Northern Gateway: If Albertans refuse to let the rate of bitumen production increase, this project can die the natural death it deserves

By Janet Keeping, Leader, Green Party of Alberta

Northern Gateway has been proposed as one of several pipelines that would ship bitumen from northern Alberta to a wider range of markets.  As is well known Northern Gateway raises several very worrisome issues and is rejected by many people, including several Aboriginal groups, across BC and in other parts of Canada and indeed the rest of the world.   There would be no need for Northern Gateway, if the rate of production of bitumen in northern Alberta were not increasing.

Albertans could solve this problem by asserting their rights as owners of the bitumen and refusing to let bitumen production increase.  Speaking as an Albertan, we could act to force reduction in the rate of bitumen production both through provincial politics – putting pressure on the current government and in the future voting only for candidates that support such a position – and as individuals, making choices that express our rejection of the hydrocarbon-intensive way of life.

The problems presented by Northern Gateway are legion and notorious.  What we hear much less about is how the alleged need for it could be eliminated.  Here’s how it could be done.

  •           First, the Alberta government could refuse to sell any additional bitumen leases until methods of producing bitumen satisfy appropriate environmental, social and ethical standards.  Industry insists such standards can be reached.  Many doubt it, but if they were, it would be acceptable to let bitumen production expand.
  •           Second, the government could explore the feasibility of buying back leases on which development has not yet occurred.  The cost of doing so might be prohibitive but it’s a possibility that has to be examined.
  •           Third, all possible measures would be taken to reduce the rate of bitumen production until such time – see above – when methods of producing bitumen satisfy the environmental, social and ethical standards the world and we ourselves should expect of Albertans.  What would some of those measures be?

Environmental regulation would be made much tighter.  Where needed, new laws would be put in place.  For example, the “guidelines” which are supposed to result in the shrinking and eventual elimination of the tailings ponds but are regularly violated with impunity, would be made legally binding.

Another key change would be to make Canada’s commitment to lowering GHG emissions by 2020 legally binding within Alberta and directly applicable to bitumen production.  It is generally accepted that unless major changes are made, Canada will fail to meet its commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 17% by 2020 from 2005 levels.  According to Jeffrey Simpson, by 2020 “Almost every sector of the Canadian economy will produce fewer or roughly the same amount of emissions … but whatever gains are made will be swamped by emissions from bitumen production.”

It won’t be easy to figure out exactly how to formulate legally binding requirements to lower GHG emissions from bitumen production, but it has to be done.

All such laws, both existing and new, would be rigorously enforced and the penalties for breaching them would be sufficiently severe so as to deter violations.  After all, that’s the point of them, right?  Otherwise, they are but a façade, meant to make things look good (deceive) without having any meaningful effect.

In conclusion, let’s return for a moment to the claim that if the rate of bitumen production does not increase, there is no need for any of the new pipeline proposals, including Northern Gateway.  Some would say that, notwithstanding everything that is wrong with bitumen production and the harmful impacts of all the proposed pipelines, in order to reach world markets paying higher prices than in the US, more Alberta bitumen has to get to the BC coast.

The reply to this is easy:  pursuing more money without regard for the harm done in the process is called greed, and greed – contrary to every cynical joke to the contrary – is not good.  It is despicable.

The truth is that if we need more money in Alberta and other parts of Canada, we can raise it in other ways.  We don’t need to, and should not, trash precious values for a few more dollars.  That’s a stupid economy – one that shoots itself in the foot.  In a smart economy – one that we are, I am sure, fully capable of – we will find better ways.

An edited version of this piece first appeared on the Troy Media website:

Comments 7

  • It’s good to have some concrete suggestions about stemming the flow of bitumen; thank you, Janet. Even apart from the GHG emissions, the real threat to BC’s fisheries and tourism from shipping spills out of Kitimat would make greedy Albertans very bad neighbours indeed.

  • Nice words Janet. You have my support 100%

  • As always Janet, it is an inspiration to hear your thoughts.

  • Excellent article, Janet.
    I think the single best tool in our toolbox is a simple, transparent, initially small but predictably escalating price on carbon. How can we make decisions on energy and resources while continuing to pretend that fossil fuels are consequence-free? There are other consequences, of course, contaminated waterways not the least among them, but climate change is the big one that could be addressed across the board with a carbon tax.

    “That’s the greatest failure in our energy policy is not to have out there – at least 10, 15 years out there – a carbon tax. It’s what should happen, because it drives both conservation and innovation.”
    former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates

  • Right on!, Janet! The rate of bitumen production should not increase, and perhaps even decrease. The energy companies as well as governments should direct abundant funding/subsidies toward the new clean technologies, e.g. bio-fuels from various types of waste, from methane, etc., as well as toward energy neutral infrastructure, buildings, heating & cooling etc. using methane and CO2 as well as solar, geothermal and water in innovative ways.
    Funding/subsidies/tax credits etc. should also be directed toward training engineers and technicians in these new fields, and also toward refining oil in Alberta before shipping it.

  • Alberta is increasingly being seen in the global public eye as the climate change bad guy, along with Canada at a national level. People are becoming more and more aware of the on the ground effects of GHG emissions, floods, droughts, wildfires … unfortunately we wait for those. One article I read recently refers to Canada and Australia as the Axis of Carbon. So good call, Janet. A Green Party in Alberta is a good idea.

  • Everything in the excellent article is common sense, but this is a misused phrase. Most people see common sense not from a rational, selfless and dispassionate position. The best quote which most clearly defines the problem follows:
    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
    ― Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked
    What is worse is that our culture encourages us to think this way. We must put morality and ethics back into our common value system, preferably without God. After all God has been wrong so many times, hasn’t she?

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