Counterproductive is the first word that comes to mind when trying to make sense of the environmental movement’s irrational hatred of pipelines. Sure, Keystone XL has been rejected. But its loss is the railways’ gain. By this point, few would dispute that pipelines are a safer means of transporting crude oil than rail. Derailments and the associated spills are substantially more common. Just this past weekend, two separate oil trains derailed in Wisconsin, although thankfully, no one was hurt. Rarely and tragically, however, accidents prove fatal, as the 47 dead in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec attest.
But sadly, for now, pipeline projects are having a hard time going through. Perhaps the environmental lobby thinks it can make oil sands projects less competitive. Transport by rail is, after all, more expensive. Sadly, this questionable gambit will only undermine their ostensible goals.
As Mr. Ken Green, lead author of a Fraser Institute report on pipeline safety aptly stated, “saying ‘No’ to a pipeline is saying ‘Yes’ to rail.” Rail has obvious human health and safety risks. With pipeline bottlenecks, with new projects facing substantial delay, and with Canadian oil production still growing – albeit at a slower pace – it should not be surprising that a surge in rail capacity is looming.
A recent study by the Sightline Institute points out that in the Pacific Northwest alone, oil by rail shipments are expected to quadruple to almost 1 million bbl per day by 2018. From an emissions perspective, this is comparable to adding 9 – 22 million cars on the road. It is almost unnecessary to point out the greater risk of spillage from rail transportation. Without a doubt, the continued foot dragging on the pipeline front has exacerbated the trend to greater reliance on rail.
This should not be shocking. The consequences are unfortunate, but oil must be sold, and it will get to market one way or another. Rail is hardly ideal, but it is available. Sure, the activist class has hurt the oil & gas industry’s bottom line, but at the cost of the environment and human health.
Facts are not always relevant, however. True, it is absolutely crucial that industry recapture the narrative, and the relentless, droning, rigorous repetition of facts – such as pipelines’ relatively superior safety record – would serve the industry immeasurably in the future. The activist class was unfortunately allowed to tell the story on its terms and gain the public’s attention, so for the time being, the industry will continue to face substantial public relations challenges. In the end, this focus on recapturing the narrative will yield benefits, but only in the longer term; for now, there is little to do but wait for the activists to run out of steam or over-commit and demand too much from politicians and society.
Make no mistake, that industry detractors persist has little to do with facts. They will not be swayed by anything tending to disprove their biases. Why they oppose pipelines, and why many politicians are keen to aid them, is simply a matter of politics and ideology. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi penned what is perhaps the most accurate explanation for Keystone XL’s demise:
I am very disappointed that one pipe, nearly a metre wide, is being asked to bear all the sins of the carbon economy. Nonetheless, Canadian energy must have access to markets, and I will continue to partner with industry and other orders of government to advocate for other alternatives, of which there remain many viable options.
Despite its somewhat facetious tone, that statement sums it all up. Concerns and anxieties about climate change, backlash against the Harper years, and perennial activist angst and resentment has coalesced around one key issue: pipelines. Sure, its not the most appropriate or fair target, and blaming Keystone XL greatly oversimplifies a complex issue. But oversimplification wins votes, wins supporters, and wins arguments. For the anti-industry left, its a useful buzzword, and in politics, buzzwords often beat out sober, rational discourse every time. It will always be an incontrovertible fact that politics is about perceptions, not truth.
So what does it all mean? It means that politicians will continue to ride this wave to curry favour. It means that activists, perceiving a once in a lifetime shot at their own personal glory – never trust someone who is too ostentatiously altruistic – and committed to their sanctimonious crusade with all the fervour and zeal of a missionary taming an undiscovered country, will continue to demand, heckle, bully, and posture, at least until they lose the public’s ear. Sadly, that also means that the industry, and the ordinary hardworking people relying on it, will be enduring an agonizing and indefinite wait.