce the glut of oil in the U.S. Midwest and help reduce the price discount on Canadian crude.
Looking at the map of existing pipelines, any number of combinations could be a possible alternative — an alternative without as many negatives as Gateway. Half of B.C. residents who opposed Gateway would support a pipeline with a better economic and environmental narrative.
If the opposition in Canada's most environmentally progressive province is that malleable, stopping all pipelines is a bit like playing Whac-A-Mole, but each mole gets progressively harder to hit.
Let's assume the momentum of bringing Enbridge to its knees leads to a mass protest across Canada and all the proposed pipelines are stopped. Oil companies still have other options.
CP Railway's business moving oil by rail has jumped from 500 cars in 2009 to 13,00 in 2011 and is projecting to be using 70,000 cars in a years time. Shipping by rail costs oil companies $10 a barrel by rail, compared to $5 by pipeline but it's well below the $30 on every barrel they earn by exporting it. Stopping all new pipelines will not stop the expanded flow of oil.
Also, if the bitumen hits the rails or the road, there are no National Energy Board hearings or environmental reviews; it's open season and statistically pipelines are 70 times safer for people than trucks.
There is not doubt, the constrained pipelines are hurting oil companies. The lack of pipeline capacity driven by a surging U.S. production of cheaper light crude will slow the growth of Alberta's heavy oil, but this will regionally put renewable energy at a price disadvantage and give western Canadian consumers more financial space to burn more gas. Stopping pipelines will not help shift Canada towards a low-carbon economy.
DEEP IMPACTS, SHALLOW POLITICS
While the country debates the safety and security of pipelines, the effects of climate change continue to mount. The impacts run the gambit from minor irritants like the swarming flies in Beamsville and damaged foundations in Ottawa to the almost science fiction-like dissolving shellfish industries and dead carbon-emitting forests in B.C. The impacts are profound, compounding, and complex, but the political conversation is juvenile.
The governing federal Tories who are slowly and ineffectively imposing sector-by-sector greenhouse gas regulations attempt to paint the NDP as job-killing carbon-tax imposers, while the NDP fearing the tax-and-spend label, run from any assertion their cap-and-trade proposal is a tax.
Meanwhile, the president of Royal Dutch Shell's Canada division, senior figures from Suncor and Cenovus, Preston Manning, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, and virtually all major business associations have all come out in support of a carbon tax or a price on carbon over sector-by-sector regulations.
Imagine if evangelical Christians came out in support of abortion or Moveon.org for corporate tax cuts — it would be a political game changer and front and centre in any political or activist campaign.
Developing an effective market-based carbon policy is, based on the opinion of economists, the best way to begin decoupling GDP from carbon emissions as has been done in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and now starting in British Columbia.
Just before the Conservatives launched their attack against the NDP, 48.6 per cent of Canadians said they opposed a carbon tax if it raised the price of gas and groceries. After the record drought and super storm Sandy devastated the U.S. northeast, 57 per cent of Canadians said it was reasonable for a household to pay $100-a-year more in higher taxes to support fighting climate change.
While those concerned about climate change play the Whac-A-Mole pipeline game, the Stephen Harper government's climate policy is wearing no clothes and needs to be called out.
Follow Raphael Lopoukhine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thecaendotca