Strident debate and government subsidies kill hopes of a wise pipeline resolution: Don Pittis

Climate change denial and anti-pipeline ideology have contributed to an escalating and possibly unresolvable conflict while taxpayers pay to make climate change worse.

Canada's economy does not depend on draining the oilsands and neither will a pipeline bring doom

Opponents of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline are one side of an acrimonious battle that is not helping to solve the climate change problem. (Ben Nelms/Reuters)

Reports in the business press last week seemed to insist that Canada's economic future depended solely on emptying out the oilsands through a west coast pipeline.

Meanwhile, pipeline opponents insisted the project — agreed upon after long discussion at various levels of government and industry — would severely damage the B.C. environment and contribute to climate collapse.

While advocates on both sides will likely be outraged over that simplified characterization, moderates in the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline debate fear that the escalating conflict is leading us away from, not nearer to, a wise resolution.

Polarized debate   

Now the polarized debate has moved toward what may be the worst possible solution. Instead of letting business take the reward and suffer the consequences of fossil-fuel investment, Canadian taxpayers could be forced to subsidize and guarantee the production of carbon long into the future.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government will participate in financial discussions with Kinder Morgan to "remove the uncertainty overhanging the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project."

One of those frustrated moderate voices is Maurice Dusseault, a scientist who works for the oil industry who also understands the importance of facing up to climate change.
Oil pipes in Freeport, Texas. Even if Canada stopped producing oil, it will likely take two generations before the country's economy stops using fossil fuels. (Richard Carson/Reuters)
 I spoke to Dusseault as he was preparing to fly to Texas to do some consulting for the oil industry there. Registered as a professional engineer in Alberta and Ontario, he is disturbed that the pipeline debate has become so acrimonious.

"There are ideological positions on both sides of the discussion, absolutely," said Dusseault, who teaches engineering geology at the University of Waterloo.

 A geological scientist who advises government and industry in the field of petroleum geomechanics, he is upset that so many otherwise intelligent people seem to have abandoned rational thinking in favour of political dogma.

Science not ideology

As a scientist, Dusseault knows climate change is not a philosophy that people can choose to believe in or not.

He said that while less informed people — influenced by anti-climate change propaganda paid for by people like the Koch brothers — may decide global warming is a fraud, experts and business people in the oil industry depend on science to do their jobs.

Geologists who drill based on ideology rather than science are unlikely to strike oil. Successful businesses don't just cross their fingers before they make an investment — they do the math. So why don't those scientific thinkers in the oil business rally on behalf of slowing climate change?

"Self interest is an astoundingly strong force," Dusseault said.
Electric cars like these in Singapore this week are entering the market, but the vast majority of new cars use fossil fuels. A carbon-free economy is still decades away. (Thomas White/Reuters)

The entire purpose of a carbon pricing strategy promoted by groups like the Ecofiscal Commission is to exploit that strong force of self interest to slowly and moderately decrease the world's output of carbon.

But the growing rift between Canada's pro- and anti-pipeline forces has thrown that process into disarray.

The no-pipeline-at-any-cost faction is now going head to head with the pipeline-or-bust faction, and politicians on both sides — perhaps motivated by short-term political interests — are making the division worse.

My province, right or wrong

Escalating rhetoric and tit-for-tat threats are not pulling the factions toward compromise, but instead fomenting the kind of irrational nationalism where two sides begin to say "my province, right or wrong."

As the glaciers that divide B.C. and Alberta melt, as ocean currents fail, as forests burn and coastal regions flood, scientific thinkers of all kinds know that we cannot extract and burn all the oil that is currently in the ground.

But it is equally absurd to say that fossil fuel production must abruptly stop. Even if Canada ended production tomorrow, the country would continue to import and burn oil and gas.

"I want to see the era of fossil fuels come to an end in a reasonably rapid manner," Dusseault said. "Reasonably, that's going to be two generations from now."

And in the meantime, so long as we make those gradual steps toward global carbon reduction, whether the oil the world burns is Canadian or not makes little difference.

In many cases, he said, Canadian oil is produced more in environmentally friendly ways than elsewhere.

But to make that happen in the least disruptive manner requires two things. The first is that even in oil-producing regions, thoughtful people must concede that, despite their immediate self interest, their long-term interest requires the recognition and prevention of climate change.

So far, conservative voices in this country who campaign against recognizing climate change and campaign against carbon pricing are not helping their own cause.

Both sides will dig in their heels

Confronted with such a stance, it is reasonable that people who are convinced unchecked climate change will ruin our world feel compelled to take the strongest action to prevent it, whether legal or illegal.

Recent polling by the pro-business Ecofiscal Commission shows that 84 per cent of Canadians, including a majority of Albertans, want to move to a low-carbon economy.

"Canadians want their governments to take action on climate policy," said the commission's Dale Beugin, "They don't want to sit back and watch the rest of the world solve the problem while we wait for [it] to happen."

Besides recognition of climate change and the use of carbon pricing, the other essential part of the equation is to leave businesses subject to market forces. Rising carbon prices will then gradually decrease the economy's dependence on carbon.

Wise investors will be wary of putting money into projects that will not pay off.

The latest federal plan to push the pipeline through destroys this crucial step.

Canadian taxpayer money flowing straight into the pipeline creates the absurd situation where the vast majority of Canadians who wish to stop climate change will be contributing to a hidden pro-carbon tax that will bypass market forces to make climate change worse.

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis


Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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