Earlier this week, after almost four years of hearings and deliberations, Canada’s Joint Review Panel announced its approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline project. The panel, created by the Minister of the Environment and the National Energy Board, was tasked with evaluating the social, economic, and environmental harms and benefits of the proposed pipeline and making a recommendation on whether the project should proceed. The proposal now passes to the federal government, which has 180 days to come to a decision. The Joint Review Panel’s stamp of approval comes with a list 209 required conditions that Enbridge must adhere to and during construction.
Let’s start with some background. The Northern Gateway project is a proposal by Enbridge to build a twin pipeline from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, BC. One pipeline would carry 525,000 barrels of bitumen (heavy oil) per day from Alberta to the coast, while the other would transport condensate (a light oil mixture used to dilute the bitumen for transport) back east. The proposal includes the construction of a marine terminal in Kitimat, from where oil tankers could transport crude to Asian markets. To put this into context, the Alberta oil sands produced 1.7 million barrels of bitumen per day in 2011. The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, awaiting Obama’s final decision on its uncertain future, would transport 850,000 barrels per day from Alberta to the Gulf Coast.
I have to admit that I’m torn when it comes to pipeline construction. From a distance, it looks like a classic case of environment vs economy. I hate when questions are phrased in this way, since it perpetuates the inaccurate stereotype that one must be chosen at the expense of the other. In the majority of cases, I would argue, compromise is not only possible but also the path of least resistance. Due to the scale and nature of the Northern Gateway pipeline, however, some degree of polarization will inevitably exist.
The project creates two major environmental costs. First, it acts to perpetuate oil sands development. For those unfamiliar with the distinction between oil sands and conventional oil extraction, the former requires more energy due to its more intensive production and refining demands. As a result, the carbon footprint (and cost) per barrel of oil is higher. In terms of global CO2 emissions, Alberta oil sands are clearly one of the worst offenders and have thus become one of the faces of unsustainable energy use. Second, the pipeline’s nearly 1,200 km expanse crosses forests, waterways, towns, and First Nations territories; a spill could well prove devastating to wildlife, ecosystems, and locals.
The first argument can be rather easily dismissed. Oil sands operations have shown rapid growth in the past and present. Gateway is just one of the possible outlets of crude oil supply from the province, and in my mind far better than the alternatives. The first alternative is Keystone XL, which continues to route the majority of Albertan oil to the US. Given the United States’ recent drive towards energy independence, this option seems to lack foresight. Gateway allows the diversification of exports, reducing Canada’s economic dependence on the United States. Perhaps more significantly, there has recently been a disconcerting trend towards transport of oil by rail, fueled by the limited capacity of current pipeline networks. The risks presented by this option far exceed those posed by pipelines, as evidenced by this summer’s catastrophic derailment in Lac Megantic, Quebec, as well as notable others.
The second argument remains, but in my mind has been addressed with due diligence. The intensive review process has made Northern Gateway one of the most scrutinized proposals of its kind in the world. The fact that it has not been taken lightly is evidenced by the 209 conditions placed on the project by the Joint Review Board. These range from the development of a marine mammal protection plan to in-depth emergency response and spill management protocols. The review has not only ensured the ongoing transparency and accountability of the project but has also raised the standards for similar proposals in the future, not only in Canada but across the world. This, in my eyes, is key to breaking the environment vs economy stereotype; environmental risks should not be presented as an enemy to economic development of any kind, but should instead serve to establish a dialogue that promotes foresight and responsible decision-making.
Be warned: you may have just sustained a lethal dose of mostly harmless science.
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Cover photo courtesy of jimmywayne, Flickr Creative Commons.