The Enbridge Pipeline: a necessary evil?

The Enbridge pipeline proposal to transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil from the Alberta tar sands to the B.C. Pacific Coast for shipping overseas by oil tankers is controversial to say the least. Numerous Aboriginal groups such as the Yinka-Dene Alliance have protested against the project. I will be the first to mark the day when biodiesel (an organic substitute for petroleum) can be produced on an industrial scale to take the place of oil. But if we are to live in a world where fossil fuels are used to make everything from gasoline and jet fuel to ink and rubber, we are going to have to consider our best options for shipping our oil out, with an emphasis on safety and efficiency.

The need for oil goes beyond gassing up the clunker that you drive to school every day or the bus you run to catch; governments will support oil production until they find an easy replacement, regardless of  warnings of oil shortages and environmental damage. The 2010 television program World Without Oil speculates about the massive effects of oil shortages. The program depicts shortages of anything derived from petroleum products, including rubber, ink, plastic, asphalt, industrial lubricants, fertilizers, and fuel for vehicles ranging from scooters and trains to airplanes and rockets. International and national commerce becomes impossible, making food distribution impossible as well, until agriculture and urban life becomes more localized. Although fictional, the program demonstrates the inescapable value of oil. Most politicians are going to walk away from the economic benefits of being a better global source of fossil fuels, as long as they can raise tax revenue from it.

For Canada to make the most of our oil and liquid natural gas reserves, we have to ship to the best markets. That means Asia, specifically China and Japan. Though the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 hasn’t changed enough minds yet, the Japanese may eventually look to non-nuclear sources of power, and liquefied natural gas from B.C. may be a good prospect. And although China’s economy is slowing down, the Chinese will still need massive amounts of oil and natural gas; Canada is a good market for both. America is a net exporter of oil thanks to shale oil drilling. Their demand for Canadian oil may decline in coming years.

There have been concerns from the provincial government about the safety of the coastline from oil spills. However, that seems to have been dealt with quickly. While Premier Clark said in a CBC interview on Oct. 2, 2013 that, “We are woefully under-resourced [to deal with a Pacific Coast oil spill]”, she seems to have changed her mind: she gave a joint press conference on Nov. 5, 2013 saying she was satisfied with the “framework agreement” with Alberta Premier Allison Redford. That must have been some fast work on the part of the Federal government, as it is in charge of international waterways.

Are there alternatives to pipelines if we want to ship oil to the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, or the Atlantic coasts for export? Other than pipelines, tanker trucks and trains are most common. The problem with these methods is that they are more likely to have oil spills than pipelines due to the extra hazards associated with moving vehicles on transport routes. In 2011 there were 45 truck spills with an average of 3 620 litres spilled per accident; one train spilled 70 000 liters, and 259 pipelines spill an average 12 259 liters per accident. The number of accidents makes you wonder how  the amounts would compare if the Enbridge Pipeline either succeeded, or failed and oil was transported by trucks and train.

While I don’t like the idea of supertankers on the Pacific Coast, as long as Canada is in the business of exporting oil, all options need to be considered on their merits—if any.

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