Lenten perspective to the pipeline debate

(First published in The Catholic Register, Toronto, Ont., http://www.catholicregister.org)

By Glen Argan

The Alberta government and pipeline construction are again in the news. In its March 2 speech from the throne, the NDP government said it would oppose legal cases threatening the recently approved Trans-Mountain Pipeline which will move oil from Alberta to the West Coast.

Environmental groups frequently make news themselves by opposing major pipeline construction. Pipeline companies fight back by arguing that shipping petroleum products by pipeline is far safer than shipping them by rail. Living in Alberta, I hear this stated so often that it sounds like holy writ. The implication is that if you care for the environment, you should favour, not oppose, oil pipelines.

However, never having seen any data to support this “truth,” I became skeptical. So, I went searching.

I came upon a 2015 study by the Railway Association of Canada – not exactly an unbiased source – that examined the data. The study showed that rail cars have more oil spills but the size of the spills is smaller. Pipelines are less likely to spill, but when they do, the spill tends to be larger.

However, the differences are not that large. Either way, the number of spills and the total volume of oil spilled is small compared with the total amount shipped and the large distances covered in the shipments. The magnitude, however, is of no consolation if say, a rail car full of crude is dumped in your backyard.

Back to our protagonists.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is clear about her government’s goal – it wants new offshore markets for Alberta oil so the province’s economy is less dependent on sales to the United States. This is why she is a proponent of the Trans Mountain Pipeline but has been much cooler to the Keystone XL which aims to ship Alberta crude to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

As for environmental groups, they are not as concerned with how crude oil is shipped as with the fact that massive environmental damage results from simply mining the oil sands. (For a long time, everybody called them “the tar sands,” but this is now politically incorrect language in Alberta.)

The more infrastructure built to ship unrefined bitumen from the oil sands, the more difficult it will be to wean Canada and Canadians off the oil economy. A major pipeline is hugely expensive, and it is unlikely to be shut down 10 years from now (or earlier) when solar power and other renewables become much cheaper than oil.

Pipelines, in my view, are not a smart investment, and they inhibit the transition to a petroleum-free economy.

To its credit, however, the NDP government is promoting the development of renewable energy after decades of government refusal to even consider that option.

So, what does the Church say?

In 1975, the Canadian bishops expressed strong reservations to the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline and called for “a public search for alternative policies for northern development.”

The bishops summed up their reservations by stating, “Until we as a society begin to change our own lifestyles based on wealth and comfort, until we begin to change the profit oriented priorities of our industrial system, we will continue placing exorbitant demands on the limited supplies of energy in the North and end up exploiting the people of the North in order to get those resources.”

In 2009, Bishop Luc Bouchard, then bishop of St. Paul, Alta., said the present rate of oil sands development could not be morally justified. “I am forced to conclude that the integrity of creation in the Athabasca oil sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. The proposed future development of the oil sands constitutes a serious moral problem.”

In 2015, Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si’, wrote, “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat [global] warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

The Alberta throne speech came the day after Ash Wednesday. Among other things, Lent is a season learn to live simply – not just for 40 days, but forever. In Laudato Si’, the pope gave numerous suggestions that could lead to “ecological conversion.” This might be a good time to try some of those on for size.

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