02/04/2014 12:13 EST | Updated 04/06/2014 05:59 EDT

Read Between the Pipelines: Fossil Fuels Ruin the Environment

Every time I drive to town from my small farm in southern Manitoba, I cross right over what Enbridge calls "the largest single conduit of oil into the U.S." A corridor containing seven buried pipelines originates in Alberta, passes 10 kilometers north of my home and crosses into the U.S. not far away.

It is marked only by seven little signs in the ditch next to a grain field, but it can carry more oil than all of Canada uses and over a tenth of what our thirsty neighbour to the south uses. It feels odd to stand in a silent, weedy ditch directly above one of the main arteries supplying the largest economy in history.

If I travel 10 kilometers in another direction, I cross another pipeline -- the Keystone line. This precursor to Keystone XL was built in 2010, back when such a thing could be done with little public notice.

But pipelines are not just pipelines anymore. They have quickly become the most prominent environmental issue and the focal point in the debate over one of humanity's most urgent challenges: how to deal with our energy appetite in a warming world.

So while five proposed pipelines, worth $50 billion and stretching 9,000 kilometers, are in the works, the story that lies behind the projects is what really matters.

Behind Northern Gateway, Keystone XL, Trans Mountain, Energy East and Mackenzie Valley is the question of how Canada and the rest of humanity will respond to the energy-climate crisis.

Of course, not everyone agrees that pipelines are more than steel buried in soil. Proponents say pipelines emit little or no greenhouse gasses and that they are an environmentally superior means of transporting fossil fuels. Both points can lay some claim to validity.

Similarly, the federally mandated Joint Review Panel report on Northern Gateway de-linked the pipeline from bitumen sands development or end uses of the oil it would carry. It stated that "connections to oilsands development were not sufficiently direct to allow consideration of their environmental effects," and "downstream effects would be hypothetical and of no meaningful utility to the panel's process."

The U.S. State Department said Keystone XL would actually be better from a climate perspective than the alternatives.

While there is a logic to this line of argument it rests on an illogical assumption. That assumption is that ongoing development of the conventional fossil fuel sector is inevitable.

It is not.

The alternative that the U.S. State Department does not consider, and the JRP was given no mandate to consider, is a gradual, thoughtful, concerted transition from the massively inefficient fossil fuel intense economy of today -- a switch incentivized by a sufficient price on carbon.

Despite what the JRP and State Department say, this option must be part of the discussion. The preponderance of scientific evidence would suggest not only that this option must be considered but that it is humanity's only option. If we are to somehow avoid major climate impacts, we must leave much of the remaining carbon where it is -- in the ground.

Of course, this argument is nothing new. It is, admittedly, a tired message in this age of understandable climate change fatigue. And of course, it may be too late. But if prominent official voices in Canada and the U.S. will conclude that pipelines are just pipelines, others of us must insist otherwise.

Pipelines are a commitment to the ongoing expansion of the conventional fossil fuel industry. Pipelines are connected to climate change.

The federal government says Northern Gateway is in the "national interest," which is not unlike saying climate change is in the national interest. At some point we will be forced to factor climate impacts into the national interest calculation, not just GDP.

Meanwhile Enbridge and others will keep pushing their projects. Among those is a plan to expand one of the pipelines running near my home. And surely they have ambitions beyond that.

What I wonder is how many lines will operate in that corridor 30 years from now when my sons are as old as I am now. Enbridge assumes there will be more than the current seven. I do not.

Adapted from an article that first appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.

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