Is the environmental price of pipelines too high?

Reducing carbon emissions in a world that still wants more oil will be a difficult balancing act.


When discussion in Carmen Velasquez’s business classes concerning the virtues of pipelines begins to veer into fossil-fuel alternatives and outright pipeline rejection, she brings it back to reality.

“I tell my students all the time, ‘You want change? Great, I want change too, but don’t forget change is not free,’” said the executive director of the University of Alberta’s Centre for Applied Business Research in Energy and the Environment.

The world’s dependence on oil and the ubiquity of petroleum-related products—from gasoline to plastic to how fossil fuels directly touch countless goods and services—has put us in a position from which there is no easy retreat.

“China and India are still developing and while they are building a significant amount of renewables, they still have a huge appetite for oil,” she said.

But worldwide concern for the environment is as strong as it’s ever been. And with 825,000 kilometres of pipeline already criss-crossing Canada, pipeline accidents are not just a localized threat to water and land. While water safety is fuelling protests like the ones playing out on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, the wider and more alarming threat is the increased extraction of fossil fuels and the ensuing greenhouse gas emissions.

“The issue around not wanting pipelines is really about not wanting oilsands as a whole,” said Velasquez. “The more pipelines you build, the more chance of it being produced.”

And that’s part of the challenge: how do you reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time that the world wants more oil?

“If Alberta, which has the resources, can take a leadership role and put in a carbon tax and phase out coal, and put a 100-megaton cap on oilsands emissions—unheard of in any other jurisdiction—then would you argue that we are at least trying to develop our resources responsibly?

“You can see (the provincial government is) trying to move us in the direction of less carbon, but how do you balance that with the fact that we have a significant resource base?”

For those who believe the short-term need for a strong economy and all the benefits it brings—good jobs and a higher standard of living—do not outweigh the potential for ugly spills and, worse, the litany of impending calamities brought on by climate change, the federal government’s decision to expand Canada’s pipeline capacity is contradictory.

“We are saying we are committed to reducing greenhouse gases yet we are putting in place infrastructure that will ensure exactly the opposite of that,” said Debra Davidson, a UAlberta environmental sociologist. “I’m not about to put on any rose-coloured glasses and suggest we simply switch gears, and everything will be fine.

“But to even accommodate our relatively modest climate change commitment, we need to basically move towards removing ourselves from a fossil fuel-based economy entirely.”

Davidson said while she agrees there are some very serious implications that we need to confront, we cannot continue to invest in fossil fuel development for the sake of short-term increases in GDP and jobs.

“It simply does not justify the destruction of our climate to support life for future civilizations.”

And though she acknowledged that a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels is not currently realistic in Alberta, she added that investing in infrastructure that locks the province into decades of petroleum expansion is folly.

“Our current pipeline infrastructure has, at least until the recent tanking of oil prices, supported quite a robust economy,” she said. “Let’s shoot for maintenance in the current levels of production as we begin to look at retraining people and investing in new economic sectors.

“It’s amazing how many economic sectors there are that generate more jobs per dollar than the petrochemical industry. If you look at the number of jobs given the size of the sector, it’s actually not a big job producer.”

In 2015, Canada’s forestry sector added 9.1 jobs per $1 million of value added, mining 6.2, whereas energy added just two. Moreover, agriculture employs two million Canadians and green energy technologies now employ more people in Canada than Alberta’s oilsands.

“The more we move towards having a conversation with all sides, the more we can start to develop some constructive planning around a transition that doesn’t involve people losing their jobs, that can be quite revitalizing for an economy,” she said.

Joseph Doucet, dean of the Alberta School of Business, said transitioning, diversifying or, as he prefers, creating resiliency in an economy is crucial for Alberta; unfortunately, it’s not something that happens overnight.

“Some of the changes people would like to see, like more high-tech jobs or more venture capital, just don’t happen in a short time.”

He pointed to economies in East Asia like Singapore or South Korea, where heavy-handed government intervention led to successful economic diversification, but it still took 50 years.

“That just wouldn’t be possible in Alberta today. The government doesn’t have the same levers and people in Alberta wouldn’t be willing to let a government intervene in the same way,” he said.

Even then, Doucet said the first step toward economic resiliency is creating a checklist of areas where a jurisdiction has natural competitiveness. In Alberta, that checklist includes our post-secondary institutions, a highly educated workforce, proximity to a large market, the rule of law and natural resources. From there, attracting capital and people requires that the government has incentives such as quality of life and business-friendly tax regimes to exploit competitive advantages.

“We wouldn’t start building TVs or rocket ships, but energy makes sense. So does agriculture,” he said. “There are other places in the world that drill for oil and gas, and we do a fair amount of that and we have great universities that specialize in that area.”

As for diversifying into the green energy sector, Doucet said exploiting our expertise in energy doesn’t necessarily mean throwing the province’s full might into renewables.

“A history in oil and gas doesn’t mean we have an expertise in solar panels. We might, but you have to find the rationale for it,” he said. “We need to have focus. We should absolutely continue to focus on the energy sector, but develop more skills in the energy sector that are portable to other parts of the economy or can be exported globally.”

In the end, the conversation that pits the economy against the environment is polarizing, but, according to Davidson, it doesn’t need to be.

“We all recognize the dangers of climate change, and nobody is suggesting this is easy, but we have to take it by the horns and move away from fossil fuel production,” she said. “It will take everyone at the table but it’s not going to happen if we keep taking an antagonizing approach to it.”

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