keystone xl northern gateway pipelines A\J Graphic: Anežka Gočová

The case that I want to argue is that pipelines appear to be the best way of moving the huge volumes of crude oil and other forms of petroleum that our society will need for the foreseeable future. However desirable a low-petroleum and low-carbon conserver society may be, it is not going to arrive quickly. Even during the days when a group of us were constructing soft energy path futures for Canada, we still found that we needed petroleum for inter-urban passenger and bulk goods transportation, and for a host of common consumer products, such as plastics.

How do pipelines stack up against other options for transporting crude from source to refineries and then to markets? Pipelines do create quite a mess during construction, but so does any other form of bulk transportation. However, in contrast to moving raw materials by railways or highways, once constructed, pipelines are relatively benign. Compared with the disruptions from any other form of bulk transport (other than ocean-going ships), pipeline emissions are almost negligible.

What about leakage and spills? There have been some well-publicized pipeline breaks in recent years. In such cases, operators should be held liable for clean-up costs and for fines. The lesson to be learned from recent experience is that those fines should be (but evidently are not) high enough to create a strong incentive for firms operating pipelines to ensure that they are kept in prime condition. Even today pipelines have many fewer “incidents” than railroads or trucks, though greater losses of crude with each incident. (The data are somewhat confusing with advocates of each mode selecting statistics that are most favorable to its side.)

Provided pipelines are not built through areas of ecological significance nor contravene agreements with First Nations, they offer options that the environmental movement must consider. There are more and there are less dangerous pipelines, and we should concentrate our political and analytical fire on the former.

From everything that I can read, the Keystone XL pipeline meets these two criteria, whereas the Northern Gateway fails miserably; its entire route and its tanker port are in ecologically sensitive areas, and few if any First Nations groups are willing to accept it. (I do not have enough information about Kinder-Morgan pipeline to take a position, and any pipeline to the East Coast will be built on national security grounds, not environmental ones.) Therefore my sub-bottom line is that the environmental movement should line up with First Nations to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline, but stand to one side on the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.

However, before making a final decision, there is one more point to be considered. It is argued that denying access to pipelines will halt or at least delay development of tar sands, which are notably dirty at both the extraction and the refining stages of production. I understand the rationale for this argument, but I question its usefulness. Given the huge investments already sunk into tar sands development, and the expectations of corporations for profits and provinces for revenues, the petroleum is going to get to market one way or another.

Certainly there is good reason for environmentalists to argue for slowing down tar sands development in the absence of more effective ways to mitigate its environmental and human costs, but that case should be argued on its own grounds. My own guess is that political action aimed at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, the corporations developing the tar sands, and the banks that finance them will be more effective than any attempt to block construction of pipelines to move the bitumen.

Therefore, my bottom line is “Yes” to the Keystone XL pipeline, and “No” to the Northern Gateway pipeline. The temptation to say “none of the above” is just not viable for a movement that wants to make a difference.

David B. Brooks is a natural-resource economist and a member of Alternatives’ editorial board. He was a founding director of Canada's Office of Energy Conservation, director of the Ottawa Office of Energy Probe, and, for the last 14 years of his formal professional career, associate director for environment and natural resource studies at Canada's International Development Research Centre. When he is not in a canoe, he identifies ways to conserve fresh water. 

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