Last week selected members of the Prime Minister’s Youth Council (PMYC) wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister asking that he cancel the buyout of the Trans Mountain pipeline. While young, these representatives have a strong public appeal and an even stronger media presence which allowed their letter to make national news. A number of interested observers challenged them on their letter and in my case I was blocked from conversations immediately upon asking some very simple questions. Since this story hasn’t really gone away (and has even morphed somewhat) I, as an Environmental Scientist, have decided to write this blog post to challenge the signatories of the letter to respond to my criticisms of their letter.
One of the complaints of the PMYC signers has been “ageism”: that we did not take them seriously because of their age. Well I disagree. I believe that by questioning their work we showed that we were taking these young people extremely seriously. The ageist response would have been a condescending nod of the head and a gentle smile while ignoring their suggestions. We, instead, looked at what they had written and decided to take them seriously. The problem is that in policy discussions when you write a letter of this sort you need to present a supporting rationale. The letter provided three points summarizing why they are calling on the Prime Minister to cancel the buyout of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion (TMX) project:
- Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project violates your promise to protect British Columbia’s coast. No amount of technology can undo a spill in the Salish Sea, and a spill would crush the cultures and livelihoods that depend on the health of the Sea.
- Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project is setting up the Paris Agreement for failure… Buying the Trans Mountain pipeline project undermines the Paris Agreement and locks Canada into decades of reliance on fossil fuels.
- Buying and building the Trans Mountain pipeline project is in violation of UNDRIP and the Liberal Party’s plan to renew nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous Peoples. Forcing this pipeline through the lands of First Nations that do no consent entrenches the violence of colonialism and moves us away from reconciliation. Free, Prior and Informed Consent for any development projects on traditional Indigenous territories is an essential component of moving forward with reconciliation.
In the following sections I will address these claims point by point and pose a simple question for the signatories to the PMYC letter.
Protecting BC’s Coast:
This first claim is one I have addressed in detail. It is the claim that caused me to challenge the letter in the first place. To summarize my previous assessment: blocking the TMX will do nothing to reduce the demand for crude oil in the Pacific Northwest. Rather, if the TMX is blocked the crude oil necessary for our continued existence on the West Coast will still need to flow. It will simply flow via less safe means, specifically:
- Explosive Bakken crude will flow in even greater quantities along rail lines that run the virtual length of the Columbia River and through the heavily populated communities of the Pacific Northwest.
- Canadian oil trains will run in greater numbers alongside the Thompson and the Fraser Rivers and through every community along that route. A spill in either river will risk salmon runs that serve as the food source for, and are held sacred by, dozens of First Nations communities in British Columbia.
- Instead of highly-regulated Canadian tankers bringing Canadian crude to California and Asia we will see the Puget Sound and Semiahmoo Bay full of tankers coming out of the Middle East and registered in whatever jurisdiction has the lowest safety standards.
- The eventual risk to the Salish Sea won’t be the one major accident every 2000+ years described in the TMX risk assessments, it will be orders of magnitude higher.
Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks in the transportation of fossil fuels shows that the TMX reduces our regional risks of oil spills. Blocking the TMX will increase the likelihood of a disastrous rail spill that could spell the end of a major fishery or result in the deaths of dozens of innocents. Blocking the TMX also increases the likelihood of a marine spill from a foreign-flagged tanker. The challenge faced by the signers of the PYMC letter is one I have asked numerous times before: Show us a safer way than the TMX to get the fossil fuels we need to run our society to the West Coast.
The PMYC letter presents as support for its claims about climate change a single flawed analysis from an anti-pipeline NGO. This report has been used by many to claim that the continued existence of Canada’s oil industry is incompatible with our national goal of fighting climate change. That claim is both simplistic and wrong. Canada has prepared a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as part of our commitments under the Paris Agreement and nowhere in that NDC does it include Canada eliminating our oil industry. The reason for this is simple. Canada will still need oil for the next several decades as we transition to a low-carbon future. A functioning oil industry is one of the economic drivers that will allow us to pay for our transition and as such Canada’s NDC accounts for the continued existence of the oil industry.
To imagine that Canada can meet its Paris Agreement goals absent a fossil fuel industry (and the fuels it provides) is simply magical thinking. Activists will claim we need to stop producing oil but don’t then explain how our economy will operate without that oil? The answer is: it will not. We will instead need to import the oil necessary to run our economy. In doing so we will be diminishing our economic capacity for no practical climate change gain. Given our need for oil to run the economy, every plan to meet our Paris Agreement commitments includes the continued existence of our oil industry and accounts for the climate change effects via offsets. That is where the Oil Change International Report gets it wrong. Carbon offsets allow Canada to offset our additional emissions and still have a tax-generating oil industry in a post-Paris Agreement economy.
Moreover, what the PMYC letter doesn’t acknowledge is that real plans to fight climate change have been written and these plans require the pipeline to be built in order to be fully implemented. Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan is the best way to get Alberta to make the real, and incredibly expensive, changes to their economy necessary to meet our Paris Agreement goals. By eliminate the TMX we will effectively lose Alberta’s support and that will make it even harder for Canada to achieve our climate goals.
This is a challenge we, as Canadians, face. We cannot naively demand the end to the oil industry without looking at how that elimination will effect our ability to pay for the changes we need for our economy. The PMYC letter writes that buying the TMX locks Canada into decades of dependence on fossil fuels. Well that is not correct. Canada is locked into our carbon economy because that is the world we currently live in and we can’t simply make a wish and have that dependence disappear. Eliminating our reliance on fossil fuels will be a multi-decade-long struggle that will take all our economic and political might to achieve. So I ask the PMYC letter signers this: what practical effect do you believe eliminating our oil sands make on our national emissions and how would you suggest we pay for our transition off fossil fuels when you eliminate entire tax-generating sectors of our economy?
First Nations issues:
As I have written before, I have studiously avoided the First Nations’ file in my TMX discussions. I am not an expert on issues surrounding First Nations sovereignty (or consultation) and have been careful to “stay in my lane”. That being said assessing relative risks is my lane and that is what needs to be considered in this discussion.
The Crown owes the same fiduciary obligations to all First Nations and has to consider cumulative risks to each First Nation associated with a project. I have been repeatedly informed on Twitter that each First Nation is sovereign and has the right to make decisions for itself. While that is true the Crown is left with the challenging task of finding a compromise when a project’s risks affect two or more First Nations differently. There is an old quote often attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” This quote has never been truer than in the TMX debate. As I have tried to explain, the pipeline debate is all about relative risk. Closing a door somewhere means that another door must be opened somewhere else, or put another way the Squamish Nation’s ability to swing their arms ends where the Cheam or Semiahmoo First Nations’ noses begin. The TMX debate is about finding the safest way to move a material that is critical to our shared wealth over land. It is not possible to achieve zero risk to all communities and so the Crown has to balance the risks.
So my final question to the PYMC signers is this: how would you suggest the Crown balance the relative risks to differing First Nations posed by our society’s reliance on fossil fuels? Recognize that inaction (or the status quo) represents a decision to allocate risks every bit as much as a decision to build the TMX does. The only difference is that in planning the current pipeline route the desire has been to minimize risk to the nearby communities. While I agree the current process has not been a perfect one; it has, at least, been a transparent one. The allocation of risks associated with the status quo has not involved the balancing of risks and is anything but transparent. How would you, as the leaders of tomorrow, deal with one First Nation’s demand to have no risk when doing so puts another First Nation at significant risk? Because that is the problem the Crown is facing right now. A rail spill on the Fraser, the Thompson or the Columbia could have massive negative consequences for dozens of First Nation communities. How would you balance those risks?