Comment: Toward a more responsible energy future

British Columbians and Albertans are at odds with each other over the flow of petroleum and water over provincial borders. Each is posing a risk to the other, not just from proposed projects for pipelines and dams, but from situations that already exist.

In B.C., we have a mix of bitumen and toxic diluents flowing across the province through the 60-year-old Trans Mountain Pipeline owned by Kinder Morgan. Between Hope and Burnaby, the pipeline passes within 200 metres of more than 20 schools. Thousands of children in those schools are at risk, as indeed are all residents of the Lower Mainland.

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In the past few years, we have learned that dilbit pipelines rupture more often than those carrying crude oil, that the health consequences of dilbit spills are severe and that cleanup attempts are costly and ineffective. It’s time to recognize that there is no acceptable way a dilbit spill can be handled on either land or sea.

Across the Rockies, there is concern over the proposed Site C dam on the Peace River. But such a dam could solve some of the serious downstream problems created by the building of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam in 1967 and the Peace Canyon Dam in 1980. Those two dams ended the annual spring flooding on the Peace River delta at Lake Athabasca, and downstream into the Mackenzie River basin. That cycle formerly renewed the land and water, much as the flooding of the Nile in Egypt did before it was harnessed.

Since the last ice age, some tarsands materials have flooded down the Athabasca River into this delta. But the spring runoff of the Athabasca and Peace rivers alternately buried contaminants in silt, then washed them away downstream. This cycle formed the world’s largest freshwater delta, the lifeblood of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest park.

Today, human health and health of birds, fish and wildlife are suffering from the loss of this cleansing cycle. Recently, the Métis Nation of Alberta Association launched a $3-billion lawsuit against B.C. Hydro and the Canadian government for damage resulting from B.C.’s two dams on the Peace River.

But British Columbia could commit to reviving a natural cycle by controlled spring flood releases from Site C. Its reservoir would hold about 22 days of averaged river flow, compared with two days’ flow behind the Peace Dam and over two years’ flow behind the Bennett Dam. You can’t restore seasonal river flow with the upper two dams alone, without wasting much of the hydroelectric power. With proper engineering, you can restore a natural river cycle with the three reservoirs, without sacrificing power generation.

In exchange, Alberta and its oil companies would commit to upgrading bitumen to synthetic crude before pumping it to the West Coast. This would require a new upgrader in Alberta, costing about $11 billion. Until five years ago, it was planned to do that anyway.

In this scenario, everyone wins. B.C. can be at least as safe as in the past against oil-spill disaster, and gains a huge supply of electrical energy to back up solar and wind generation as needed. Alberta will have renewed wetlands, cleaner rivers and many new jobs. Canada wins relatively safe access to world markets for its petroleum.

All citizens and wildlife of the Mackenzie watershed will have healthier lands and waters. Costly lawsuits might be avoided. Our total energy budget will be shifted significantly from fossil to sustainable supply.

That would be a win-win-win-win solution.


Chris Aikman is a retired National Research Council astronomer who follows energy issues. He lives in Comox.

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