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Pipeline Debates Distracting from Broader Climate Policy Concerns

Simon Donner's picture
University of British Columbia

Simon Donner is a professor in the Geography Department at the University of British Columbia who studies why the climate matters to people and aquatic ecosystems, including rivers and coral reefs.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Mar 25, 2013

oil pipelineThere’s much argument about whether building the Keystone XL pipeline will unleash an oil sands “carbon bomb” and whether activists are attacking symbols rather than true causes. Below is a post from last year, outlining my argument why opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway across British Columbia is a reasonable climate policy decision, under the circumstances:

(Re-post from March, 2012)

After a few months of thinking, I came to the conclusion that there is no choice but to oppose the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline. There are many worthy arguments on either side of this issue, from the economy to First Nations rights, and from the preservation of the BC coastline to the reality of oil consumption here and abroad. My argument, presented in the Mark, is entirely about climate:

If the Harper government were not so consistently obstinate on federal climate policy, people like me (a climate scientist who has long been wary of the NIMBYism of environmental groups) might not become vociferous opponents of projects like Northern Gateway. We are forced to oppose individual carbon-intensive projects because the government refuses to listen to scientific or economic reason on climate change.

My compromise solution is a federal carbon pricing system.

A carbon-pricing system, like those of British Columbia and Australia, would not necessarily prevent pipeline construction. Rather, it could allow the market to decide whether the costs of a new pipeline outweigh the benefits, and ensure that any emissions from such new projects are more than compensated for by cuts elsewhere. This would also help Canada slowly transition towards a 21st-century economy, based on innovation and our plentiful renewable resources, without ignoring extractive industries of our past.

I encourage people to read, consider and comment on this argument. It is not based on concern about the direct effect of an individual pipeline like Northern Gateway on the physics and chemistry of the climate system. The approval of an individual project, and for that matter, the overall expansion of oil extraction in Alberta, would not specifically be  – physically or chemically speaking – “game over” for the climate, as some have claimed. They could, however, lead us down the wrong path. 

Absent a federal effort to manage carbon emissions, there will be a pitched battle over every new pipeline and every new coal-burning power plant. Many of those seeming slam dunks, like Keystone XL, will clang off the rim. We could keep fighting like this forever. Or we could work together on a federal climate policy.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 25, 2013


I'm not sure why you believe Harper would consider a carbon-pricing system, but be that as it may: Keystone XL would would indeed lead us down the wrong path. We're taking a step in one direction, when we should be running the other way. This is what James Hansen was referring to with his "game over" comment - we're sending exactly the wrong message at the wrong time.

I'm curious why you think Canada, or any nation, has the luxury to "slowly transition to a 21st century economy" - with warming data exceeding all predictions, and tipping points approaching within decades?

Personally I find anthropogenic warming far more intimidating than fighting new fossil fuel projects, which comes easily for me. To paraphrase Shakespeare, thrice armed are they who hath their quarrel just (and solid science on which to stand).

Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on Mar 25, 2013

Just say NO to all nuclear, fossil fuel, and biofuel plans. Keeps the eyes on wind and solar where everybody would be headed if not for dinosaur monopolies.

Simon Donner's picture
Simon Donner on Mar 25, 2013


I see your argument. Keep in mind, the article is not saying that the current PM and federal government would approve a carbon-pricing system - I'll leave the determination of their willingess to consider a pricing system to the political scientists - it is saying that without taking such action, climate experts have little choice but to do things like oppose pipeline construction.

As for the recommended pace of change, given the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and resource-dependence of the economy in Canada, any move, slow or not, in another direction would be a huge step.



Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 25, 2013

Actually, the science says: "... Energy efficiency, many types of renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power and new transport technologies will all require widespread deployment if we are to reach our greenhouse-gas emission goals. .."  (this is from the IEA in 2010).

There are problems with your suggestion to ignore the science and follow the preference of a special interest group (renewable advocates):

- It increases the cost of carbon emission reductions (according to the IEA), presumably this hurts the poor and decreases the likelihood of deep reductions.

- It makes the system vulnerable to lobbying by incumbent (i.e. fossil fuel) energy providers.  They have a vested interest in ignoring the CO2 problem and in distracting the public with delay tactics and tactics to lock-in fossil fuel use.

A tradable fee/tax on CO2 emissions would allow utilities and energy users to choose the most economically efficient path to CO2 reductions.

Ivor O'Connor's picture
Ivor O'Connor on Mar 25, 2013

IEA says lots of things much like any other political organization. I pick and choose what makes sense to me regardless of the source. I don't see that as "ignoring science". Just the opposite actually.

-IEA states nuclear, coal plants with carbon seaquestration, and biofuels helps the poor? And more quickly than solar and wind help in the reduction of CO2? How does the IEA justify this scientifically?

-Pushing wind and solar makes them more vulnerable to lobbying than if we ignored them? This is again based on science you say?

Scientifically you imply taxing instead of cutting their subsidies is the most economically efficient path to CO2 reductions? How does putting in layers of expensive government to both take money and give money to these CO2 polluters help? Given my experience with government it seems we'd just have more people keeping themselves busy justifying their employement and growing their empires. They would not want to end the CO2 polluters existence because it would end theirs...

You throw the word science about but I don't see it...

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 26, 2013

The "science" simply says that the renewable-only path costs more than one which includes nuclear and fossil fuel with carbon capture.  The presumption that higher energy costs hurt the poor is my own, of course each is entitled to opinion of who will bear the cost.

Pushing wind and solar do no harm, it's the negative campainging against nuclear and carbon capture that often accompany it which are the problem.  Renewables alone are an unaffordable/inadequate solution using today's technology; blind faith in future renewables/storage breakthroughs as a strategy constitues a giant gamble with our future, and it clearly impairs our ability to reduce emissions.

Pushing (exclusively) a few politically popular technologies instead of the broad low emission portofolio recommended by the experts does play into the hands of the lobbyists, yes.  Too often, political popularity is a result of the lobbying process or self-interested spin by the press, rather than rigorous scientific analysis (e.g. the anti-nuclear movement).

I don't claim that the carbon tax is based on science.  Unlike "hard" science, economic theory does not produce testable predictions that can be proven with (politically feasible) experiments that bring consensus.

As far as selectively choosing from IEA publications: they have a mix of data, educated opinion, and political spin. It is important to be careful to understand which is which.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 26, 2013

Nathan, where have you seen evidence of political spin in IEA publications?

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Mar 26, 2013

I beg to differ: Just say no to Renewables without storage, say Yes to Gen3 and Gen4 Nuclear.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 26, 2013

For one thing, the post-Fukushima Energy Technology Perspectives (2012): in the high-profile summary material, no mention is made of nuclear power, but the accompanying slides and roadmaps make clear that nuclear power has a large (and growing) roll to play in the future scenarios they describe.

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