The Pipeline Debate: On Money, Oil, Jobs, and Morality

Last week, Maclean’s published an article titled, “Oil sands bust: How the most valuable resource in our history got mired in politics, protests and logistical nightmares.” It’s the issue’s cover story, and begins on page 42.

On the cover, however, the headline reads: “OIL SANDS CRISIS: How we are BLOWING the biggest money-making opportunity in our history.” The statement, almost belligerent in its come-at-me-bro-like bluntness, takes a stand on the issue of extracting and transporting more oil across our great nation that’s sure to provoke many conservationists and quite possibly all the members of Mountain Equipment Co-op. It says, If there’s wealth to be had, then we’d better get to it. Nature be damned! (Despite the cover, the article itself is more about reporting the facts than espousing any particular position on the oil sands of Athabasca, so perhaps some added drama is required to sell Canada’s national magazine these days.)

Nevertheless, that’s all to say that the issue is divisive. While some people are distraught over the idea of Enbridge Inc.’s proposed $6-billion Northern Gateway pipeline and TransCanada Corp.’s proposed $7-billion Keystone XL pipeline one day carrying Albertan oil to Canada’s West Coast and America’s Gulf Coast, respectively, others are quite pleased. Will these massive projects boost our economy while ruining our environment? Will they grant us energy independence while furthering our dependence on oil? Neither? Nor? Both? Some? Maybe just a little bit?

To address all of the above, we spoke with Ben West. West is the Tar Sands Campaign Director at the ForestEthics Advocacy Association, a Vancouver-based organization that does pretty much what its name implies.

Paul Hiebert: What was your initial reaction to the headline of Maclean’s recent cover story about how we’re failing to financially profit from all that oil in Alberta?

Ben West: Well, there’s a lot of things you can make money from, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right thing to do.

The article states that we have the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world. How would our economy suffer if the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines never got built?

Frankly, I don’t think it would. I think it depends on what else we do.

Some have even suggested that building these pipelines actually hurts the Canadian economy because we become more dependent on the export of raw resource, and a pretty volatile one. It’s this idea of Dutch disease, where countries that become too dependent on raw resources end up seeing other aspects of their economy suffer as a result. When a country’s currency increases in value, the country becomes a less attractive destination for investing and manufacturing. There can be a negative net impact.

There’s a lot of oil in Alberta, and I’m not trying to underplay the significance of it. But there’s a lot of other things an economy can do besides extracting resources and exporting them. I just sincerely don’t think it’s a smart investment for the future, let alone the impact it has on our reputation for being a part of the problem rather than the solution when it comes to climate change.

So our focus is too narrow? We’re ignoring opportunities to develop other parts of the economy?

Well, let me put that another way. I believe in the creativity and ingenuity and capacity of Canadians to generate wealth in more positive ways than simply just digging up more and more resources. We’re continuing down a path that started 100 or more years ago, and instead of plotting a course to join the economy of tomorrow, we’re clinging to yesterday. I, for one, would like to see us have a bit more faith in the Canadian people.

What’s the primary use of all this oil? Who buys it and what’s it used for?

The number one use is for heavy equipment, such as airplanes and trucks and cargo vessels.

Okay. So if we wanted to wean ourselves off of oil, then we should find a new approach to transportation and shipping, right?

Yeah. In fact, I think we talk too often about oil versus renewable energy. As much as it’s important to think about where electricity comes from, it’s not coming from tar sands. If we had more electrified rail, more electrified public transit and more people driving around in plug-in cars, then there would be more demand for electricity and therefore more electricity coming from clean sources. They’re kind of two separate yet connected issues.

I also think we too often talk about this in zero-sum terms. The question for me is about trajectory. Like, I could no sooner shut down the tar sands tomorrow than Stephen Harper could triple it in size. What I’m suggesting is that we should be reducing our oil dependence, and a big part of that is thinking about transportation planning and how we move both people and goods around more efficiently. There are also a lot more jobs in building high-speed rails and operating them than in building pipelines.

But the problem is that it’s usually easier to just keep doing what we know than to change. Implementing new ways of delivering the food we eat and the clothes we wear isn’t easy.

There’s some simple things and some more difficult things. Food is difficult. What isn’t difficult though, is public transit. Rail. We’re actually one of the only countries on earth that doesn’t have electrified high-speed rail. When you compare us to Asia and Europe, Canada has a pretty archaic rail infrastructure that is very much in need of some love.

Or consider urban planning. We’re continuing to follow the 1950′s suburban-sprawl model when a lot of places on Earth are realizing that density and walkable cities are just better. People like living in them more, there’s less highway congestion and it just so happens to be better for the climate.

A lot of this has to do with political priorities and vested interest. It’s not like we have to reinvent the wheel or find new technologies for the obvious first steps. But don’t get me wrong: there are definitely difficult things, and I don’t want to make it sound like there aren’t any challenges to living without oil. Air travel is an obvious one.

What do you suggest we do about air travel?

You could do away with a lot of the short-haul flights, like, say, from Toronto to Ottawa. A high-speed rail option would be better. But flying from Toronto to Vancouver will always be a lot faster than taking the train. Never mind flying to Europe, which is even more problematic in terms of how to do that quickly and efficiently.

Some people who are quite dogmatic about ending climate change will say we just need to stop flying — and the science is pretty straightforward on that — but my argument is let’s start with the easy stuff that has a win-win outcome. It won’t take long for people to realize that it’s possible to reduce our dependence on oil. If we’re only fixated on the more difficult things, we’ll never get around to doing the easier ones. The journey of a thousands miles begins with a single step.

Do you think there are any present-day luxuries or activities that future generations will be either unwilling or unable to enjoy due to climate change or a diminished amount of resources?

Well, I don’t have a crystal ball, but historically things have changed, and sometimes quite quickly. I think at times we take life for granted and assume it will always be this way, but when you look back at how different things were just a generation or two ago, it’s hard to imagine. Those days before the internet occurred in my lifetime. At one point, women weren’t allowed to vote yet people were allowed to smoke in restaurants.

So will we evolve to the point where people stop doing things for moral reasons? It’s entirely plausible and I certainly hope so. We need to be conscious of our actions and the impact they have on the environment — not saying that there aren’t already a lot of people who feel that way. But some things will be hard to let go of.

A good friend of mine once said, “We really only have two choices: either make a graceful transition or not.” I think that’s an interesting way to look at it.

On a larger scale, do you find anything problematic about this widespread assumption that our society should just continue to produce and consume and grow the economy to create new jobs without end? Where is this relentless drive taking us?

I think there’s nothing unreasonable about wanting people to have an opportunity to get out of poverty. And I would never say that everybody on planet Earth should be stuck in their current economic situation. There’s a huge gap between the rich and the poor within countries, let alone the gap between countries.

The premise of unlimited economic growth is at least partially predicated on the idea that as the pie gets bigger the all-rising tide floats all boats. The problem is that so much of what with think of as economic growth is based on resource extraction and consumption. A knowledge- or service-based economy that provides, say, more computer software or massage therapists wouldn’t be as problematic.

At a fundamental level, I think we have to get past this whole idea of waste. We’ve got more than enough materials to use over and over again in a variety of different ways, and since we live on a finite planet with finite resources, we can’t just continually pull minerals out of the ground, use them, then dispose of them in landfills. That’s unsustainable on a basic level. There are certainly some overarching problems with the current economic model’s way of looking at the world. I mean, Coca-Cola used to come in glass bottles, which were cleaned and refilled in plants, but now they’re not.

Right. And doesn’t that make the guy who owns the aluminum mine happy? Doesn’t he and his family and his miners all financially benefit from people not recycling their cans, cause then Coca-Cola has to buy more aluminum from him?

To make it even worse, there’s a principle in manufacturing called planned obsolescence, which is essentially intended to get consumers to buy more products.

The flip side of this though, are some hopeful examples of producers cutting down on cost by reusing materials. Europe and British Columbia have implemented some rules that ban the disposal of certain materials, so that manufacturers are forced to recycle and compost. For example, electronics in B.C. no longer go to landfills; they either go into reuse or get broken down into base metals. Quite frankly, more companies are starting to realize that they can save money by being efficient with how they reuse materials.

So these kinds of things can be done. It means taking a giant step back and looking at the whole process. And instead of just trying to green a little element of your product, you need to look at the product’s whole life cycle. It’s a design issue more than anything else.

And that takes us back to what you were saying earlier about creativity and ingenuity and our capacity to imagine things differently.

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Paul Hiebert is the Editor-in-Chief of Ballast.