Pipeline to the Future: How the Movement of Oil Defines Our Relationship to the Environment and Aboriginal Canadians (TRENT Magazine Feature)

Two Trent Alumni Weigh in on Canada's Pipeline Decisions

The following is a feature from the Winter/Spring edition of TRENT Magazine.

This edition features some fascinating current events pieces, viewed through the unique prism of Trent alumni and faculty:

On the cover, Dr. Dan Longboat '70, director of Trent's Indigenous Environmental Education program, presents a piece on the current state of Indigenous education. As a companion piece, alumna Amanda Hobbs '11 shines the light on Professor Emeritus Shirley Williams '70, and her approach to Indigenous education.

Professor Emeritus Harry Kitchen, who has been in the media spotlight of late discussing new ideas in municipal taxation, weighs in on how taxing service users can help drive both revenue and behavioural change.

And, as a special treat, we have an excerpt from alumnus Bill Waiser's '71 Governor General Award-winning A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905.

While TRENT Magazine is always available online, you can also receive hard copies of all three annual editions (Winter, Summer, Fall) in the mail.  Simply email alumni@trentu.ca to get on our subscription list.

Pipeline to the Future: How the Movement of Oil Defines Our Relationship to the Environment and Aboriginal Canadians

For what seemed like the longest time, Canada was seen as a global environmental leader. We were a land of lakes, rivers, and forests—and of a people who (mostly) wanted to preserve the vast tracts of land that make up our huge nation. We were active participants in agreements and accords, organizing the Montreal Summit (and then Protocol) on CFCs and leading the charge at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit.

We were active in the negotiations that led to the Kyoto Accord. And then…

Well, and then we slipped.

As the global economy became a more prominent issue, Canada began promoting the health of industry over the health of the planet. In an attempt to maintain sustained economic growth, we’ve tried to position ourselves as an “emerging energy superpower,” with oil sands production being a major part of the plan.

Since then, we’ve withdrawn from Kyoto, dragged our feet at other international conferences, and seen an overall weakening of environmental laws and regulations.

And while we had slipped to near the bottom of global environmental rankings by the middle of this current decade, there was always hope that we would eventually rebound. The fact that we sent a large Canadian delegation to Paris in November 2015, had some environmentalists boldly pronouncing that Canada was reclaiming its place as an environmental leader. We then led the charge to support limiting warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, with 1.5 degrees Celsius as a level of global ambition.

But even then, analysts wondered aloud if these bold pronouncements were actually achievable.

All of which makes the issue of Canadian oil pipelines a massively important one—and one that has led to no shortage of debate. Pipelines have dominated headlines over the past year: from the protests at Standing Rock, to Justin Trudeau’s controversial decision to move forward on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline projects, to Donald Trump’s Keystone pipeline approval (and its impact on Canadian decisions to come). Lost in this was the fact that we’ve had a resource-extraction based economy since long before we were ever a nation. Our global economic position has always depended on pulling trees, minerals, and oil from the ground.

But just how do the expansions of Canadian pipelines affect the environmental bottom line of our country? Proponents argue that they are the only economically sustainable path to an eventual green energy future. Opponents say that we need to make strides to reduce our oil consumption immediately—particularly the carbon-intensive extraction of bitumen from the Northern oil sands—and that we need to halt pipeline growth. And then there is the issue of how to properly address the building of pipelines on Aboriginal treaty land.

TRENT Magazine Editor Donald Fraser reached out to a pair of alumni with very different backgrounds and viewpoints for some answers. Abe House '92 is an environmental policy advisor with TransCanada Corp. Keith Stewart '86 is the head of Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign (see full bios of each, below). We hoped to explore how pipeline decisions would affect our efforts towards sustainability, environmental protection, and a more harmonious relationship with First Nations individuals and groups.

We hoped to find out where we now stand as a nation.


TRENT Magazine (TM): It’s 2017. We have vowed to move to a more ecologically and environmentally sustainable energy future. Do we need to be expanding pipelines in Canada?

Alumnus Abe House fly fishing on Alberta's Bow River.

Abe House (AH): Affordable, reliable energy is essential to our modern way of life—it is the foundation of our standard of living. There is undoubtedly a growing demand to transition to a lower-carbon future fueled by cleaner energy alternatives. However, that is going to take time and I think that a lot of people forget that the world’s appetite for energy is still growing at the same time.

The reality is that the shift towards a lower-carbon future, a more sustainable future, requires investment in new pipelines now. Consider the benefits of pipelines exporting Canadian gas to China, for example. According to the International Energy Agency, natural gas exported from BC-based LNG terminals would largely replace coal-fired facilities in China. Experts believe these BC LNG projects could lower annual GHG emissions by as much as 176 million tonnes annually, as well as lower air pollution levels on the coasts of both countries. That is an important step on the way to a lower carbon future.

I think it is also important that Canadians understand that our country currently imports almost 570,000 barrels of oil each day to feed Canadian refineries from countries such as Algeria, Nigeria and Venezuela—countries with little environmental regulation on their crude oil production. Although Canada holds the third largest crude oil reserves in the world and follows strict environmental laws, unless new pipelines are built, Canadians will continue to rely on oil produced in foreign countries with little regard for the environment and we will not get the full value for our natural resources on the world market.

We are looking beyond pipelines too. The current energy landscape presents many opportunities for companies like TransCanada. On a national and global scale, we actively participate in supporting the energy shift from coal-fired generation to natural gas, nuclear and renewables. A great example is in Ontario where TransCanada is a key partner in the Bruce Power nuclear facility, which provides one third of the province’s power supply. We also continue to build and operate high-efficiency natural gas-fired power facilities that have helped make the province’s shift off coal possible.

Keith Stewart (KS): If you look at the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or even the International Energy Agency, basically what they’re saying is we have to phase out fossil fuels by mid-century or soon thereafter if we want to keep warming below two degrees—and even earlier, if we want to keep warming to a goal of 1.5 degrees. That means we have to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure, and start building low-carbon infrastructure. Renewable energy, public transit systems.

Pipelines in Canada are about expanding access to and use of the most carbon-intensive oil around—oil from the oil sands. They are taking us in the wrong direction. Some people will say that we’re not going to eliminate the use of fossil fuels immediately. They are correct, but we need to start making big strides today. We also need to have a plan for phasing out those operations over the coming decades. But the first step is to stop building new pipelines.

TM: We have seen accidents. We’ve seen leaks. We’ve become accustomed to news about spills related to trains, tankers, and pipelines. How safe or unsafe are pipelines?

AH: Pipelines are the safest, most efficient and environmentally responsible way to transport natural gas and petroleum products over long distances. They’re safer than train, truck and boat transport—a fact that is backed by independent research. A study conducted by the Fraser Institute, using data from the Transportation Safety Board and Transport Canada between 2003 and 2013, concluded that pipelines are actually 4.5 times safer than rail. Meanwhile, according to the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association 2016 industry performance report, in 2015, the pipeline industry recorded a safe delivery record of 99.999%.

Ensuring that pipelines and other facilities operate safely and reliably is top priority for a company like TransCanada. In 2015, we invested $1.5 billion in asset integrity and preventative maintenance programs—that’s serious investment into safety. We also invested more than $45 million in R&D and worked within industry partnerships to conduct research on the latest technologies and improve industry-wide standards that contribute to safer and more reliable pipelines.

That said, ensuring we’re all prepared in the unlikely event of an incident is part of our commitment to safety. To achieve this goal, TransCanada worked with local and public agencies to complete more than 125 emergency drills and exercises across our network of assets in 2015

Keith Stewart (right) protests the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Canada.

KS: You can never eliminate accidents. They will happen. But you can make them less likely. There are definitely things that we could do to make both pipelines and oil by rail a lot safer than they are today. But there is a financial cost. So it becomes a trade-off of sorts: how safe you want it to be and how much you’re willing to pay. The other question is: do we actually want to do more of this particular activity? One of the great benefits of moving away from oil, for instance, is that you not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but you also reduce all of the other negative impacts associated with it: water contamination from extraction, the risk of spills. If you’re not moving the oil, it’s not going to spill. And, really, that’s the only way you can guarantee safety.

TM: What do expanded pipelinesand the resulting increase in bitumen extractionsay about our carbon future, our attitudes towards the Northern environment, and our commitment to international agreements, such as the Paris Accord?

AH: New pipelines are required in order to transport oil and gas in the safest, most efficient manner possible. Pipeline capacity does not drive oil and gas production. We have seen this over the last decade as production has continued to grow and rail transport has filled the gap due to the lack of pipeline capacity.

The reality is that the demand for energy continues to grow worldwide and while we gradually shift to low-carbon sources, oil and gas continues to meet at least half of our energy needs. Oil plays a large role in our day-to-day lives. From smart phones, computers, and credit cards to medical necessities such as stethoscopes, syringes, bandages and surgical supplies—all are made using petroleum products.

We have yet to find a way to meet all our needs with emission-less energy sources, and until then fossil fuels will continue to be a key part of our energy mix. So, continuing to invest in reducing the emissions of these fossil fuels is paramount to our future. That’s why the energy sector continues to invest billions each year to generate emission-less energy and find innovative solutions to develop high-efficiency, lower-emitting production techniques.

It is worth noting that the vast majority (75% +) of greenhouse gas emissions in every barrel of crude oil come from the end use of that oil by consumers when they do things like drive cars and fly in planes. Reducing consumer demand for oil and gas is by far the most effective way to reduce GHGs. Focusing on the production and transportation of energy is not an effective way of addressing global challenge of climate change.

KS: So here we run into what is basically a math problem. If you look at what the pollsters are saying, and what the politicians are saying, the question, in essence, is: “Would you like to have your cake and eat it too?” And the answer from most people is, “Sure!” But when you actually look at the carbon math, if you look at the greenhouse gas emissions now from oil and gas extraction and processing—so, before it ever gets to the tank of your car—it is the largest single source in Canada. It’s more than transportation, it’s more than electricity, it’s more than buildings. It’s also the fastest rising source of greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s projected, if we keep business as usual, to continue to grow significantly over the next 10 to 15 years. It’s simple: if we don’t do something about our biggest source, there’s really no way we’re going to achieve our 2030 target, which is part of the Paris agreement.

Canada has—through several meetings and agreements—stated that we will achieve an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 2050 isn’t very far away. We need to start reducing our emissions now if we have any hope in hitting targets.

Whether you’re looking at the 2030 target or the 2050 target, there really is no way that expanding our largest source of emissions fits or is consistent with meeting our obligations under the Paris agreement. Instead, we’re deepening our addiction to oil.

And, just with an addiction, we keep telling ourselves we can stop any time. But the reality is that it’s going to take a long time. And we have to start now. So the answer isn’t building new pipelines. It’s investing those scarce resources into public transit, into electrification, into wind and solar, so that we can have a good quality of life without frying the planet.

TM: How are Aboriginal groups/communities involved in the process of pipeline construction? Is the consultative process working?

AH: TransCanada recognizes that our projects and assets have the potential to affect the lives of Indigenous people in tangible ways. As such, we are committed to building and maintaining long-term relationships with Indigenous communities based on respect, trust, open communication, and recognition that some of our activities occur within traditional territories.

Where the Crown duty to consult arises and activities may directly impact Aboriginal and treaty rights, TransCanada engages with these communities, as rights holders, to ensure they have an understanding of the project to make their own determinations of potential project impacts, and works with communities to minimize, avoid or mitigate potential impacts. We also seek opportunities outside the regulatory process, for their economic participation.

For example, we facilitate community participation in field studies and provide resources to conduct Traditional Land Use studies—information that is then incorporated into project planning and decision-making. The company also seeks to provide business, employment and training opportunities to the Indigenous communities potentially impacted by our projects and operations.

Ultimately, we know that respectful and long-term relationships with Indigenous communities are critical to TransCanada’s success.

To read recent examples demonstrating the company’s engagement process, visit our corporate social responsibility website.

KS: There’s a fascinating cognitive dissonance from the federal government on this. If you look at the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that was signed in December, there’s a paragraph there where the federal government reiterates its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, including the right to free, prior, and informed consent. We now have over 120 First Nations—Canadian First Nations and US tribes—that have signed on to the treaty alliance against tar sands expansion, who have said no to pipelines, to rail, to more tankers, more trucks. That’s from right across the continent.

All along these pipeline routes, you’ve had individual First Nations groups, regional organizations, like the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, or the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, all saying that they do not accept decisions being made. Yet the federal government is continuing to push ahead. Apparently they’re committed to free prior and informed consent … as long as the answer is yes.

That’s not respectful. It’s not consistent with the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It’s basically the old way of doing business, when we’d promised to change our ways. Canadians should not accept this. As a nation, we are committed to these principles or we’re not. And if the government is going to say, “Okay, we’re ignoring that principle in this case,” then they should be honest about it and then see if they still have the support to go forward.

Abe House is a graduate of the geography and environment science undergraduate program at Trent and earned a master’s degree in Environment Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University.  Abe spent time undertaking research at Trent University with the Institute for Watershed Science and supported Dr. Jim Buttle as a technologist, studying the impacts of disturbance on the hydrology of Ontario’s forests. Abe also worked as an environmental consultant for about five years with Golder Associates supporting the energy industry. Abe has spent the last eight years with TransCanada as an environment advisor. He was raised in the village of Lonsdale, Ontario, but calls Calgary his home. Abe spends most of his time away from work fly-fishing for trout on the Bow River and the many rivers that flow from Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. He considers himself a nature lover, a conservationist and an advocate for responsible development of energy.

Keith Stewart is the head of Greenpeace Canada’s climate and energy campaign, and a part-time faculty member at the University of Toronto, where he teaches a course on energy policy and the environment. He has worked as an energy policy analyst and advocate for the last 15 years, including on successful campaigns to phase out coal-fired power plants and enact a Green Energy Act in Ontario. His work at Greenpeace is focused on stopping the expansion of the tar sands and accelerating the transition to a more equitable and sustainable energy system based on the efficient use of renewable energy.

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