David Suzuki: Rail versus pipeline is the wrong question

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      Debating the best way to do something we shouldn’t be doing in the first place is a sure way to end up in the wrong place. That’s what’s happening with the “rail versus pipeline” discussion. Some say recent rail accidents mean we should build more pipelines to transport fossil fuels. Others argue that leaks, high construction costs, opposition, and red tape surrounding pipelines are arguments in favour of using trains.

      But the recent spate of rail accidents and pipeline leaks and spills doesn’t provide arguments for one or the other; instead, it indicates that rapidly increasing oil and gas development and shipping ever greater amounts, by any method, will mean more accidents, spills, environmental damageeven death. The answer is to step back from this reckless plunder and consider ways to reduce our fossil fuel use.

      If we were to slow down oil sands development, encourage conservation and invest in clean energy technology, we could save money, ecosystems, and lives—and we’d still have valuable fossil fuel resources long into the future, perhaps until we’ve figured out ways to use them that aren’t so wasteful. We wouldn’t need to build more pipelines just to sell oil and gas as quickly as possible, mostly to foreign markets. We wouldn’t have to send so many unsafe rail tankers through wilderness areas and places people live.

      We may forgo some of the short-term jobs and economic opportunities the fossil fuel industry provides, but surely we can find better ways to keep people employed and the economy humming. Gambling, selling guns and drugs and encouraging people to smoke all create jobs and economic benefits, too—but we rightly try to limit those activities when the harms outweigh the benefits.

      Both transportation methods come with significant risks. Shipping by rail leads to more accidents and spills, but pipeline leaks usually involve much larger volumes. One of the reasons we’re seeing more train accidents involving fossil fuels is the incredible boom in moving these products by rail. According to the American Association of Railroads, train shipment of crude oil in the U.S. grew from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 234,000 in 2012—almost 25 times as many in only four years! That’s expected to rise to 400,000 this year.

      As with pipelines, risks are increased because many rail cars are older and not built to standards that would reduce the chances of leaks and explosions when accidents occur. Some in the rail industry argue it would cost too much to replace all the tank cars as quickly as is needed to move the ever-increasing volumes of oil. We must improve rail safety and pipeline infrastructure for the oil and gas that we’ll continue to ship for the foreseeable future, but we must also find ways to transport less.

      The economic arguments for massive oil sands and liquefied natural gas development and expansion aren’t great to begin with—at least with the way our federal and provincial governments are going about it. Despite a boom in oil sands growth and production, “Alberta has run consecutive budget deficits since 2008 and since then has burned through $15 billion of its sustainability fund,” according to an article on the Tyee website. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says Alberta’s debt is now $7 billion and growing by $11 million daily. 

      As for jobs, a 2012 report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows less than one per cent of Canadian workers are employed in extraction and production of oil, coal and natural gas. Pipelines and fossil fuel development are not great long-term job creators, and pale in comparison to employment generated by the renewable energy sector.

      Beyond the danger to the environment and human health, the worst risk from rapid expansion of oil sands, coal mines and gas fields and the infrastructure needed to transport the fuels is the carbon emissions from burning their products—regardless of whether that happens here, in China or elsewhere. Many climate scientists and energy experts, including the International Energy Agency, agree that to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we must leave at least two-thirds of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

      The question isn’t about whether to use rail or pipelines. It’s about how to reduce our need for both.

      With contributions from from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.


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      boris moris

      Jan 21, 2014 at 9:18pm

      Why exactly is it that Canada and especially Alberta are never called out on the fact that they could be charging much higher royalties to resource extractors and don't? Why is it that Alberta's Heritage Fund is stagnant and pathetically small (under $20B) when Norway's Heritage Fund is well over $700B and rapidly climbing? Both are derived from oil and gas royalties.

      There is a simple answer. It's called bedrock corruption. As taxpayers we elect and pay politicians to look after our best interests and the reality is the exact opposite. When environmental oversight is gutted and scientists are silenced how is that not treasonous behaviour by politicians and certain compliant senior civil servants? The problem is that we have to depend on a thoroughly corrupt RCMP to police a thoroughly corrupt government while the corporate media runs interference for both. The Canadian taxpayer is being shortchanged hundreds of billions of dollars. This isn't due to incompetence...it's due to bedrock corruption.

      An Albertan

      Jan 22, 2014 at 8:20am

      @Boris Moris

      Our heritage fund is small because we've had poor gov'ts since Klein. We pay the highest prices per capita on a large number of things (teachers, nurses, construction costs etc) because it is expensive to live here and people feel entitled to their share of the wealth. (Maybe they are, not trying to debate that). Further, we have the highest wages in Canada, so, companies are paying out "royalties" in the form of more money for each and every employee. As well we have a large number of millionaires from people who have started Jr. Oil companies and they get bought up by the bigger ones, in this sense Albertans are profiting from the resources as well. Is it total equality? no. But those who want a piece of the action can definitely get it.


      Jan 22, 2014 at 8:57am

      Influx of posters from Alberta in 3...2...1...


      Jan 22, 2014 at 10:01am

      Norway is the Perfect Oil & Gas Model for responsible One Time resource extraction.

      But Alberta & unfortunately most Canadians seem Ignorant of the facts.

      In Canada (vs Norway) we have a Big Corporate Oil Plutocracy...

      (from Greek πλοῦτος, ploutos, meaning "wealth", and κράτος, kratos, meaning "power, dominion, rule"), also known as plutonomy or plutarchy, defines a society or a system ruled and dominated by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens.

      All the Politicians in all major parties are supporting this Big Oil Plutocracy.

      Until Canadians on mass demand change to a Norway Model we will keep getting robbed Blind.

      Meanwhile all the hundreds of millions being funnelled to BC Gas Corporations by the Crusty lying Lie Berals ought to go to clean Energy and long term Economic development that would actually benefit most British Columbians not just < 0.1 of the labour force and elite Foreign Sovereign Wealth Funds and Big Oil & Gas Corporates.


      Jan 22, 2014 at 10:08am

      @ An Albertan... Alberta is in a serious structural Deficit which is laughable given the Oil Resource and Record High Oil Prices since after 2001.

      Also how stupid is it to price the Royalty rate on DilBit? instead of actual Oil Barrel Prices like Brent etc.

      The Net wages in Alberta after Taxes reduces that by around 50% plus a lot of those jobs are held by Foreigners, there are over 100,000 Foreign workers & growing in the Oil & Gas sector in Alberta.

      The real piece of the Action is owing major Oil Sands Tar Sand Companies not many Albertan s or Canadians own those, it's mostly Foreign owned, US, China, Norway etc etc.

      Great for the 1% not so much for the average Albertan or Canadian unless you like being a wage slave for Big Oil.

      I own and run my own Internet business it's far cleaner and more dollars than working for some Oil company in Alberta.


      Jan 22, 2014 at 10:26am

      There we go. I think it's pretty clear from watching the Straight and other media that Albertans involved in the tar sands & pipelines are closely monitoring comment forums for every media outlet in BC, and that it's part of an organized campaign.


      Jan 22, 2014 at 11:50am

      If people are actually reading this: why are we exporting bitumen and importing oil?

      Oil has many uses besides fuel and I would like Canada to get into alternative energy in a big way. But because systems change slowly, in the short term we are going to burn petrochemicals - why do we have to transport them across an ocean? Especially if the selling point of extraction is that it makes jobs for Canadians.

      We are near the end of the line for petrofuels - let's get the value, if we're going to do this and I think we are.

      boris moris

      Jan 22, 2014 at 1:36pm

      Further to my previous comments:

      Why does Canada, with its immense natural wealth and small population, have such high rates of poverty and debt? Why do we need to charge so much for a post secondary education?

      The answers are contained in my assertions about the bedrock corruption that defines this country. Large multinationals, especially those that are American based, have corrupted our political process. If you don't believe that you should ask yourself why Lockheed Martin, an American manufacturer of weapons, has the contract to process completed Canadian census forms. Our politicians, especially the governments of Mulroney and Harper, have sold us out cheap. We have a democracy in name only. BC is already the 51st state and it's been under Republican Party control since the Socred years. To this day we still charge next to nothing for timber stumpage fees.

      Jeff Smith

      Jan 23, 2014 at 9:07am

      Please check the link to the employment in renewables toward the end of the article. Thanks.

      Don Wells

      Jan 24, 2014 at 6:25am

      Norway vs Alberta are you kidding me. You think you have the answers. WOW
      Better to stay quite than to reveal your true ignorance. The difference in costs of extraction and processing of shale or tar sands is huge compared to what Norway has to deal with. Add that up over 30 years and you will see reasons for it. Sorry there is no conspiracy going on here and Canadians and Albertans are as competent as anyone else. "L"er.. Its is time for Suzuki to put up or shut up and lead by example. If there is any conspiracy going on then just look at all the deceit with respect to all the foreign money employing Native Mayors or Chiefs if you will to pretend they have a moral stance. What a bunch of hypocrites!!