Several friends who I love and respect disagree with me. They tell me they support pipeline expansion because it means jobs and investment. They tell me that pipelines are safer than trains. They tell me that we’re not going to stop using oil overnight and if the world keeps needing oil we’ll have to keep transporting it somehow.
I urge them to reconsider because:
- Climate change is happening; it’s very dangerous; and it’s mostly caused by burning fossil fuels (oil, coal & gas) which produce CO2
- To reduce the threat, humanity must stop accelerating its production of CO2 – in fact decelerate
- Doubling, quadrupling and sextupling production of oil in Alberta, as is planned, facilitates continued acceleration of CO2 production—it runs counter to deceleration
- Adding pipeline infrastructure enables increased sales of Alberta oil, hence supporting accelerated extraction—worse, it virtually guarantees acceleration as investors demand return on the tens of billions to be spent building the pipelines
- Preventing expanded pipeline infrastructure puts a brake on expanded oil sales and extraction and thus puts a brake on Alberta’s and Canada’s accelerating CO2 contributions.
Focus on jobs, investment, safety and an ongoing need for oil doesn’t add up to as big a problem as climate change. These are secondary concerns when it comes to Canada’s pipelines.
How real and dangerous is climate change? In 2011 the International Energy Agency—an independent organization established by the OECD—stated that “on planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.” In 2012 the World Bank said there is “no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C [warmer] world is possible” and in 2013 business consulting giant Price Waterhouse Coopers said that planning for such a world is about “societal survival.”
Governments have not made progress addressing carbon polution but there is one thing they have agreed on; that 2°C represents “dangerous” warming. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change pledged to prevent dangerous warming. In the context of the words of the World Bank, IEA, and Price Waterhouse Coopers “dangerous” must be read as “catastrophic climate change” where “adaptation” may be impossible and “societal survival” is at risk.
We are now on a path beyond 2°C toward 4°C this century alone according to authoritative sources including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To avoid overshooting 2°C IEA says “more than two-thirds of current proven fossil-fuel reserves” will have to remain in the ground. British multinational bank HSBC agrees saying “between two-thirds and four-fifths of current reserves cannot be commercialised.”
In effect these leading voices in the energy industry and financial world are warning that climate change is so real and so dangerous that we can expect extraction, sale and use of fossil fuels to come under prohibitions or strong economic disincentives.
This throws new light on the motivations of developers of Alberta oil reserves and pipeline infrastructure. To make money on Alberta’s oil assets fast action is needed. Using this oil is so damaging that in the not too distant future it may represent stranded assets. How soon? Many analyses indicate that declines must begin before the year 2020.
The Alberta oil industry hopes to increase annual tar sands production to more than 600% of what it was in 2002. To carry the oil to market pipeline proponents are pushing plans that would extend pipelines across the full span of North America; west to east and north to south.
Resisting the pipelines that would enable faster extraction of Alberta oil is therefore an effort to protect against the substantial threat of climate change.
The numbers of jobs that are said to come with pipeline expansion depend on who’s making the claim, ranging from unbelievably many jobs to unbelievably few. In either case, do we want to promote jobs in a globally threatening industry?
Investment in pipelines perpetuates and amplifies our climate change challenge. The International Energy Agency points to “the long lifetime of capital stock in the energy sector.” It warns that “failure to deter additional investment in emissions-intensive infrastructure, thereby ‘locking in’ emissions for decades to come” will only make addressing the challenge “more costly and difficult to achieve.”
In sum the question is: are pipelines a good investment for Canada and the world? Economists agree that there is a cost to climate change; they debate the dollar value. IPCC author and economist Mark Jaccard reviewed published studies across the full range of imagined costs of $15 to $100 per tonne of carbon. He concluded that at any of these prices new pipelines are a bad investment overall. He says the “global energy system must be transitioning now away from CO2 emitting technologies and infrastructure, on the supply and demand side.”
Pipeline spills and train safety are indeed risks. But those risks have increased with Alberta oil expansion. Moving even greater volumes of oil will increase the risks again. So addressing the greater risk of climate change and avoiding shipping six times as much oil will also reduce pipeline and train risk. It is true that the world can’t stop using fossil fuels overnight. But the path we’re on is the opposite of a reasonable ramp-down from the status quo. Production and delivery at present and diminishing levels can continue without new pipelines.
Some Canadians support pipeline expansion based on information the oil industry is promoting. Canadians also strongly support action to fight climate change. In this case we can’t have it both ways.