It’s the Climate, Stupid!

Portland protestNot two weeks since the federal government’s long-anticipated approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline, the magnitude of the obstacles faced by the project are becoming clearer by the day.

There is widespread public hostility — both in Kitimat, envisioned as the pipeline’s end location, as well as across British Columbia more generally. First Nations and environmental groups have launched several court challenges, with more expected to come. Massive protests and civil disobedience are inevitable. Efforts will soon be underway to initiate a province-wide referendum. The government of BC, which must provide about 60 permits, is ambivalent about the pipeline at best, while federal opposition parties are promising to reverse the project’s approval if they win next year’s election.

All this in addition to the much-ballyhooed 209 conditions.

Nevertheless, as rosy as matters may look from certain angles, victory is far from assured. The entrenched power of Enbridge and its political backers in Ottawa and Edmonton is nothing to scoff at, and pipeline opponents would do well to take a step back and consider why exactly they are opposed.

I say this because in the coming months, British Columbia will be bombarded by relentless propaganda (as though we haven’t had enough already) claiming that Enbridge has heard our cries of protest and will commit to building the greenest, most environmentally responsible pipeline it can build. The threat of bitumen spills on land and at sea will be neutralized. The company will meet and exceed provincial demands for “world-leading” response, prevention, and recovery systems.

Never mind for a moment the disingenuousness of such attempts to deflect and to co-opt. Never mind Enbridge’s less-than-exemplary record on oil spills. Such promises, even if true, are irrelevant because they fail to address the proverbial elephant in the room, climate change. The fight against pipelines is not just about our wilderness, our rivers, our coastlines — vital though these are. It is about the planet-wide impact of dangerously accelerating tar sands expansion, a process that Northern Gateway is meant to facilitate.

According to current projections, if warming is to be kept within the two-degree limit pledged by world leaders at Copenhagen, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak some time before 2020. Such a scenario is not consistent with the continued building of large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure with decades-long lifespans (at least not here in the developed world). Virtually every new pipeline, oil refinery, LNG facility, or coal-fired power plant is another nail in the coffin of climate stability.

It is possible to disagree reasonably about how rapidly to phase out existing infrastructure, how aggressively to tackle the transition to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and other renewables. But at the very least, at this stage in our history, to continue full speed in the opposite direction without a care for the consequences should be unthinkable.

That — in addition to the risk of spills — is what’s wrong with Northern Gateway. That is why we can’t let them win.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

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Referendums on Pipelines?

Northern GatewayThe longstanding “will they or won’t they” dynamic existing between BC premier Christy Clark and Alberta premier Alison Redford took a turn for the depressing recently when they announced they had come to a framework agreement on pipelines. While short on specifics and not making any firm pledges, the deal appears intended to bring Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway project, which seeks to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s North Coast for export, one step closer to fruition.

With Enbridge and its prospective pipeline gaining momentum, opposition to the plan is not far behind, and proposals abound for how best to defeat this and other fossil fuel-related developments. Political commentator Rafe Mair, for instance, in two recent columns in The Tyee, has challenged the BC government to hold a referendum asking voters the simple question: “Are you in favour of oil pipelines and oil tankers in British Columbia?”

Mair has been a passionate defender of the environment for many years, taking on such foes as salmon farming and private power production (more than making up, in my opinion, for his participation in the Social Credit governments of old), so when he speaks up, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Yet I cannot help but feel a little ambivalence — a tinge of skepticism even — towards this particular proposal. If the government could be convinced to go down the referendum route, the major advantage — and it’s a big one — would be that Enbridge would probably lose. Fossil fuel boosters may have the ability to outspend environmentalists, but public opinion polls in BC have consistently shown more people opposed to the pipeline than in favour. And it is a truism in politics that negative emotions are more motivating than positive ones, meaning that all else being equal, pipeline opponents would be more likely to show up and vote than supporters.

However, though probable, victory is far from assured. As a general rule, one should not support a referendum unless willing to accept its results when things don’t go according to plan. No electoral majority would be large enough to make me comfortable with the Enbridge project, and I suspect others feel the same way. To say this is not to give in to dogmatism or reject democratic decision-making, but simply to acknowledge that the referendum, though it has its uses, is not the ideal tool for resolving environmental issues. After all, most of the relevant stakeholders — including future generations and non-human animals — cannot possibly be part of any electorate. Then there is the question Indigenous rights, a constitutionally enshrined principle which ought never to be subject to this or that majority whim. Environmental governance by referendum sets a dangerous precedent.

For these reasons, my instinct is to say no to a referendum on Northern Gateway. The sad truth, however, is that pipeline opponents have the odds stacked against them and are not exactly spoiled for choice with respect to winning strategies. Rafe Mair (along with the Dogwood Initiative which, I understand, is considering a similar proposal) is to be commended for contributing to an important debate. A Northern Gateway pipeline would threaten the rights of First Nations communities, risk oil spills on land and at sea, and bring us closer to the edge of runaway global warming. (In the words of Mark Jaccard, “the impacts of climate change are local — everywhere!”)

Concerned citizens would do well to inform themselves and make their voices heard. A series of events under the banner of “Defend Our Climate” (including an anti-Enbridge rally in Vancouver) will be held across the country this Saturday.

This post appears on rabble.ca.

Twisting the Facts on the Environment

Infographic courtesy of sumofus.org

Case #1: BC Premier Christy Clark has a job creation plan. One component of said plan involves three liquefied natural gas plants in the northern part of the province. Unfortunately, this runs afoul of the provincial Clean Energy Act. So what does Premier Clark do? In June, she redefines “clean energy” to include natural gas — a resource that emits greenhouse gases just like any other fossil fuel — provided that it is used to power those plants in northern BC. Just like that, everybody wins!

Case #2: Scientists advising North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission recommend that the state plan for a sea level rise of 39 inches along its coast by 2100 due to climate change. Business groups complain that the resulting restrictions on coastal development will damage the economy. State lawmakers respond by introducing a bill that would bar officials from taking such pessimistic predictions into account. Instead, they would be required to consider only historical trends. In July, after North Carolina is widely mocked for trying to declare rising sea levels illegal, state legislators agree to a compromise and instruct the Coastal Resources Commission to come back with another report in four years. In the meantime, officials are still to ignore the scientists’ original advice.

Case #3: As a signatory to the Copenhagen Accord, Canada is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Peter Kent announces that Canada is halfway there. This must mean that the country has already lowered its emissions to 8 or 9 percent below 2005 levels, right? Wrong. By “halfway,” the minister means only that if we continue along the same path, we will be halfway to our target by 2020. Furthermore, this 2020 “halfway” projection does not use 2005 emissions as a baseline, but rather hypothetical 2020 emissions assuming inaction on the government’s part. The upshot is that by 2020, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are currently projected to drop to only 2.7 percent below its 2005 emissions, rather than 17 percent below. Halfway indeed!

Case #4: Enbridge would like to build a pipeline pumping Alberta oil to the BC coast for export. Sadly for Enbridge, people are increasingly concerned about accidents and the possibility of oil spills. To reassure the public, the company puts out several promotional videos. Earlier this month, it is discovered that in two of these videos, a string of islands in Douglas Channel, with a combined area of over 1000 square kilometres, is completely erased from the map. One must admit, the tanker route certainly looks a lot safer this way.

The PR lessons from this summer have been fascinating. If the facts are not convenient, simply invent new facts. Staying on message is the important thing. Who are we to let reality get in the way?