Choice between rail or pipelines a false argument

By Janet Keeping, Leader of the Green Party of Alberta

The facts are widely known: early Saturday morning October 19, 13 CN train cars de-railed near Gainford, a small Alberta settlement west of Edmonton. The cars carrying propane caught fire and there was at least one explosion. Both the CN line and Route 16 – a major highway in the region – were closed for many days, and Gainford had to be evacuated.

And already it’s started. Given yet another rail accident involving cars carrying dangerously flammable materials, commentators are suggesting again that it may be too dangerous to transport oil and gas by rail, therefore more pipelines have to be built. You have two choices, this argument goes. If one isn’t acceptable, then by default the other one is. If rail is ruled out, then pipelines must be the answer.

But this reasoning is fallacious as anyone who has thought carefully about it knows. The argument only works when there really are only two alternative ways of achieving something and that something must be done. Ignoring the possibility that there are other viable ways to transport oil and gas, let’s concentrate on the notion “that something” must be done. Because it doesn’t.

The only reason anyone in Alberta argues that we need more capacity to ship oil and gas is because the rate of production from the oil sands has sharply increased in recent years and is poised to increase still further. But why should the rate of production be further increased? Alberta was booming before the recent increases in production and product was being shipped every day, non-stop, 24/7.

Although this list is not exhaustive, here are some of the problems associated with production of the oil sands:

  • lack of any significant reclamation efforts,
  • ever-expanding toxic tailings ponds,
  • water contamination, for example, from arsenic and mercury,
  • over-consumption of water,
  • air pollution including acidic depositions,
  • repeated violations of Aboriginal subsistence and other treaty rights,
  • destruction of the boreal forest,
  • loss of biodiversity and
  • significant social disruption throughout Alberta but particularly in the area around the oil sands.

The arguments against an increase in rate of production and in favour of a slowdown are overwhelming.

Put very simply: we should be slowing down the rate of production from the oil sands, not increasing it, and if we did there would be no shortage of shipping capacity. Ergo, there would be no need to carry more product by either rail or new pipelines.

It is not that production from the oil sands should be altogether stopped. Albertans need jobs and income. Sudden radical changes in a project the magnitude of the oil sands are clearly not desirable. But that applies in either direction. The radical increases in rate of production are also proving harmful, dangerous to some Albertans, and devastating to others, for example, the people of Gainford and the Aboriginal people whose traditional territory is being ruined by the continuing Canadian Natural Resources  Limited (CNRL) underground blow-out at Cold Lake.

Until the myriad problems associated with production from the oil sands have been definitively brought under control, production rates should be steadily slowed, certainly not increased. Were that to occur, the question of additional transportation capacity wouldn’t even arise.

False dichotomies are an oppressive rhetorical tool: they are used to make a person feel as if he or she has no choice. You are told it’s either A or B – there are no other options – when that is not the situation at all. There are true dichotomies in life: Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be,” for example. But rail versus pipeline is not one of them.

Albertans need to take ownership of the public policy discourse on what should be done with our publicly-owned oil and gas resources. We would do well to start by dispelling the myth that the rate of production from the oil sands should be increased. We don’t need to choose expanded transport via either rail or pipeline but should instead opt to live within our current transportation capacity.

This article first appeared on the Troy Media site

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