When I was a kid, my dad came home from his forestry job one day with an eye injury. A tree branch had attacked him and he showed us stitches on his eyeball. I was very young, but I still remember instantly feeling clammy and faint. For the rest of his life every time I looked him in the eye the scar was all I could see and I could feel myself turning pale, which, now that I think about it, may have been fairly annoying for him. For the rest of my life I’ve had random episodes of nauseousness whenever my imagination conjures up mental images of getting stabbed in the eye by various random objects. It’s not a habit I enjoy, but that doesn’t mean it goes away.
Once we have a fear lodged in our heads, it is very hard to get out, and it takes on a life of its own that is outlandish in stature. In my peculiar instance, there are countless ways one can get hurt, many more gruesome and painful than my personal little nightmare, but only this one makes me woozy because my little brain allowed fear to run rampant until it owned the place.
A similar phenomenon has happened in the greater world when one thinks of pipelines and possible spills. A pipeline spill could indeed be a terrible thing, in a worst case scenario, just like getting a arrow in the eye would be (try getting to sleep with that image dancing in your head – it’s no easier now than it was at age ten, trust me).
It is undeniably possible that an errant arrow of unknown origin may strike my ocular gadgets one day as I walk down the street, but as a functioning adult (my own self-appraisal, no one else’s) I have to override that speculation and consider the true likelihood of it happening on any given day. Which I’ve become pretty good at, and therefore most often leave my full-face motorcycle helmet at home on walking-only days.
I could wear it all the time if I felt the danger great enough though. And that’s the thing: we can take extra precautions against highly unlikely events if that is what’s required to make us comfortable. The solution isn’t to never go outside, it’s to deal with it in a manner that will under all realistically plausible scenarios ensure no major harm occurs.
Like my eyeball, Canada’s coastline is a treasure that deserves full protection, while recognizing that absolute protection isn’t really a concept that can be called for in reality.
If we decided to protect our coastlines in absolute terms, we would do many things differently. We wouldn’t have all those ships and boats and barges and freighters and tankers plying the waters of the beautiful coastline. We wouldn’t have millions of people living on its edge, fouling the water with effluent whenever it’s inconvenient or too costly to deal with it. We would declare it a reserve and keep all the grubby humans away.
But that’s not the world we live in. We all consume a lot of everything, and that involves a lot of transportation. Of both people and things. Seven billion people have that effect.
We are also very good at handling these things. Every day, more than 50 million barrels of petroleum products make their way through marine terminals and onto ships. That number is actually far, far higher if one considers refined products, and the build/break bulk industry (where smaller ships coalesce loads to fill big ships and vice versa).
Of those 50 million barrels, how many significant incidents do you hear of? Ever? If you’re going to bring up the big three – Exxon Valdez, BP Gulf of Mexico, or Enbridge Michigan – then you must place them in context. First, they happened over a span of 30 years. Second, they involve marine transport, pipeline transport, and a production related incident – and to lump those activities under one umbrella means you are talking about 3 incidents involving the production and transportation of probably close to a trillion barrels of oil (average production/consumption of 80 million barrels per day for 30 years). Of these, the BP Gulf of Mexico spill is not even comparable, because it flowed uncontrolled for 87 days, in a subsea region that was incredibly difficult to access.
Of the other two incidents, they did happen, but they also catalyzed spectacular advances in safety, monitoring, and spill clean up/control. Thirty years ago perhaps a spill was taken lightly, now you will not find a petroleum transporter anywhere that is not absolutely terrified of being the next one.
That does not mean terrified into inaction though, it means terrified into maximum self preservation. It is safe to assume that Kinder Morgan wishes to avoid a $60 billion tab like the one incurred by BP in the Gulf of Mexico.
The last stick-in-the-eye boogeyman that needs discussing is the utter disinformation campaign against bitumen. In the event of a spill, it doesn’t sink, it floats. It is true that different techniques work better to recover diluted bitumen than conventional oil, but that does not make it difficult or impossible. It just means we need to do our homework and plan properly.
And that final point is completely valid – that BC’s people, its government and its protesters (3 very different things) – have every right to demand world-class clean up equipment and properly trained responders. Kinder Morgan would agree with that.
But to the people of BC – do you know who wants a spill far less than you? Not only Kinder Morgan, but Enbridge, and TransCanada, and Pembina and every other pipeline company out there. A spill for one damages all, through the approvals process, the tide of public opinion, and the ability to get anything built again ever. A spill from the Trans Mountain system would be cleaned up in one-tenth the time it would take to undo the damage to the whole industry.
It would be great to be less parochial in our viewpoints, though it’s a challenge because the daily observable things in our environments force us into them. But look up. The oil industry happens to be centered in Alberta, but the benefits spread across the nation. Communities across Canada have sent workers to western oilfields for several generations. It is also a fact that our ports are, obviously, on our coasts. That doesn’t mean that BC or Nova Scotia values our beautiful coastlines more than Alberta or Manitoba. Landlocked provinces care much as anyone, we just don’t get to see them as often.
We should do whatever we can to protect the things most valuable to us. But we, as 7 billion people, leave a footprint. Vancouver does, Calgary does, transportation does, eating organic food does. Luckily, we are very capable at safely moving the energy liquids required for all these tasks. And Canada can do it as good or better than anywhere.