Can a pipelines environmental impact be quelled by quashing a deal or does it just get passed down the line?
With the newly-formed alliance between BC’s NDP and Green parties set to topple the re-instated Liberal minority government, the showdown over Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is about to ramp to new heights.
But opinions differ over what’s really at stake in the deal —and, more broadly, whether opposition to pipeline expansion is truly the best approach to advance the environmental cause.
Does the killing of pipeline projects actually help reduce our carbon footprint or are those fossil fuels still going to make it out of the ground and into our gas tanks, one way or another?
Today, the Green Party’s Andrew Weaver and the NDP’s John Horgan brought out their detailed agreement on the terms for consultation between the two parties as well as their plans on a wide range of policy initiatives, prominent among them being refusing the federal government-approved Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Specifically, the parties promise to “immediately employ every tool available to the new government to stop the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the seven-fold increase in tanker traffic on our coast and the transportation of raw bitumen through our province.”
Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta premier Rachel Notley have recently come out to reaffirm their belief that the pipeline expansion, which Trudeau and his cabinet signed off on last November, will go ahead.
“That pipeline will be built,” said Notley, with a defiant tone. “Provinces do not have the right to unilaterally stop projects such as Trans Mountain that have earned the federal government’s approval.”
A pipelines environmental impact: A study conducted last year by a University of Alberta engineer found that emissions generated by pipeline transport of bitumen (both in terms of pipeline construction and maintenance) are between 61 and 77 per cent lower than those produced by rail transport…
Yet, while the jury is still out on how difficult it might be for the $7 billion expansion to proceed with BC actively resisting —a project which will entail installation of almost 1,000 kilometres of new pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, BC —the question remains, will scuppering the deal really be an environmental win?
In 2013, the US State Department released its report on the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which is aimed at bringing bitumen from Alberta down to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of as much as 830,000 barrels a day. The report came out in favour of the proposal (which has since received approval by current US president Donald Trump), arguing that it was likely that the oilsands in Alberta were going to be developed regardless and that transporting bitumen by pipeline is more effective and produces less greenhouse gases than using rail transport.
That conclusion on greenhouse gas emissions has been confirmed in a study last year by a researchers with the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta who found that emissions generated by pipeline transport of bitumen (both in terms of pipeline construction and maintenance) are between 61 and 77 per cent lower than those produced by rail transport.
“The rail scenario doesn’t get significantly more efficient with scale (i.e. capacity of transportation) as you simply add more trains,” says study co-author, Amit Kumar, Associate Industrial Research Chair in Energy and Environmental Systems Engineering at the University of Alberta, to Cantech Letter. “Due to the fluid dynamics of pipelines if the fluid velocity is kept constant but a larger diameter is used (increased flow rate) you get a more efficient flow.”
If bitumen extraction is going to proceed nonetheless, why not go with pipelines?
Thus, the argument goes, if bitumen extraction is going to proceed nonetheless, why not go with pipelines?
“We need to get off fossil fuels by mid century,” says Keith Brooks, Program Director for Environmental Defence Canada. “That means we need to stop investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure and invest in clean energy instead.”
Brooks argues that aside from the serious issues concerning bitumen spills, threats to endangered species and environmental contamination associated with extraction and transport, expanding pipelines greatly impacts carbon emissions, equivalent to 2.7 million extra cars on the road in the case of Trans Mountain.
“The government of Canada has committed to reducing Canada’s carbon pollution, but they have not shown how building new pipelines fits with that commitment,” says Brooks.
One of the most divisive issues of the past decade, oil and gas pipelines are also representative of what George Hoberg, professor of environmental and natural resource policy and governance at UBC, calls the politics of structure — how different stakeholders are competing, in this case, to decide whether building a new pipeline is in the public interest.
In a 2016 paper delivered at a meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, Hoberg says on the Trans Mountain extension, a range of political actors, from the oil and gas industry to the various levels of government, environmental and First Nations groups, are all vying for control of the issue, a confluence which ultimately makes the role of national leader all the more difficult for Trudeau, who Hoberg says has “committed to a multiple of conflicting objectives.”
“He has repeatedly promoted the importance of supporting the Alberta oil sector by diversifying the market for oil sands,” writes Hoberg. “But he also ran on the slogan that “governments grant permits, but communities grant permission. Trudeau has also pledged reconciliation with First Nations and the full implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, yet a number of First Nations are vehemently opposed to the project.”
But, even if Trudeau in Ottawa and Notley in Edmonton somehow relent and the Trans Mountain project is shelved, won’t all that bitumen still find its way to a refinery, somehow and someday? Not necessarily, says Brooks.
“Tar sands oil is some of the most expensive oil in the world to extract. And continuing low prices of oil mean that many tar sands projects are uneconomic,” says Brooks. “195 countries signed the Paris Agreement and committed to fighting climate change. That means bringing the age of the fossil fuels to an end,” he said.