Friday, 22 November 2013

How not to argue for pipelines.

As someone who wants pipelines south and especially west out of Alberta, sometimes it's frustrating watching the debate unfold. The political calculus, the economic justifications and the social issues give all sides plenty of empty rhetoric, plenty of absolute positions to hold, and plenty of talking points to fumble around to prolong the whole mess.

It's akin to an American presidential debate. A question is asked, one of the candidates reads a prepared statement that might kind of border on some aspect of the topic, the other candidate responds by reading a prepared statement that doesn't address anything the other candidate said on a topic the has nothing to do with the original question. The moderator, having posed a question that was not answered, is somehow satisfied, so he moves on to the next question; that won't be addressed.

At times both sides just simply aren't talking about the same thing. Pipeline advocates assume the oilsands will be developed and argue for the best method of getting that product to market. Environmentalists assume that they can stop the oil sands from getting developed and argue against anything that might help development.

The result? The numbers, statistics, and economic data presented by advocates like me simply don't matter to the side that needs convincing. If your starting assumption is that any development of the oilsands is bad. Then why would it matter if method A is better then method B to get it to market?

It's boring, and it's repetitive, but such is the nature of the argument.

But what I find really frustrating is when pro-pipeline folks take an approach that cedes ground to the opposition. Here is an example:

TransCanada warns Kesytone XL denial would mean more oil by rail:
A denial of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would lead to more oil moving across the continent by rail, an executive with pipeline builder TransCanada Corp. said Tuesday, calling such an outcome a "tragedy." 
"While we view rail as a complementary short-term solution until more pipeline capacity is brought online, more rail terminals will be built to fill the capacity gap if Keystone XL is not approved," Alex Pourbaix, president of energy and oil pipelines, told an investor conference. 
"And I think it's a real tragedy if this situation continues indefinitely, as pipelines are obviously much more cost-effective. They are statistically safer and more environmentally friendly to transport oil."
And from Russ Girling in September:
“We’ve seen an increase in rail movement, which has put the public safety at risk as well.”

So basically, approve the pipeline or oil will move via trains.  Trains are ultimately more dangerous and less efficient. I'd agree, all of what they say is true. But will this help gain XL's approval? The obviousness of pipelines is such that if you haven't been convinced yet, you aren't going to be convinced. What we need to do is take the parameters that exist and try to increase the likelihood of ending up at an approved outcome.

Here's a quote from Obama on the approval criteria:
“Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”
A State Department report on the pipeline earlier this year said development of tar sands in Alberta would create greenhouse gases, but the pipeline would not affect oil production. Transcanada could choose to transport the oil to the Gulf of Mexico by another means or sell it overseas. 
The report also said alternative modes of transportation, including rail, trucks and barges would have a larger environmental impact than the pipeline.
So what is the message from Obama? And why am I upset with the direction that Pourbaix is taking?

On the face of it, Pourbaix strategy seems correct. Emphasize the ease with which transportation by rail will fill the gap left by pipelines. Point out the superiority of pipelines. Let logic do the rest. The problem is his assumption that rail is, and will remain, viable and economical.

His message becomes counter productive when we start talking about how dangerous and risky rail transport is. Of course they mean in relative terms. And TransCanada does appear to be developing their oil by rail capabilities. But what will the critics hear? In this case, even if these comparisons are factually true, you can't say these things!

The Environmental Impact Statement issued by the State Department (upon which Obama will likely rest his decision on) they make clear that the oil will move by rail, if not by pipeline (page 2 paragraph 3). The case for approval is pretty easy to see: rail is economical and feasible, thus, even if we say no to the pipeline we'll get the oil by rail. That the oil sands development, "exacerbates the problem of carbon pollution" is accepted as truth. The State Department had basically arrived at the point we'd wanted them to. Now it's time to ride out the political games and let Obama get to the conclusion we need him to.

Pourbaix's argument is basically saying: no rail is not economical and not really that feasible. It is dangerous and you folks protesting the pipelines should be protesting this dangerous and costly transportation option, not us! Okay, okay, that's not what he's saying. But what will the opposition hear?

If rail is not assumed inevitable, Obama's decision is no longer about comparing transportation options, it MUST include the impact on oilsands development with some type of weighted probability that rail becomes uneconomic or environmentally unfeasible AND pipelines aren't approved, ie. we can't get our oil to market. And heck, even the evil big bad oil industry is acknowledging the dangers, this seems possible!

Everytime a train blows up, derails, or leaks, that is one step closer to new law or regulation that would at the very least, increase the cost to ship oil by rail. How expensive is too expensive? Do we want to find out?

More importantly, every time rail gets more expensive and is perceived to pose greater environmental risk, then (counter-intuitively) the chances of Obama having a clear cut easy path to approval are diminished.

We want Obama saying, look how easy rail is! It's pretty cheap, they don't require any governmental approval, there won't be any changes to this status quo in the near term, it's almost as good as the pipelines. Then, the argument moves away from oilsands development and onto transportation methods.

This is an argument that pipelines win on economic and environmental grounds.

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