Public concerns about toxic tar-sand and volatile Bakken oil have escalated with recent railway accidents and pipeline leaks and fires. The horrendous death of fourty-seven people going about their daily lives in Lac-Megantic, Quebec has scorched the dangers of oil transportation onto the Canadian soul. Since then there have been other oil-by-rail accidents at Sexsmith and Gainford, Alberta; Plaster Rock, New Brunswick and Landis, Saskatchewan. At Regina’s recent SUMA Convention, the Village of Clavet proposed a resolution passed unanimously by the 1,000 delegates “to lobby the federal Minister of Transport and Transport Canada to improve the regulation and enforcement of rail safety standards and operational limits that may directly affect public safety.”
While pipeline planning was underway, without our being aware, oil has been transported in ever-increasing volumes by rail. Proposed pipelines and oil-by-rail are part of the same energy future. Without environmentally-destructive tar-sand extraction and without fracking in the Bakken oil region, there would be nothing to pump into the ever-expanding pipelines or longer and longer trains. The fossil fuel multi-nationals can’t make their huge profits if they can’t get their toxic wares to a lucrative market. And they want to do this as quickly as possible, while huge government subsidies continue to privilege them.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) head Christine Legarde recently estimated that in 2011, the global, direct, fossil-fuel subsidy, and related loss of taxes, amounted to two trillion dollars, equal to Russia’s total GDP. In London’s Dimbleby Lecture she asked why “we are subsidizing the very behavior that is destroying our planet?” Premier Wall and Prime Minister Harper need to wake up and ask the same question; it’s now a matter of global conscience
As the U.S. shifts to Bakken oil, natural gas and renewables, the continental market shrinks for Alberta’s tar-sand oil. That is why, with Alberta and Saskatchewan support, Harper has aggressively promoted pipelines to coastal refineries and tankers. Meanwhile, while pipeline assessments are fast-tracked, the oil industry has turned to rail transportation. According to the Railway Association of Canada, this year there will be up to 140,000 carloads of crude oil transported within Canada. In 2009 only 500 rail cars were used. This unimaginable escalation occurred without systematic assessment of railway regulation or the capacity of the rail lines or older cars to take this mammoth volume. Lucrative oil exports have trumped public safety in Harper’s deregulating petro state. They have also sidelined grain shipments with no Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) advocating for agricultural producers.
CORPORATE PLAN B
Companies always have their Plan B if new pipelines are rejected. President Obama could reject the Keystone XL without jeopardizing increased oil shipments from Alberta to the Gulf refineries. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, Enbridge is now applying to double the flow of Alberta’s bitumen to 880,000 barrels a day through the Alberta Clipper pipeline which stretches 1,600 KM from Hardisty Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. This is the same pipeline shut down due to leaking south of Regina in early February, 2014.
The industry plays off public concerns for rail safety with concerns for pipeline safety. But if tar-sands or other oil fields continue to expand, threats to environment and public safety will both increase. Opposition to the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline has grown because of an awareness that tar-sand is heavier than conventional oil. It does not float and is much more costly, if not impossible, to clean up. Because this oil is “thick like molasses” it requires more energy to liquefy for pumping, which adds to its carbon footprint. While the industry was touting pipelines as being safer than oil-by-rail, there have been high profile U.S. pipeline spills at Kalamazoo, the Yellowstone River and Mayflower. There have been some in Canada too, notably Trans-Canada’s gas pipeline break south of Winnipeg this January, 2014.
There is growing awareness of the threat that the tar-sands present to water, regardless of how the oil gets transported. By the time one barrel of bitumen has been extracted, ten tonnes of earth and as many as four barrels of water have been contaminated. Leaking tailing ponds are contaminating watersheds which will undermine the health of both wildlife and human habitats.
Building pipelines uses huge amounts of fossil fuels which have their own carbon footprint. The capital and labour expended on pipelines locks us into future fossil fuel use, rather than accelerating the conversion to energy technologies that don’t exacerbate the ever-mounting climate crisis.
Full impacts are ignored when pipelines get assessed by the National Energy Board (NEB). The NEB just assessed Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta’s tar-sands to the B.C. coast. It ignored what are called the upstream carbon emissions: the carbon footprint from producing the oil that would be pumped through the pipeline. This is just one of the tricks of “compartmentalization” used in an attempt to manage public concerns about tar-sand expansion.
The U.S. state department claims to have assessed these “upstream” impacts for Trans-Canada’s controversial Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf refineries. But it sidelined the issue by claiming that the tar-sand oil and related emissions would be produced regardless of whether Keystone was approved. This is circular and faulty thinking, for the decision to proceed with profitable oil production depends upon whether it can be transported cost-effectively to end-users. It’s all one system and must be assessed as such. The horrendous carnage at Lac-Megantic should be added to the cost side.
Alberta’s Pembina Institute wants the NEB to consider the full carbon footprint of Trans-Canada’s latest proposal, the Energy East pipeline. Pembina estimates that producing the 1.1 million barrels of crude pumped daily would create an additional 32 million tonnes of GHGs yearly, equivalent to putting seven million new cars on the road. Corporate-government plans have the tar-sands tripling from 2012 to 2030. Environment Canada estimates that in 2005 there were 34 million tonnes of C02 from the tar-sands and that this will triple to 100 million tonnes by 2020. The Pembina Institute is quoted in the Feb. 6, 2014 Globe and Mail that increases from the expansion of the tar-sands “is large enough to cancel out all emission reduction” in other parts of the economy over the same period.
Writing in the Jan. 17, 2014 Business Green, Danny Bradbury notes that “fossil fuels used for energy production accounted for 89% of total Canadian C02 emissions in 2011.” And tar-sand expansion will be the major source of growing emissions in Canada over the coming decades. Not only did Harper withdraw from our commitments under the Kyoto Accord but due largely to tar-sand expansion his government will totally fail to meet its scaled-down, alternative plan of reducing GHGs by 2020 by 17% over 2005 levels. The shift away from expanded tar-sand extraction and transportation is crucial to Canada contributing to a sustainable global future.
LA LOCHE TAR-SANDS
This presents challenges to us as well; the massive underground tar-sands extend into Saskatchewan. According to Sandra Cuffe in the November 6, 2013 The Dominion, the first Saskatchewan wells were dug in the La Loche area in the 1970s and oil was located 185 meters below the boreal floor. In 2004 the Texas company PowerMax Energy got a permit to explore north of Clearwater River, an area the size of PEI. In 2008 the village of La Loche signed a MOU with Calgary-based Oilsands Quest Inc, which went on to do 300 test wells. This MOU was made without any consultation with the Buffalo River Dene Nation (BRDN) and trappers were blocked from traditional trap lines.
The 2008 financial crisis glutted the oil market and in 2011 Oilsands Quest declared bankruptcy, making an out of court settlement for overstating the value of the bitumen. In 2011 Cenovus Energy of Calgary bought the rights to develop these tar-sands. But by 2009 environmental groups were finding that two-thirds of the acid rain coming from Alberta’s tar-sands landed in acid-sensitive northwestern Saskatchewan. The proposed Axe Lake Tar Sands Project north of La Loche is only 150 KM from Fort McMurry. Last year the Buffalo River Dene started legal action against tar-sands development because there was no consultation with First Nations. In 2013 the former CEO of Oilsands Quest resurfaced as head of Canshale, which has obtained shale exploration permits in the Hudson Bay area.
Something never mentioned by Premier Wall when he promotes his Growth Plan is that Saskatchewan has one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world. The quick shift away from this kind of destructive fossil fuel growth towards sustainable energy is mandatory to protect our waters for future generations.
Jim Harding PhD
Retired Professor of Environmental and Justice Studies