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