05/02/2016 10:17 EDT | Updated 05/03/2017 05:12 EDT

Don't Pretend The Pipeline Debate Is Only About Energy

Keith Wood via Getty Images
Worker turning valve on geothermal pipeline, silhouetted against dusk

Listening to official commentary about using oil to pave the way for alternative energy, it sometimes sounds as though pipeline proponents are the true environmentalists among us. Commentary in favour of the pipelines has followed suit with generous explanations of our current needs and the realities of energy consumption.

They ask: are opponents of the pipelines in denial about our current reliance on fossil fuels? Do the greens believe that our formidable energy usage can be easily offloaded to wind farms and hydro plants? And if these bleeding hearts do admit that we do need fossil fuels to power our country, are they comfortable importing Saudi oil forever?

I believe that such questions willfully miss the point. Our spirited national debate is not actually about our use of fossil fuels. On the contrary, we are debating whether we want to structure more of the Canadian economy around the production and sale of these fuels.

That we will continue to burn fossil fuels for the foreseeable future will come as no surprise to anyone. I don't believe that even the most radical environmentalist expects that any alternative is possible in the medium-term.

Does this, in itself, justify the pipelines? No.

We all know that jets use jet fuel, that container ships burn bunker fuel and that the use of both is on a steady rise. Most trucks use diesel and most cars use gas and this is a present reality we can't easily escape. Whether we are headed for new innovations in alternative energy or continue on as one of the worst polluting nations on Earth, we will burn fossil fuels to get there.

Does this, in itself, justify the pipelines? No.

Conveniently, the vast majority of our oil imports come from the United States (only about 8.5 per cent are from the Middle East). They arrive by tanker on our east coast.

Even more conveniently, essentially all of our oil exports are being bought by the United States, only on the West Coast. We are their biggest foreign supplier by a wide margin. Between our two countries, oil flows efficiently to both sides of the continent.

The pipelines are not about meeting our own energy needs, as extraordinary as they are, but about bringing more oil to the global marketplace. Trudeau is being upfront about this when he claims he will use the money to pay for clean energy. Only he will actually use the money to effectively pay down a $30-billion deficit and save the currency from further depreciation.

Given the overhead investment, how can the pipelines project be seen as anything but a determined shift away from a green economy?

Regardless of where the stimulus package is applied, however, it must be clear that the pipeline projects are not about energy for Canada but about money for Canada, and the national debate is about how and where we should be making our money.

Having said this, it seems unlikely that the pipelines will pave the way for a green economy -- or any economy, for that matter, that challenges the continued use of a new and very expensive pipeline infrastructure.

A country whose economic prosperity and even survival is fully leveraged on oil and gas will not be the one to ramp down production in favour of energy alternatives. Given the overhead investment, how can the pipelines project be seen as anything but a determined shift away from a green economy?

Once the infrastructure is in place, it will be used. And when the price of oil collapses again, we will again rally around big oil as our sacred cow. Production will have to be protected because too much will be at stake, and government subsidies to Canadian oil companies, currently at $1.7 billion, will grow and grow.

Pipeline approval will mean decades of working toward and executing a massive upshift in oil production and export. It will mean becoming an oil country for the rest of the world. And at home, our full dependence on the world's continued use of fossil fuels will inevitably shape our allegiances in the struggle for a greener planet.

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