Monday 30 September 2013

Typical Environmental Opposition

This post is inspired by this article that popped up on my news feed from the Vancouver Observer today:

‘Pipeline or rail, the oil will flow’ say Alberta oil industry and Canada’s petro-government:

Now, I don't mean "typical" in the derogatory sense, but I just wanted to highlight a few items in the article and kick some thoughts around because it is pretty consistent with the discussions that I've been having on the subject.

I've found that most discussions start with the transportation of oil. With opposition typically being the risk of leaks and the pipeline's physical imposition on some natural setting. Sort of a NIMBYish type of argument. However, I often find that when pushed for specifics and consistency, these discussions tend to regress back to the simple belief that the oil sands should not be developed.

Here is how the article mentioned above flows:

First, transportation of oil:
The ministers’ blitz is prompted by a very big dilemma facing tar sands producers in northern Alberta and conventional and fracked oil producers in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan (the latter sharing the Bakken field also lying underneath North Dakota). That is the landlocked location of the resource. Pipeline proposals to the south (Keystone XL) and west (Northern Gateway) are seriously stalled by public opposition. A new proposal to the east –a $12 billion, all-Canadian ‘Energy East’ pipeline— holds out hope, but it will take many years to build, and it may well come up against the kind of ‘wall of opposition’ that has halted Northern Gateway.

This article is mainly concerned with the transport of oil by rail, taking pipeline opposition as a given.

So into the picture enters oil by rail. If anything illustrates the danger to the public welfare of the oil industry, this has to be it. Only three years since the vast expansion of oil-by-rail movement began in North America, Canada has suffered the awful disaster at Lac M├ęgantic, Quebec in which 47 people died; two oil train derailments in the past three months alone in the center of its fourth largest city, Calgary; and now a derailment in the small town of Landis, Saskatchewan that saw authorities rush to evacuate children from a nearby primary school.

The Lac M├ęgantic accident was certainly tragic. But are the problems not addressable? Mis-labelled product (it should be noted that environmentalists should be more comfortable with the higher flashpoint of heavy oil!), worn out parts, human error, etc. Tragedies are a great opportunity to push for better regulation. I'm all for that (even if it makes life more difficult for oil transportation). The Landis incident resulted in some minor leakage, Calgary's had no leakage and neither resulted in any injury or death. Again, problems to be addressed, but surely not insurmountable when compared with the economy that the oil industry in Alberta supports.

This is the pre-cautionary principle taken to the extreme (as environmentalist are wont to do). Because it's impossible to prove a negative (similar to GMO's but that's another post for another day) the level of proof required to satisfy these concerns is often unreasonable in any kind of consistent application. We wouldn't be driving cars, or flying in airplanes, or doing much of anything if we didn't accept SOME risk.

So in my opinion, the reasonable thing to do is to set some realistic goal for transport safety and efficiency and begin a process of getting as close to this target as possible.

The fallout from the recent oil train derailments in Calgary is continuing. The latest one, at CP Rail’s Alyth yard in the center of the city on Sept. 11, has focused attention on the efforts for several years now by residents of the adjoining Inglewood neighbourhood to restrict noise and air pollution emanating from the large, locomotive repair operations at the yard and the overall increases in rail traffic, including oil trains.
Followed by:
The rail company responded to all this, with a vengeance. On Sept 19, it announced it will move its locomotive repair operations from Alyth altogether. It did not consult or notify the workers’ union, Unifor.
The Inglewood Community Association has welcomed the announced move of locomotive repair out of Alyth. But it has voiced concern and solidarity  with the fate of the workers. In a Sept. 19 press release, it says the Alyth closure may well be a stealth measure that is part of the vast, job-cutting moves by CP Rail
So this is an interesting few paragraphs because it does (sort of) address the trade off issue. In this case, between the jobs associated with this activity and the negative externalities. But it's the juxtaposition here, and lack of a comment on it that I find interesting. An accusation that the rail yard is too loud, pollutes to much, and brings environmental risk to the neighborhood. A response that CP would move said rail yard somewhere else. A counter response that this is a devious move by the railway. And the author of the article doesn't really focus on what seems to, at the very least, to be somewhat contradictory.

But why isn't that the core of the issue?  I don't understand why discussing compromise isn't the obvious way forward. Until renewables can actually deliver (which I believe they will someday) it's hard to justify whole sale refusal to produce an energy resource like the oil sands.

Look, I know loud noises and train traffic is not ideal. To my eye pipelines solve that. The environmental risks are what they are. Rules and regulation need to keep up to pace with the on-going development, but rail is the next best option to the pipeline and have been transporting sensitive material around for decades with low incidence rates.

Let's continue:
Meanwhile, many biologists in western Canada argue that certain highways as well as transport routes for pipelines and hydro-electricity lines are a serious threat to areas of natural beauty and wildlife and should not be built. Existing routes might even need to be closed to protect threatened species.
To be consistent this point would pretty much negate any development of anything, would it not? Gone are the highways, gone are the cities, gone are the farms, gone are the... well, humans. So I think we can all agree that's taking consistency a bit too far.

But how far should we take it? I never seem to get a consistent answer on this. Typically, the conversation winds itself back to just do solar or windmills, or something that has clearly not established it's commercial viability YET (thus making it acceptable to not have to really sacrifice anything). But that's not really an answer is it? Sure we'll get there someday, but we aren't there yet.

But of course the end of the article brings us back to the main point:
the main concern over the Canadian government’s fossil fuel-promotion agenda is expressed in the IPCC’s just-released report. If the world does not move decisively to leave fossil fuels in the ground and shift to renewable and less polluting forms of energy supply, then the Earth, its biosphere and the human population that shares it faces a very grim future, indeed. 
I think we're overstating our importance here a bit. The earth and the biosphere are going to be just fine. Heck, human's as a species will be just fine. How we live will have to change, and even more soThi, where we live will have to change. But come on.

I flipped through the "Summary for Policy Makers" and didn't see any oil sands talk. Hopefully they discuss it in the next section which will deal with adaptation and response options. But yeah, I don't doubt the science. I do believe the world is getting warmer, and I do believe that we are contributing it. I also believe that the huge run up in consumption from China is the greatest thing to happen to mankind in all of history (I define "greatest thing" as being the largest improvement in human welfare that I've ever heard of).

Here is where it gets interesting. According to the Peak Oil Dynamic approach. Oil is much more likely to get more expensive as it becomes supply constrained. We would then expect this market to begin behaving more like an ordinary economic good. While this isn't pricing in the negative externalities it will force substitution away. Just how far away remains to be seen.

Perhaps the whole environmental movement recognizes that the likelihood of the market finding a feasible alternative increases with every dollar that price increases. The typical environmentalist believes in the effacy of the market right?

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