As I wrote in my previous post, on July 27th I will be attending the Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) Ministerial Panel Public Open House in Langley. If I get a chance this is what I intend to say.
My name is Blair King. I have a Ph.D in Chemistry and Environmental Studies, am a Professional Chemist, a Professional Biologist, a Contaminated Sites Approved Professional and have spent the last 16 years remediating industrial and commercial properties contaminated by our modern society. The majority of my work involves cleaning up spilled hydrocarbons. I am a family man but in my spare time I write a blog about evidence-based environmental decision-making called “A Chemist in Langley“. For those interested everything I say today is fully referenced at my blog https://achemistinlangley.wordpress.com/ .
First I have a quick conflict-of-interest disclosure. While I clean up contaminated sites for a living, I have no financial interest in the TMX nor, to the best of my knowledge, does my employer. I am not being paid to be here and have never received a cent from any of my blogging. My strong personal interest in the TMX project comes both as someone deeply interested in making sure we keep our province prosperous and clean and also as a neighbour to the pipeline. You see I live less than 50 m from the existing Trans Mountain pipeline and cross the pipeline daily on my walk to work. Unlike most of my neighbours, I bought my house fully aware of the existence and location of the Trans Mountain pipeline. I knew it was there and still felt safe raising my young family immediately nearby.
I am here today not to speak directly in support of the TMX project but rather to clear up a lot of misconceptions and talking points you have heard, and will hear, at this open house.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Climate Change. Let’s be frank, climate change is real, it is dangerous and we, as a country, have to do more to fight climate change. That being said climate change is a red herring in this discussion. Why? Because up to 80% of the emissions associated with fossil fuels are generated in their combustion. Pipelines represent a negligible part of that equation and the upstream numbers for Canadian producers are entirely comparable to our American counterparts.
So why is climate change a red herring? Because climate change is a result of the demand side of the ledger, the burning of fossil fuels, not their generation. As we know, the world is awash in oil, if it is not supplied from Alberta, it will be supplied by Algeria or Nigeria. If you really want to fight climate change don’t fight pipelines, fight for market-based mechanisms like carbon pricing. History has shown the only way to reduce fossil fuel use (and resultant carbon emissions) is to address the demand side of the ledger.
So where is the demand coming from? Well almost all (95%) of the world’s transportation energy comes from petroleum-based fuels, largely gasoline and diesel. Transportation use represents about 33% of all the energy used in British Columbia. The technology does not exist to get our planes, trains, ferries and transport trucks off fossil fuels and electrical vehicles for personal transportation are still in their infancy. Even with a herculean effort we are not going fossil fuel-free in our transportation system for decades to come. The technology has not even been invented that would allow us to do so. Only by making fossil fuels more expensive (through market-based mechanisms) will the world have the incentive to develop the technologies necessary to get our transportation system off fossil fuels.
Moreover, even if we were to somehow magically convert our transportation system to electric power, we would not come close to having the electrical generating capacity needed to meet the demand. In British Columbia transportation uses the equivalent of 9 to 15 Site C Dams worth of energy per year and we do not have that kind of electricity oversupply just lying around.
Renewables will certainly help but ramping up our renewable energy capacity represents another multi-decade long struggle and our existing electrical grid is not compatible with large-scale renewable energy. Going to renewable will mean completely re-designing our electrical grid which also will take time and money.
What this means is that we are going to have a demand for fossil fuels for at least three and likely five to seven decades into our future. So the question we have to ask ourselves is how are we going to get access to that fuel?
In most of BC our liquid fuel is supplied by imports. We get it from Alberta (by truck, rail and pipeline) and from the Puget Sound (by barge and tanker). Our supply network is stretched extremely thin and as the folks in the interior know, a short shut-down in Edmonton can mean empty gas stations in Kamloops and Kelowna.
Now the Puget Sound has historically received the vast majority of its crude oil from Alaska via tanker. You know that West Coast Tanker ban? Well Americans have been shipping up to 600,000 barrel/day of crude from Alaska to the Puget Sound via the Salish Sea for the last 20 years. That Alaskan oil is drying up and besides Canadian oil (via the existing Trans Mountain) the Puget Sound is going to be getting its future oil by rail.
How will they do that? Well the infrastructure is almost in place to supply up to 725,000 barrels/day to the US West Coast by rail. Much of that oil will travel along the headwaters of the Kootenay River and alongside the Columbia River to the Puget Sound.
So today’s discussion is not about climate change nor is it about renewable energy, it is about how, for the next 40 to 50 years, we are going to get liquid hydrocarbons to market while we work to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Because the truth is that it is going to take us 40 to 50 years and in that time we will continue to need liquid fuels. So the only debate, today, is how do we transport that oil as safely as possible?
Well the answer to that question is definitive: pipelines have 4.5 times fewer accidents/spills than oil-by-rail and while every oil spills represents a catastrophe, spills from pipelines do not hold a candle to the apocalyptic aftermath of rail accidents. People like me can clean up the Kalamazoo River, but we can’t do anything to restore all those lives lost in Lac Megantic.
I will close with this: I am a pragmatic environmentalist. I want to leave my kids a world where fossil fuels are not used for transportation or energy, but we are not there yet. Until we reach that point we will need to move fossil fuels and the safest and most environmentally sensitive way to move those fuels over land is via pipeline and not oil-by-rail. Because let’s be honest here, the alternative to TMX is not some fossil fuel-free Shangri-La, it is oil-by-rail.