Opinion

Why it's almost impossible to have a rational conversation about pipelines

It's all but impossible to have a rational conversation about how to balance fair economic concerns against real environmental dangers in this country. The discussion is too polarized. The competing camps are too obstinate.

The real problem with the pipeline fight is that it highlights a fallacy

It's all but impossible to have a rational conversation about how to balance fair economic concerns against real environmental dangers in this country. The discussion is too polarized. The competing camps are too obstinate. (CBC)

The spokesperson for a gaggle of eco-friendly, sustainable-energy types had a counter-intuitive message for B.C. NDP Premier John Horgan.

Support the damn oil pipeline.

"We very much believe that the approach that the current [federal] Liberal government has taken is the right approach," Denis Connor told The Eyeopener. "And we're very concerned by the threat by the B.C. government to cancel the [Trans Mountain] Pipeline ... [it] will, in fact, cause that climate agenda to go sideways."

Connor spoke on behalf of two dozen clean-tech entrepreneurs who had issued an open letter to the B.C. premier. In particular, Connor noted Horgan's obstinance risks increasing the odds Alberta will elect United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, who has sworn a solemn oath to cut the carbon tax, should he be elected.

Connor is suggesting a more moderate path between those who would tie themselves to the trees, and those who would prefer to toast the marvel of human progress by guzzling bitumen by the barrel.

B.C. NDP leader John Horgan's obstinance in opposing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion risks increasing the odds that Alberta will abandon its plans to address climate change. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"We see that there's going to be a transition. It's going to be a relatively long transition, between now and 2030 and beyond — as our society reduces its dependence on fossil fuels generally, or reduces the emissions from those fossil fuels so they can be used without impacting the climate."

Connor appears to be a politically pragmatic environmentalist who has a clear-eyed view about how long it's going to take our society to transition from fossil fuels. He's hinting at the possibility of common ground between people who are genuinely concerned about climate change, and those who think it would be silly not to reap the economic benefits of the oil while it's here.

Clearly, this witch must be burned.

An eminently sensible option

It's all but impossible to have a rational conversation about how to balance fair economic concerns against real environmental dangers in this country. The discussion is too polarized. The competing camps are too obstinate.

We should be discussing what incentives and regulations will be most effective at protecting the environment and reducing emissions.

Under the province's current climate change plan, which includes an emissions cap on the oil sands, that industry has good reason to find innovative ways to reduce the emissions associated with bitumen mining, for example. We need to be pragmatic about how best to extract the value of our oil and gas resources, even as we transition to a post-fossil-fuel future.

Simply shutting down Trans Mountain and depriving Alberta of the resource revenue that is funding its social services, doesn't fix any of the fundamental problems. It doesn't address oil consumption in the long run. Forgoing the income that the pipeline could generate only sets Alberta up to be poorer.

Further, it will alienate this province. And alienation will only lead Alberta to abandon its climate change strategy. As Alberta is the top emitter of carbon in this country, abolishing the NDP's climate change policy would surely put even Canada's most hopeful carbon reduction ambitions to bed.

A hellscape apocalypse

Yet declare support for Trans Mountain — one stretch of line among the literally 840,000 kilometres that crisscross the country — and you are de facto in favour of bulldozing over the rights of First Nations people. And burning the Earth into some kind of hellscape apocalypse.

Never mind that the current Trans Mountain proposal is a mundane twinning of a line that already exists. Ignore the fact that Alberta loses billions underselling its product due to lack of pipeline capacity. Something must be done to preserve B.C.'s pristine landscape — which will surely fall into gooey destructive ruin if Alberta's dirty oil is ever permitted to touch its virgin soil.

The visceral hatred of the carbon tax, as fanned by United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney, plays well for a hometown crowd that treats oil extraction and the wealth it brings as an unalloyed public good. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

The real problem with the pipeline fight is that it highlights a fallacy a friend of mine once called "supply-side environmentalism."

It goes after the dirty oil producers and their ugly pipelines because that's the easy win. But it ignores the demand side of the equation. This requires no act of suffering from the people who cry for blood.

Victory without sacrifice

Sure, oilsands oil is more carbon intensive to mine, but the real damage is still done at the point at which the petrochemical is consumed. Shutting down Trans Mountain doesn't force anyone to think about how they heat their homes, or commute to work, or take vacations, or keep their food fresh, or eat mangoes in winter.

To shut down a particular oil supply without addressing demand merely ensures that your oil will come from another jurisdiction — a jurisdiction that will be dictated by market forces, not environmental ones. Alberta, by the way, has actually made strides to reduce the carbon intensity of its oil extraction. Unlike our comparable oil-producing competitors.

To defeat a single pipeline is victory without personal sacrifice. It's a win with no real impact.

The solutions to climate change aren't going to come so quickly or easily.

There's no need for pessimism

Conservatives in this province have their own dogmas on related issues to contend with.

The visceral hatred of the carbon tax plays well for a hometown crowd that treats oil extraction and the wealth it brings as an unalloyed public good. But the revenues that tax will generate could eventually help our province wean itself from royalty dependency. That's not a bad thing.

Shutting down Trans Mountain doesn't force anyone to think about how they heat their homes, or commute to work, or take vacations, or keep their food fresh, or eat mangoes in winter. (CBC)

Further, market incentives like carbon taxes will probably help to shimmy along nascent clean-tech industries, even if their impact on global greenhouse gas emissions is negligible. Sustainable power will become more efficient and economical as time wears on — thus making a transition away from fossil fuels more viable. Already we are seeing enormous and rapid advances in electric vehicles, for example.

If the dogma of the left is pipelines, the doctrine of the right that opposes carbon taxes does so at its own peril. The fight against Trans Mountain may be a symbolic one — but symbols are real. The feelings they engender are real. The fear of climate change is real. And the desire to be good and virtuous and moral is a commendable and legitimate goal.

Perhaps our carbon tax and climate change plan didn't buy the "social licence" required to build Trans Mountain. But, as evidenced by the open letter written by people like Connor, that doesn't mean it bought no redemption at all.

This, is not nothing.


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About the Author

Jen Gerson

Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary.