How to talk to oil and gas enthusiasts: Canadian edition

March 18, 2018

Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, I am now witnessing what is arguably the most important energy policy debate on the North American continent today. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proposal is pitting province against province, and province against the federal government of Canada, in increasingly dramatic terms. Thrown in for good measure, my home state of Washington, neighboring British Columbia, has good reason to get involved in the dispute as well.

The concern south of the border has to do with significantly increased oil tanker traffic, and the potential for spills right in the middle of orca territory. The prolific journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Joel Connelly, reviews the risks here: Connelly: Dow Constantine joins B.C. pipeline resistance.

The concern in the Vancouver area, where the pipeline expansion terminates in massive holding tanks, includes pipeline leaks, emissions, and fire risk to the local residents. The public health risks, which include exposure to lethal chemicals, are compellingly detailed in the 2016 study, Kinder Morgan and Public Health, written by a group of physicians.

For an overview of the project, including the federal government of Canada’s reasoning for approving it, see Justin Trudeau Approves Oil Pipeline Expansion in Canada.

The province of Alberta has for decades been a powerful voice in Canadian energy policy-making, with vast reserves of oil and natural gas that it sells both to other Canadian provinces, and to international markets. Their expressed concern with B.C.’s objection to the pipeline expansion is economic. In the popular imagination, whenever we hear stories of oil workers thrown out of work or industry towns in the carbon economy falling victim to out-of-touch environmental priorities, we conjure up images of honest, no-nonsense folk working hard just to scrape out a modest living. It’s easy to forget that the average standard of living in an area like Alberta is comparatively very high. Moreover, this standard of living is based on a diversified economy, not entirely dependent on a carbon energy sector.

Yet B.C. and Alberta have for a couple of years now simply been talking past one another, and getting increasingly shrill about it. I’m trying to imagine a new discussion path, whereby we can value the oil and gas resources available in Alberta, yet respect the health, safety, and environmental objections of a broad coalition of people in British Columbia and the state of Washington.


 
Think of the oil and gas as a bank account. And not just any old checking account, but as part of a regional (and even global) nest egg. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly.


The carbon-based resources are a form of security, socked away against hard times or emergencies. We should be grinning from ear to ear that we have it, that we know how to use it for our energy needs, and that we can now keep it in the ground to save it for later. We should be proud that we can pass it along like an inheritance to future generations, not just decades down the road, but centuries.

The plain, immutable fact is that carbon-based energy resources are finite. Yes, it’s lovely to discover new natural gas plays and oil fields. But no matter what, they are finite, and frankly we are already glimpsing at this finitude. Deep-water drilling has proven to be exceedingly dangerous. And, even more to the point in the debate about the Kinder Morgan pipeline, when you are champing at the bit to utilize tar sands, an extremely dirty and expensive-to-process form of oil, you know you’ve reached some kind of inflection point for energy policy.

Renewables (primarily wind and solar, combined with some form of storage) should be the energy currency we are using now for day-to-day “expenses.” In places where hydro infrastructure already exists, and provides an abundant source of clean power, this can complement wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal options. Energy efficiency measures, particularly useful when scaled to large metro populations, must underlie the whole system.

And finally, gratefully, in back of all this will be our reserves of oil and gas, hopefully never having to be used. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly. I can imagine a new mind-set that would even consider these resources beautiful, part of our beautiful home rock, part of our loved environment. Precisely because they are kept in the ground.

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