Pipelines: Industry and Harper Government Slow in Recognizing Paradigm Shift

Pipelines used to be the seldom-spoken, under-or-over ground means for oil, gas and chemical companies to transport their products to refineries and markets. Crisscrossing Canada and the United States, most of us were left unawares or unconcerned of the exact route these pipelines snaked in or near our towns, water sources, communities and larger urban centres.

In my lifetime, the Exxon Valdez spill was the first grand spill to catch our collective North American attention, dumping 11 million gallons of crude oil off the Alaskan coast. But even then, the spill happened out there, in a bay far away from our homes, in another country’s northern waters. And it involved conventional oil on a tanker.

Alberta’s oilsands, a much heavier, more corrosive, highly flammable and stickier oil traversing through and over our lands, changes the narrative. It’s not there, but here. Through our towns, backyards, under our busy city streets, near subways, schools, community playgrounds, churches and transportation hubs. The Kalamazoo River spill in 2010 demonstrated the immediate dangers of placing pipelines carrying oilsands near large populations and waterways, and with a spill of that magnitude, the impact of slow detection and clean-up efforts.

The United States Department of Transportation, which tracks pipelines spills, noted 5622 spills from 1994-2013, causing $6.1 billion in property damages and 323 fatalities.

While similar data is difficult to gather in Canada, CBC was able to track 1047 pipeline spills between 2000-2012, and included an interactive map showing locations over the 12-year period. When you consider the National Energy Board found the rate of product release (from small leaks to large spills) rose dramatically to 13 incidents per 10,000 km from 4 in the year 2000, aging pipeline infrastructure must be a concern going forward.

Between Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and Line 9, and TransCanada’s Energy-East and Keystone, safety of the environment and people is now at the forefront of any pipeline project talk on a nationwide basis. And why many dissenting groups are going public with their concern, building momentum with each passing month.

Provincial Demands

Immediate costs to clean the spills or pay for property damage is borne by affected communities, governments and insurers. Lawsuits seeking financial remediation bring future remediation, but as Lac-Mégantic taught us, the transport of oilsands closer to towns and urban centres, brings significantly higher property and environmental damage, let alone human toll, to the pipeline project equation.

An equation that is markedly different from previous eras’ pipeline construction projects. And with conditions, such as those British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario governments require of Enbridge, TransCanada, and the governments of Alberta and Canada.

From economic benefits for BC, Ontario and Quebec, to independent provincial environmental reviews, comprehensive emergency plans with compensation funding in case of spills, and satisfying the concerns of First Nations and all affected communities, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in energy extraction, transport and trade.

It’s no longer a matter of discussions in boardrooms, behind closed doors, but in public. Where everyone watches. Whether Enbridge, TransCanada, Kinder Morgan and the Conservative government are willing it admit or not.

Climate Change Changes Pipeline Construction Dynamic

Canadians are deeply concerned of the climate change effects of the product being transported: in a 2014 University of Montreal/Canada 2200 funded poll, 84% of Canadians expected the Harper government to make climate change a priority.

While the Conservative government and pipeline companies like to argue “pipelines don’t have any bearing on emissions”, separating pipelines from the climate change effects of the oilsands is duplicitous and disingenuous. It’s the same false logic used by gun owners, to argue guns don’t kill. They are, and will always be, a critical part of the equation and must serve the solutions society and First Nations seek in this debate.

We know the Conservatives have evaded any real discussion or science related to climate change. They rewrote countless environmental, employment and marine regulations, paving the way for less costlier oilsands extraction and transport for the energy industry. The regulations for oil and gas companies promised years ago, are unknown and unwritten.

If the federal government had spent the same amount of energy leading, researching, and funding more sustainable technologies in the extraction and transport of oilsands, implemented Canadian-designed emissions controls, encouraged and funded national conservation efforts, and engaged First Nations from the outset, perhaps the provinces and citizens would be willing partners in pipeline project discussions, rather than resort to the kind of demonstrations now taking place on Burnaby Mountain against Kinder Morgan.

The absence of an energy plan by a government that has staked its economic stewardship on oilsands, mining and energy, is devoid of logic. Telling Canadians and Americans that he will “not take no for an answer” regarding Keystone XL is bush league politics, especially when Conservatives have not delivered the one thing America has asked for – serious carbon policy and regulations – to demonstrate Canada is ready to deliver on their agreed to emissions commitment. Not exactly smart politics for a party banking it reputation on the Canadian economy.

Factor in pipeline producers willing to hire global public relations agencies like Edelman to put pressure or target well-funded opponents of oilsands like the David Suzuki Foundation, Aavaz, and Council of Canadians or to develop proxy groups to do their bidding, it’s not difficult to see why we’re at an impasse with nary a resolution in sight. An impasse costing Canada $50 million in revenue daily (source: Canadian Chamber of Canada). Missing from the top and bottom lines of oilsands producers.

Neither the federal government, nor pipeline producers will admit to the paradigm shift in the development of Alberta’s oilsands and all pipeline projects. Yes, transport by rail is another option, but rail is costlier and about to get even more so. It’s also far more prone to safety risks and spills (see Lac-Mégantic, and numerous derailments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario). Adding operational costs when the price of oil is plummeting towards $60 a barrel and labour costs are rising, deters new investments and projects in the oilsands.

The Path Ahead

When faced with a complete break-down in negotiations, or an unwillingness from one party to consider the other side’s requests, I often advised my customers or staff, to bring new faces to the table. New participants won’t bear the weight of failed negotiations, may offer unique expertise and new ideas for resolution or momentum towards agreement on some conditions.

We’re well past that point in the oilsands and pipelines politics and business.

Alberta and New Brunswick’s new Premiers’ willingness to discuss the other provinces’ concerns, serves that point well. They are new participants in this exercise, and will be or have met with Premiers Wynne and Couillard to discuss possible ways forward.

Mr Wall of Saskatchewan might wish to take notes.

I would argue that both Mr. Harper and the federal government’s presence at the energy table has run its course, as have the leaders of the corporations involved in oilsands and pipeline construction operating on the old paradigm.

A new goverment in Ottawa will have a better chance of developing serious climate change policy based on science, regulations and the inevitable carbon pricing necessary to meet our global commitments on emissions control.

A new federal government could reset relations with First Nations by accepting their primary role in any energy development on their ancestral lands, while also developing a comprehensive and diverse national energy plan. One that incorporates all the energy options available in Canada.

Resolving concerns of all the interested parties also creates a more predictable funding formula for the business community, and could go a long way in opening the doors for new projects in sustainable conventional and green energy development.

While the global arena would welcome a responsible and accountable Canada, one capable of trading in Ontario’s lead on clean technology and green energy. A strong economy and carbon reduction policies mitigating climate change do not have to be mutually exclusive. Designed well, inclusive of the necessary infrastructure to transport our energies, and funded by federal investment dollars, one can boost the other.

It starts with energy companies, provincial and federal governments recognizing the public’s and First Nations’  interests. Which federal party will be bold enough to come to the new bargaining table and assume national leadership?

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Caroline Kalaydjian

In 2005, I left the corporate arena to assist small and medium sized businesses capture their vast potential. I encouraged owners and managers to incorporate agility, creativity, productivity and efficiency throughout their business operations. Today, I marry my concerns for (ethical) business, politics, socio-economics, youth advocacy, poverty, social justice, and geopolitics with my first and longest love, that of writing. Both as a freelance business storyteller, on Business Architect, and in everyday analysis on this site, I hope to shed light on the converging threads that bind society to the every-day impact of decisions made in the public and private realms.

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