Trevor Hancock: Pipeline expansion must be rejected for health reasons

I made a submission Tuesday to the federal panel reviewing the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proposal.

I did so based on my role as the leader of a project on behalf of the Canadian Public Health Association to understand the public-health implications of global ecological change. This is an abbreviated version of my presentation.

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Of the several components of global ecological change, perhaps the most important is climate change. It has been called “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” by the first Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change, while the second Lancet Commission stated: “The effects of climate change are being felt today, and future projections represent an unacceptably high and potentially catastrophic risk to human health.”

So I was astonished — but, sadly, not surprised — to find on reviewing the National Energy Board report of the Trans Mountain expansion proposal that there is not a single mention of the health impacts of climate change. This clearly indicates that either the NEB is completely ignorant of this issue or that it deliberately chose to ignore it. Regardless, it means the panel’s assessment is not worth the paper it is written on, and not worthy of any serious consideration.

The Environment and Climate Change Canada assessment of the related upstream greenhouse-gas emissions associated with the project (tellingly published three days after the NEB report was released in May) noted that the additional 590,000 barrels per day of capacity added by the expansion project itself will account for 14 to 17 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.

To put this in perspective, the ministry notes on its website that “Canada’s annual GHG emissions are expected to be between 749 and 790 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020.”

So this single pipeline expansion will facilitate the additional emission of about two per cent. Given that we are falling way short of our 2020 target of 622 megatonnes, adding emissions when we should be removing them is ridiculous.

To then ignore the climate-change-related health impacts of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and the oilsands, as the NEB does, is to firmly stick our heads in the (oil)sand and ignore our responsibility to Canadians, to the global population and to future generations. This panel must not perpetuate this deliberate ignorance.

Canada has committed with governments around the world to keep climate change below 2 C, and preferably below 1.5 C. This cannot be achieved if we continue to expand the use of fossil fuels.

Indeed, it has been estimated that to keep global warming to less than 2 C, no more than about one trillion tonnes of carbon can be added to the atmosphere.

So we need to keep most carbon in the ground and unburned. A recent report in Nature suggests that in Canada, 74 per cent of oil reserves (and 99 per cent of “unconventional oil,” i.e. Alberta’s oilsands), is “unburnable.”

Thus, a pipeline expansion that will support the further expansion of the oilsands and its exports is not in the national interest.

Yet the inescapable fact is that the pipeline expansion is intended to facilitate the further expansion and export of oilsands oil and all the associated greenhouse-gas emissions, which will add to the adverse health effects of climate change.

Doubtless it will be argued that this is only one pipeline, that we are only a small nation and a small contributor to climate change, and that we need this for our energy security.

The first two are merely pathetic excuses for carrying on business as usual and failing to address the difficult but far from impossible challenge of transitioning off fossil fuels. The latter is easily dismissed — since this dirty oil is destined for export, it won’t be used in Canada.

At some point, we have to take a stand — and this is that point. There is only one ethical choice: The panel and the federal government must reject this proposal to expand Canada’s fossil-fuel exports and to further contribute to global warming, on behalf of the health of future generations, in Canada and around the world.

The price of failure, in terms of health impacts in Canada and globally, is too high.

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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