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Trevor Hancock: Jobs vs. environment: The health angle

We have changed prime ministers, but we clearly haven’t swapped narrow, short-sighted 19th-century economic views for broader, more enlightened 21st-century views.

We have changed prime ministers, but we clearly haven’t swapped narrow, short-sighted 19th-century economic views for broader, more enlightened 21st-century views.

There are many reasons why the decision to build more pipelines — and especially the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion — is bad for health, as I have noted in previous columns. These include the health impacts of climate change in Canada and around the world, and the contribution of fossil-fuel combustion to air pollution.

But the health of the population also depends on people having a decent income, from work or elsewhere. Unemployment is unhealthy, as is poverty; we need enough jobs, at a living wage, to keep people employed and earning enough to live on and raise a family.

We also need those jobs to be widely distributed across society, rather than concentrated in one or two places, and preferably to be open to people with a wide range of skill levels.

Jobs in the fossil-fuel industry are not the answer, although they might be politically appealing in the short term. While the Trudeau government accepts and uses the Kinder Morgan estimate that the pipeline expansion will create 15,000 jobs, many of those will be short-term construction jobs. There is nothing wrong in principle with creating construction jobs, but people need to be employed building the right infrastructure.

But the Trans Mountain expansion is the wrong infrastructure, locking in place for decades the further expansion of the environmentally pernicious oilsands.

Moreover, as Jeff Rubin, former chief economist of CIBC world markets, told CBC Radio, it could become a “stranded asset,” as expensive oil is left in the ground as the world moves off fossil fuels.

Trans Mountain would also lock in place an additional 14 to 17 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions annually, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s May 2016 report on the upstream emissions; this at a time when we are supposed to be reducing emissions.

Moreover, it locks in place a greatly increased risk of a large bitumen spill off B.C.’s southern coast, with disastrous consequences.

And finally, it further delays our transition to a low-carbon and ultimately fossil-fuel-free society.

Approving the Trans Mountain expansion actually threatens jobs, especially in B.C., according to Unifor, the country’s largest union, which represents energy workers, among others. In May 2015, Unifor filed evidence with the National Energy Board raising concerns about the impact of the pipeline expansion on the oil-refining industry and — if there is any kind of a spill or leak — on the commercial fishery.

Joie Warnock, Unifor’s western director, stated: “The Kinder Morgan expansion project is all risk and no gain for British Columbians.”

We know we need to transition rapidly to a clean-energy economy. A wise government would be investing in energy conservation (in itself a major but often overlooked source of energy) and in clean and renewable energy systems. This is the health-enhancing, job-creating economy of the future, not fossil fuels.

In a fact sheet on the benefits of renewable energy, the Pembina Institute reports that their analysis indicates that “employment created from low-impact renewable electricity would be comparable to or greater than that created by an equivalent capacity of fossil-fuel-based generation.”

They also make the important point that “localized use of energy efficiency and renewable energy produce jobs in all parts of a country and not just where the conventional energy reserves are located. This provides a more equitable employment environment and one that is permanent and not cyclical.”

In a 2014 report on jobs in green and healthy transport, the European Region of the World Health Organization found that for cycling alone, more than 75,000 jobs could be created in selected European cities (just one city per country) if they achieved the same level of cycling as does Copenhagen. In addition, 10,000 deaths a year could be avoided due to the health benefits of cycling.

Again, the jobs created would be local and across a broad range of jobs.

From a health perspective, we need good jobs that make the world a better place. Clean energy systems do that; the oilsands and the Trans Mountain expansion do not.

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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