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Oil Spills in Alberta Should Make us Think About The “Big Picture”

2012/06/24

At the moment, there is a push to have two major pipelines built from the Alberta Tar Sands project in northern Alberta.  The Keystone XL pipeline would stretch 2700 km, through Canada and the US, in order to reach refineries along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas.  The 1200 km Northern Gateway pipeline would make its way through the Rocky Mountains and over hundreds of rivers in northern Alberta and northern BC in order to reach the Pacific coast of British Columbia.

While being strongly supported by Canada’s federal Conservatives, both pipelines have met intense opposition from environmental groups, First Nations, scientists and even Nobel Peace Prize winners.  And now, it seems that Lady Luck is putting in her two cents as Alberta has suffered three major oil spills in the past six weeks.  The latest incident was near the town of Elk Point where 230,000 litres spilled from an Enbridge pumping station.  (By the way, Enbridge is the company that wants to build the Northern Gateway pipeline).  The second incident was near Red Deer, and saw 475,000 litres spill into the wild, some of which ended up in the Red Deer River.  Finally, in May, a spill in northwestern Alberta totalled 585,000 litres.

People who support the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines (or people who are against renewable forms of energy) will argue that this is the cost of our modern lifestyles.  As Alberta’s Energy Minister, Ken Hughes, recently said:

Canadians want to drive their automobiles and they want their gasoline available at their corner gas store not far away from their homes and those products get there through our pipeline system.  The number of pipelines we have means incidents like this occur from time to time and they simply cannot be avoided in a province like Alberta.

There are many problems with that argument.  First, part of the reason for the spills in Alberta is that the pipelines are old and need to be better maintained.  In other words, the spills could have been avoided.  However, as long as governments are not willing to severely fine the companies that suffer the spills, it makes no economic sense for Enbridge, or any other company, to invest in improving their aging pipelines.  That is why we need strong regulations and governments willing to enforce them.  The idea that an industry such as the oil and gas industry will “regulate itself” is absolutely ridiculous.  The industry will do what it needs to do in order to improve its bottom line.  So if you want oil and gas companies to invest in the maintenance and repair of their pipelines, you have to make the spills more expensive than the maintenance and repair.

Capitalism.  At its worst.

The second problem with the “that’s-just-how-it-is” argument is that we have other, cleaner ways of producing energy.  Yes, we will need oil and gas for years to come, no matter how aggressively we move to renewables.  However, that does not mean that we should be investing billions of dollars in new pipelines.  This would only encourage a greater use of fossil fuels at a time when we need to do the complete opposite.  Those billions should instead be used to improve the current pipelines, improve the monitoring of those pipelines and, for when spills do happen, improve the technology used to contain and clean up the spills.  But, none of those things are happening.  Why?  Because it doesn’t improve the industry’s bottom line.

However, as governments around the world consider the approval of new pipelines, new coal plants and new natural gas wells, they must take our worsening climate into consideration.  If we continue to invest in and rely upon fossil fuels, we are on pace to add enough carbon dioxide into our atmosphere to increase the average temperature of our planet by 6 degrees before the end of this century.   We cannot adapt to +6 degrees.  Our modern society cannot survive at +6 degrees.  No matter how many jobs, how much tax revenue or how much profit the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines will create, if we do not stop investing in fossil fuels, we condemn ourselves and the all residents of this planet to incredible hardship.

And I am scared that we do not have the will to do what is right.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. 2012/06/24 1:44 pm

    Good article Joce. Keep up the good work. I caught this reposted on fb.

  2. Martin Lack permalink
    2012/06/25 12:01 pm

    Nice one. Presumably, you have seen this:
    http://climatecrocks.com/2012/06/25/video-a-childs-song-about-tar-sands/

    As for Capitalism, having had a go at Socialism today, I will attack that tomorrow.

    • 2012/06/25 3:17 pm

      Thank you for the link to the song. Very cool to see children getting involved – you gotta love the way the see environmental problems. They have such an honesty to them. Maybe should let kids run the world!

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/06/25 4:05 pm

        Yes indeed. I just wish i could make out all the words…

      • 2012/06/26 10:37 pm

        You want lyrics?

        Marvellous thing this innerwebz thing, sometimes.

      • 2012/06/27 3:38 am

        Thanks!

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/06/27 4:09 am

        Thanks from me too, Pendantry.

        JP – what on Earth are you doing up at 3:38am?

      • 2012/06/27 6:13 am

        I’m an early riser : )

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/06/27 6:25 am

        I’ve heard about “getting up with the birds” but that is ridiculous.

      • 2012/06/27 6:42 am

        Well, at this point, I’d call it insomnia. But, I try to use my extra time wisely!

      • Martin Lack permalink
        2012/06/27 6:55 am

        JP, I wake up early in the summer too but I think this is because the Sun shines on the bedroom window first thing in the morning; and I haven’t lined the curtains with black material as it would look rather sinister from the outside (although lining them with something, anything, would probably do the job). However, when I say “early”, I only mean 5 or 6 am (not 3:30)…!

  3. 2012/06/25 1:47 pm

    “Alberta’s Energy Minister, Ken Hughes, recently said:
    ‘Canadians want to drive their automobiles and they want their gasoline available at their corner gas store not far away from their homes and those products get there through our pipeline system.’

    And there’s the problem with our so-called ‘democracy’. Poll a bunch of sheep about whether they want to be slaughtered painfully or painlessly, and the answer (given that they can’t consider an alternative to ending up on the shelf in the local butcher shop Tesco’s) is predetermined.

    • 2012/06/25 3:09 pm

      Now that is an interesting analogy!

    • Martin Lack permalink
      2012/06/27 4:21 am

      Children demand many things but have to be taught that they cannot have everything they want. Of course, what Ken Hughes means is “We want Canadians to drive their automobiles and demand their gasoline… so that we can sell it to them and make a massive profit.”

      Having finally gotten round to watching the classic movie Trainspotting, I must say that our governments operate like pharmacies handing out free heroin to addicts; whilst taking a share of the profits made by all the funeral directors as well…

      • 2012/06/27 7:57 am

        … and they blame all the ils on ‘voter apathy’ (while secretly working to increase this trait to further entrench their hold on the reins).

      • 2012/06/27 8:24 am

        I don’t know if it is the same all over the world, but it is extremely difficult to get unfiltered “information” in Canada. And you need to have everyone equiped with the facts (not just the opinions) in order for people to make the right decisions. Instead, everyone seems to be yelling at each other, calling each other names and running attack adds trying to smear “the other guy”… although that last one is mostly the work of the right.

        So, in a way, I can see why most people aren’t motivated to go out and vote. It’s not an excuse, but rather my obeservations.

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