Canadian Pipeline Sheds Light on Ecological Impacts of Keystone XL

Oil_sands_collage_JungbimSierra Club’s announcement on August 29 that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline would exacerbate climate change was hardly a surprise. The 17-page report, Fail: How the Keystone XL Pipeline Flunks the Climate Test, it released on the same day was designed specifically to give President Obama what he called for last June from the steps of Georgetown University: proof of whether the TransCanada project would “significantly” contribute to climate change.

“The net effects of climate impact will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project will go forward,” Obama stated. “Our national interest will be served only if this pipeline does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.”

But if President Obama was looking for data and proof that the oil sands extraction process would affect climate change, he needn’t have looked any further than Vancouver, BC, Canada, where last year, Canada’s preeminent policy think tank, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), had published its own report, Enbridge Pipe Dreams and Nightmares, detailing the potential effects of another Canadian oil sands endeavor, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline.

The Enbridge pipeline, which would run from the Alberta oil sands to British Columbia’s Pacific Coast, would transport the same type of product as the Keystone XL, face similar ecological risks and pose the same concerns regarding climate change.

“The (Enbridge) pipeline and its oil sands product will impose climate change costs on people in other countries and in the future,” wrote Marc Lee, a senior economist with the CCPA and co-director of its Climate Change Project. Those costs, distributed worldwide, would range from $4 billion to $20 billion a year.

410px-Athabasca_Oil_Sands_map_Norman_EinsteinTo figure that cost, Lee determined what CO2 emissions would be produced by the pipeline and associated product (80-100 mega tons of CO2), and converted those emissions into per-ton costs; in other words, the costs that would be associated with the effect of that climate change on world populations.

“Pipeline proponents almost never mention climate change, and on the rare occasion they do it is only in relation to domestic emissions from the extraction of oil and gas resources.” But climate change has real costs, Lee argued.

“Because climate change is global in nature with impacts that span decades, if not centuries, there are enormous market failures associated with GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.”

Many of the concerns that have been raised about the Keystone XL proposal have also been raised about the Enbridge Northern Gateway. At the heart of both debates is topography and the precarious route that would be required to transport diluted bitumen to a coastline port.

And it is that topography that led the province of British Columbia, whose land it would cross, to reject Enbridge’s proposal.

Ecological risks of transporting oil sands bitumen

Enbridge’s 731 mile/1170 km dual pipeline system would cross the Rocky Mountains and forge through BC’s Fraser and the Skeena watersheds, both of which play a profound role in its diverse ecology. Like Keystone, which would travel over or near Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer, the Enbridge pipeline intersects with ecology that is essential to the nation’s agricultural industries, as well as North American water supplies.

But the Enbridge pipeline would also cut a swath through the unique Great Bear Rainforest, a 12,000-square-mile (32,000 km) patch of some of the world’s last undeveloped temperate rainforest. In 1972, the province considered the area to be so important that it unofficially imposed a moratorium on tankers along BC’s north coast. Enbridge’s plan is connect the pipeline to the port of Kitimat, at the western edge of BC’s Great Bear Rainforest, a plan that has been heavily opposed by both the province and its citizens.

“Polling shows that 80 percent of British Columbians support banning the crude oil tankers in British Columbia’s coastal waters,” Sierra Club notes in its report on oil sands production.

On June 3, 2013, the province of British Columbia submitted its decision to the federal panel overseeing public hearings on the Enbridge proposal. In the province’s view, Enbridge had not yet met the conditions that the government had stipulated, which were designed to ensure adequate environmental safeguards.

“(It) is not clear from the evidence that NG (Northern Gateway) will in fact be able to respond effectively to spills either from the pipeline itself, or from tankers transporting diluted bitumen from the proposed Kitimat terminal,” the province stated in its submission.

The vote of “no confidence” has been a substantial blow to Enbridge’s petition, and a notable win for conservationists working to establish long-term protection for the Great Bear Rainforest. Whether Enbridge would be able to meet the province’s requirements and reverse its decision any time soon is yet to be seen. Since the proposal must receive federal approval, the Canadian government is expected to issue its own decision on the proposal before the end of the year. BC’s formal objection will no doubt play a significant role in that decision.

Climate justice

According to Lee, concerns about potential spills, while important, have overshadowed an equally pressing issue: the climate implications of oil sands development.

The issue that is frequently missed, he said, is the economic impact of the project on local residents, who may find their land intersected by the pipeline, or their ability to earn a livelihood interrupted by construction, such as could become the case with First Nations’ fishing and hunting rights.

 “And there are still economic costs associated with putting that carbon into the atmosphere,” Lee said, costs that may be shouldered by a local community, or may be borne by people in the form of dramatic climate change in New York, Kivalina, Alaska or San Diego.

“There are additional costs above and beyond the price that is paid in that marketplace transaction that are borne by third-parties,” Lee pointed out. “When you weigh those against the profits that are going to be made, (those costs) are actually larger.”

Alberta_oil_sands_Archives_CanadaJob creation in the U.S. and Canada

Both Enbridge and TransCanada insist that the pipelines will create large numbers of jobs. Enbridge says its project would yield around 63,000 jobs in Canada. TransCanada’s Keystone website notes 1.8 million “in the United States.” Other figures offered by TransCanada have been more conservative, around 20,000.

However, it is important to note, said Lee, that all of the industry sources use person-years in their estimates, which is not the same as individual full-time job assignments.

“Ten people employed for one year for 10 years is 10 person-years. One person employed for 10 years is 10 person years,” Lee explained in a recent interview.

The correct estimate would be “more like 1,850 jobs for three years, and then after that … a couple hundred total jobs,” said Lee.

As to TransCanada’s quotes of 20,000 to 1.8 million, the U.S. State Department puts the numbers closer to 3,900 jobs, expressed in annual employment.

The industry estimates also don’t define where this labor will come from, which Lee points out is often specialized and dependent upon a ready-trained pool of workers, such as pipe fitters, who aren’t necessarily going to be unemployed. In those cases, regional employment figures wouldn’t necessarily change, as both companies suggest.

“Once they are done with one pipeline project, then they move onto another pipeline project in a different area.” That means steady manpower for the oil company from trained sources.

Weighing the costs and benefits of Enbridge and Keystone

The implications of the Northern Gateway proposal has garnered significantly less attention in the U.S., than Keystone. Yet the CCPA’s report and British Columbia’s objection to the plan, which were based on environmental safety concerns, speak directly to the climate issues raised by the Obama Administration. As Marc Lee notes, the question is whether oil sands bitumen is a worthwhile risk, not just for its investors, but for those who must live with the future consequences of inevitable climate change.

The author is of no relation to the interviewee.

Image of Athabasca oil sands collage courtesy of Jungbim

Image of Alberta oil sands fields courtesy of  NormanEinstein

Image of Athabasca Alberta oil exploration, c. 1900-1930 courtesy of Library and Archives Canada

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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