As I write, it looks as if the fight to stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline might be successful; the company has announced it is suspending non-essential spending.
Credit is due to Premier John Horgan, who, along with the Green Party, has been steadfast in his opposition, but even more so to the First Nations who are fighting to protect the land, the many groups and organizations working to take the fight to the courts, and the countless individuals who have turned out to protest and be arrested. But this is just the first step in a longer and larger struggle to close down the oilsands industry.
Let’s be clear; the oilsands are not in the national interest. On the contrary, they are a threat to health and the environment both locally and globally.
The World Health Organization calls climate change one of the major threats to the health of the world’s population in the 21st century. The health of future generations — not to mention many other species — thus depends on our ability to dramatically reduce carbon emissions over the next couple of decades. This, in turn, depends on our ability to keep much of the known fossil-fuel reserves where they are — in the ground.
It is particularly important to keep the oilsands in the ground because according to the Energy Education team at the University of Calgary, “the greenhouse gas emissions for oilsands extraction and processing are significantly larger than for conventional crude oil.” In a 2012 paper published in his role as a University of Victoria climate scientist, Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver and his co-author noted: “If the entire Alberta oilsand resource … were to be used, the associated carbon dioxide emissions would induce a global mean temperature change of roughly 0.36 C.”
At a time when we have already seen one degree C warming since 1880, according to NASA, and the nations of the world are struggling to keep global warming below two degrees, this is an unacceptable amount for just one country to contribute.
Moreover, the health and environmental impacts of the oilsands are not limited to climate change. The Energy Education team also reports that the volume of water used in the oilsands operations in a year is equivalent to that used by 1.7 million Canadians, and that “if water use is not changed, then the downstream flow of the Athabasca [River] is expected to decrease by 30 per cent” by 2050.
Once used, that water is contaminated with chemicals that are “toxic to animals, particularly aquatic organisms,” so it ends up stored “almost indefinitely” in tailings ponds that, together with their infrastructure, cover an area “about 1.5 times larger than the city of Vancouver.”
To these impacts we can add air pollution. A 2016 study in Nature by Environment Canada scientists found the oilsands generate air pollutants called secondary organic aerosols (a key component of particulate air pollution) in amounts comparable to the emissions of Greater Toronto. This makes the oilsands the largest or second largest source of this form of air pollution in Canada, according to one of the researchers interviewed by CBC News.
On top of that, of course, is the threat to B.C.’s environment from a pipeline leak or — even worse — a tanker accident along our beautiful but fragile coast.
How is any of this in the national interest? For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley to continue to support the pipeline — and thus the oilsands — is an absolute abdication of responsibility for the health of people around the world and for future generations. It is the complete antithesis of climate leadership, whether in Canada or on the global stage.
What is in the national and global interest, what would be climate leadership, would be to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by phasing out the oilsands and other fossil fuels (including coal and the LNG that Horgan has inexplicably developed a fondness for), stopping all tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry and transferring them all to the clean and renewable energy and energy-conservation industries.
Leading Canada to a clean-energy future is technically possible — so why does it seem to be politically impossible?
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.