It’s become pretty clear that shipping oil by rail raises serious issues. That might make the case for pipelines seem more attractive, but nothing’s ever simple, is it? We’re still left with questions about pipeline safety. Plus the still-larger debate about climate change and if we are doing enough to move away from carbon energy, period.
Within that big picture come many specific projects, such as Canada’s oil sands, the Keystone XL pipeline project, and something called Energy East, which would move oil sand bitumen from Alberta to Canada’s Atlantic seaways and shores.
The company behind that proposal, TransCanada, brought its Q&A road show to my village of North Gower, Ontario this past Thursday, with a 4 -8 pm event designed to accommodate most schedules. Here’s a generally-favorable report on that from the Ottawa Citizen:
Many, if not most, of the several hundred people who attended an “outreach” meeting Thursday evening on TransCanada Pipelines’s Energy East oil pipeline left the session impressed with the company and less concerned about the pipeline’s safety than they had been.
And more from the CBC:
Ben Powless, of Ecology Ottawa, said he is becoming more resolute in his opposition to the project as the months go by. He said he has less faith in the company’s safety record since a recent National Energy Board audit, and doesn’t necessarily believe what the company says.
His key concern is the possibility of an oil leak into the Ottawa River.
“If it got into there, that’s basically the drinking water supply for everybody who lives in the city,” said Powless. “The Rideau River also supplies a lot of sources of groundwater.”
TransCanada spends one billion dollars a year on its pipeline safety program, said company spokesperson [Philippe] Cannon, who adds that pipelines are the safest way to move large quantities of oil.
He adds that the company takes special measures in its pipelines near important waterways.
I attended as an area resident.
A handful of extremely well-mannered protesters hosted their own information table and a petition of opposition outside the municipal arena.
Inside, TransCanada had a small army of equally polite, attentive, well-trained and articulate representatives tending different explanatory stations. (My tally was at least 30 working the floor, not counting greeters or TransCanada executives in civilian clothing.)
Still photos were allowed but signs at the door stated that video or audio recording was prohibited unless being conducted by authorized news media. Did that mean only pre-cleared news media would be allowed inside to report? Or was it some “no amateurs allowed” position? (As in “real” reporters only, no bloggers or citizen journalists?) I could have asked and found out. Higher officials from TransCanada were there and I am sure they would have happily spoken on record. But I chose to just observe and not out myself.
All the TransCanada representatives I encountered emoted friendly sincerity and were carefully non-confrontational. Sort of “We know you have valid questions and we’re here to help!” While there I ran into one pro-project friend and a skeptical acquaintance, who thinks we’ve pushed the planet too far and much more needs to be done to move away from oil.
We spent time discussing the route as a land issue with an extremely personable TransCanada representative from Calgary. (The team of presenters takes their show on the road as needed, and expects they may be doing it again in other locations this fall.)
The displays were high quality. Stacks of informational fliers were available, in both official languages. There were some give-away items (carabiner lanyards and tote bags) and a pretty nice spread of finger food. Let’s just say money didn’t seem to be an issue. Without arguing if the claims are true, false, or something in between, the whole presentation represents a massive display of intense public relations with every nuance skillful marketing can provide.
So here’s a negative take on that project, as presented in early March by Heather Smith of Grist, an environmental publication, “Big Oil’s new strategy: if you can’t build a new pipeline, just overload the old one“. The title is pretty self-explanatory, with criticism of what Smith calls:
“…part of a hot, new trend in trans-national pipe dreams: Skirting environmental review, and public scrutiny, by pumping dirty crude through existing pipelines rather than building new ones.”
One can argue day and night about these issues. If a well-funded corporate road show counts as public consultation. About the safety record of TransCanada, or the wisdom of this specific proposal. But I was struck by something my pro-project friend said “We need more pipelines.” (The TransCanada rep seemed stunned and simply replied “Well, that’s not something I hear very often.”)
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the whole world should get off carbon fuels and switch to green, renewable resources. How fast does anyone expect that can happen? What are we going to do between now and that utopian end goal, keep shipping oil by rail?
For the purpose of this post, I’m thinking out loud about what we often call infrastructure.
It’s not hard to think of water systems, sewer systems, roads, bridges and yes, pipelines that are aging out. Many stand in great need of repairs or outright replacement. If one looks at pipelines in that category – as basic infrastructure we still use and will continue to need for some foreseeable future – is there a good case for supporting re-purposed pipelines? New pipelines?
Of course, the pro-oil camp considers this obvious: North America uses energy and may need more ways to deliver it.
But what does the environmental crowd think? Can we really move away from carbon fast enough to not need any more pipelines? I’m not criticizing, I’m asking.
This was the vista on the western skyline as I left the meeting. It’s a beautiful world. What’s the best way to live in it without causing too much damage?