Many approvals of controversial undertakings rest on an obsolete standard marked by an imaginary line.

Dilbit could be a good name for a goofy dog. Instead it is short for “diluted bitumen,” the serious mix of light petroleum diluent and the oily tarry sandy goop that the hydrocarbon industry wants to ship from Northern Alberta to foreign markets…

Dilbit could be a good name for a goofy dog. Instead it is short for “diluted bitumen,” the serious mix of light petroleum diluent and the oily tarry sandy goop that the hydrocarbon industry wants to ship from Northern Alberta to foreign markets…

Unlike bitumen, dilbit flows in pipelines and several new or expanded dilbit pipelines will be built if the industry gets its way. The proposed pipelines – most notably the Northern Gateway and Transmountain pipelines from Alberta to British Columbia’s Pacific coast, Line 3 across the prairies, and the Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick and the Atlantic – would facilitate big increases in bitumen extraction, transportation, processing and eventual combustion.

The main attraction is jobs and revenues, presuming the price of oil rises. However, bitumen extraction is already an environmental horror. Spilled pipeline dilbit is a clean-up nightmare, and bringing more bitumen to market is difficult to justify in a country committed to doing its part to prevent climate warming beyond 1.5ºC. 

Inevitably, then, proposals for more dilbit pipeline capacity have faced determined opposition.

For much of the past decade, the designated lightning rod for these conflicts has been the beleaguered old National Energy Board (NEB) – an old school regulatory body with a staff of technical experts and a board of appointees sensitive to industry and government concerns. 

Acceptable to whom? For how long? Assuming what circumstances? Relative to what other options?”

Formally, the NEB’s job is to determine whether each major pipeline proposal “is and will be required by the present and future public convenience and necessity.” In practice that has meant judging whether (and under what terms and conditions) each proposed pipeline is acceptable. 

The “acceptability” test is a relic from the days when private sector resource exploitation ventures were a mostly unquestioned Good Thing, and just needed to be checked to ensure the engineering was sound and the results would not offend national policy.  

In those days it was possible to imagine an identifiable line between unacceptable and acceptable. Technical analyses by specialized experts and close relations with government and the regulated industry could reveal whether or not a proposed project met the accepted standard of established practice.

Unfortunately for the NEB, the imagined line between acceptable and unacceptable has faded. Established practice is now widely associated with imposing local sacrifices, disregarding Aboriginal rights and ignoring climate change. The available information is always incomplete, the simplifying assumptions are always debatable, and acceptable is always a matter of choices and preferences. 

Even when acceptability decisions are coated with technical analyses and buttressed by entrenched expectations, they always rest on assumed answers to the big choice questions – acceptable to whom? for how long? assuming what circumstances? judged against what criteria? relative to what other options?

In the dilbit pipeline cases, these questions have been central. Interests and experts have disagreed, often forcefully and fundamentally – not only about the likelihood of particular effects from individual projects, but also about what bigger issues should be on the table, what happens if all the pipelines are approved, what would be a fair distribution of benefits and risks, and how might any dilbit pipeline fit in a viable plan to meet Canadian climate commitments.

The old NEB has doggedly persisted in trying to identify a line between acceptable and unacceptable for the individual projects of an unsustainable agenda. So far, it has succeeded mostly in undermining its own credibility. Its approval of the Northern Gateway proposal met a wall of Aboriginal and public interest opposition, high court rejection and political abandonment. The other proposals may fare no better.

For the dilbit pipelines, the relevant question is not whether this or that old economy project is in some narrow technical or political sense acceptable, but whether such projects will move us to a more promising future. That is a question about options and objectives. It rejects imaginary lines and faces the big choices. 

An approval test based on best options for a viable and desirable future is demanding but realistic. Settling for less is unacceptable.

University of Waterloo professor and the magazine’s long-time editor, Robert Gibson chairs Alternatives’ editorial board and writes our back-page column: What’s the Big Idea. He reads every word of every issue and can be thanked for the best – and the poopiest – article titles. Substitution gets us genetic engineering, nuclear reactors, ocean draggers and unconventional oil.