Activists are trying to get the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project (TMX) back in the news. On my social media feed I first saw Dr. Tim Takaro hanging in a tree then watched him as he was replaced by YouTuber Kutis Baute. Meanwhile, I regularly hear activists repeating their simplistic mantra: “climate leaders don’t build pipelines”.
The goal of this blog is to advance evidence-based, environmental decision-making and the Trans Mountain is a particular interest of mine. In this post, I want to revisit some of the faulty arguments made by the opponents of the TMX. In doing I hope to explain why sometimes climate leaders may need to build pipelines.
Myth: we are moving away from fossil fuels so we shouldn’t build any fossil fuel infrastructure
This is a common refrain that is completely misguided since it ignores the timeline to achieve a fossil fuel-free future. Let’s consider a simple analogy. Imagine you plan on retiring in 10-15 years. Would now be a good time to stop upgrading your work computer or to pack up your office? Would you say, “better not buy more coffee for the coffee-maker, I’m retiring in 2035”? I’m guessing you would instead choose to time your last computer upgrade to let you reach your retirement year.
Some activists have argued that the fossil-fuel era could be over in as little as 10 years, but in my mind this argument does not even rise to the level of laughable. If we undertake herculean efforts and dedicate a historically unprecedented per cent of our national gross domestic product to the task, we have a reasonable chance of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels in 30-50 years. Even then it is likely closer to the 50-year than the 30-year timeline. In the meantime we will need infrastructure to safely move that product.
Myth: we should be building renewables not fossil fuel infrastructure.
This isn’t a myth so much as a false dichotomy. Renewables produce electricity, they don’t compete with liquid fuels and heavy crude for most of their uses in the short-, middle- and long-terms. Let’s look at each in turn:
Alternatives to fossil fuels – short-term
In the short term fossil fuels are absolutely essential. As I detailed in a previous post, in BC fossil fuels represent approximately 59% of all energy use. According to the Globe Foundation Endless Energy Project Report domestic transportation accounted for 87% of motor gasoline and diesel fuel sales in BC in 2000 (the last year this data was fully compiled). I’m sure someone is going to say: “what about electric vehicles”? In 2015 plug-in electrical vehicles represented 0.33% of new vehicle sales in Canada. Electrical vehicles represent a rounding error in total cars and personal trucks on the road in B.C. As for hybrids, well they depend on fossil fuels to operate and would stop doing so absent fossil fuels.
Alternatives to fossil fuels – middle-term
In the middle-term, there are significant uses of fossil fuels for which alternatives simply won’t be available soon enough. Here is an paper in Science that identifies the uses for which alternative don’t currently exist. Let’s look at some critical uses one-by-one:
Transport trucks: at this time there are no electric transport trucks for long-haul routes. Admittedly Mercedes Benz is testing a potential electric transport truck but that truck currently has a maximum range of 200 km. Moreover, that is a single prototype. If you took the current generation of transport trucks off the road entirely, the store shelves would go bare in days.
Freight trains: Similarly there aren’t any electric freight trains that can operate across the Canadian Rockies (ref). So absent fossil fuels there won’t be any trains to transport food or necessities from the dockyards and farms to the rail yards either.
Container ships and electric cargo planes: There are some suggestions that a new generation of container ships could be designed to operate using some form of hybrid electrical/sail/biodeisel but that is still on the drawing board and we don’t even have a prototype out there for fossil fuel-free cargo aircraft.
Polyacrylonitrile for renewables: One of the most important components for renewable energy technologies is carbon fiber and carbon fiber is made from oil. Research is underway to use biomass to make carbon fiber but that may represent a false choice from a climate perspective. We already know that biomass has its own greenhouse gas issues not to mention the land use concerns of converting food to produce monomers for industry.
Alternatives to fossil fuels – long-term
In the long-term there are simply no alternatives for fossil fuels for petrochemical, pharmaceutical and road uses. The special advantage of petrochemicals is that they provide us with the benefits of millions of years of Mother Nature’s synthetic organic chemistry expertise combined with the input of millions of years of solar energy all captured in the compounds themselves. Petrochemicals represent a treasure trove of stored chemical energy that simply cannot be replaced given our current scientific knowledge and energy systems. So yes, fossil fuels are made of something special and at this point in our technological progress they are simply irreplaceable.
Given we have a long-term need for fossil fuels. Let’s address the specific myths about the TMX?
Myth: the TMX is a carbon bomb that will dump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere:
This is the biggest myth pushed by activists and is simply not true. The TMX won’t increase the amount of oil production in Alberta. It will simply move the existing production in a safer way. Activists keep making this claim but do so by counting the oil moved in the TMX as if it were new production. It is not.
As detailed by the National Research Council, the estimated rail loading capacity out of western Canada in 2018 was approximately 2.8 million barrels per day and shipments of crude oil by rail more than doubled in 2018 from 146 000 bbl/d in January 2018, to 354 000 bbl/d in December 2018. Any production that doesn’t go by pipeline will simply move by rail at a much higher cost in greenhouse gas emissions. Sure there was a drop during the pandemic but as the global economy returns to normal so will demand.
On the American side of the border just three (Tacoma, Anacortes, or Ferndale) of the region’s six refineries moved over 156,800 bbl/d by rail in 2017 and every indicator is that the volume will be increasing absent TMX. These trains are carrying explosive Bakken crude through some of the most densely populated parts of the Pacific Northwest and along the sides of some of the West Coast’s most important salmon rivers. The TMX can help reduce that volume.
Rail spill risk
We all know that risk of incident is 4.5 times higher for transportation via rail over pipeline and more of the rail route is along the river sides than is the pipeline. Many activists complain about the sourcing of the 4.5 times stat so let’s go to Citylab and the Sightline Institute, both of which warn about the increase in risk of oil spills associated with this increase in oil volumes by rail. There will be more oil-by-rail spills and because our rail lines run along river sides we will have far more risk to salmon habitat, the southern resident killer whales (SRKWs), and the Salish Sea.
Tankers in the Salish Sea
Some have argued the TMX poses a special risk to the Salish Sea. As described in a previous post, if the TMX doesn’t get completed, the refineries in the Puget Sound will still need over 645,000 bbl/d of crude oil. Currently Cherry Point refinery alone sees 500+ tankers a year and Toresco (a committed shipper on the TMX) has said they want to add 120 tankers a year to their Andeavor facility to make up for an absence of supply. Meanwhile, Westridge Terminal will still be sending out a few tankers a month. So in the end we will still see 700+ tankers a year coming in and out of the Salish Sea with 620+ of them running the narrower and much more dangerous Rosario Strait.
Spill risks in the Salish Sea
I have written in detail about the relative risks associated with the project to the Salish Sea. Any cold-eyed analysis of the relative risks 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. It will put more tankers going through narrower waters with less support from escort tugs. That is a formula for increased risk.
The threat to the Southern Resident Killer Whales
I wrote about this in a previous post. If you look at the entire Salish Sea, and not simply the Canadian side of the border, then you realize that the TMX will likely decrease the risks to the SRKWs not increase those risks. If the TMX fails, foreign-flagged ships with lower safety standards will be coming in to the same waters, running through narrower straits while not following the slower speeds recommended by DFO to reduce ship noise. It will be more dangerous and louder for the SRKWs. Meanwhile, more oil-by-rail along the Columbia Gorge puts the whales’ winter feeding grounds at risk. All it takes is one spill in the Columbia River to destroy the SRKWs’ winter feeding grounds.
Funding the Transition off fossil fuels
Put simply, the costs to get off fossil fuels will be enormous. To fund that transition needs a healthy Canadian economy and that includes a healthy oil industry in Alberta. As a Canadian I will point out again that Canadian oil helps support Canadian jobs and Canadian institutions, and provides the funds to pay for our education and medical systems while subsidizing transfer payments.
I want the funds generated by Canadian oil to help fund our Canadian transition away from fossil fuels. I want my personal gasoline purchases to go towards subsidizing medicare and not subsidizing a despot or paying for a tyrant to bomb his neighbour.
I want to know that the oil used in my car was not generated using slave labour in a country without a free press, and where environmental regulations are noted by their absence rather than their application. I want my oil being produced by well-paid Canadians in a country with a demonstrably free press, strong government oversight and a strong tradition of NGOs to watch over the regulator’s shoulder.
To summarize all my points above: the TMX is not a pipeline that will increase oil production in Alberta, rather it will move existing production in the safest, least environmentally harmful manner (via pipeline). Blocking the TMX is not going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, rather it will redirect the crude to less safe means of transport while simultaneously reducing our economic ability to fight climate change. Building the TMX will not increase marine risks, it will simply change the risks and in some cases it will reduce the risks. One might say if they cancel the TMX we will end up with the worst of both worlds, a greater risk to the environment and less financial ability to finance the fight against climate change.
The truth of the matter is that real environmental leaders look at our needs in the short-, middle-, and long-term and build infrastructure to address all three. Sometimes that means building fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines. Thus, sometimes this means that climate leaders will need to build pipelines.