Usually Canada struggles for airtime in the United States, so it was great fun to be in Washington this week and listen to a heated American debate about a Canadian project.
The Keystone pipeline, recently delayed by the Obama administration, has become a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides know the project is on hold only for a short time, until after the U.S. election. After that, the betting is the project will go ahead. This issue is hot.
But regardless of U.S. needs, many Canadians wonder why Canada should be building pipelines at all. Well, we will shortly be unable to export the oil we have to markets outside of Canada. The resource is there but the capacity to move it safely is not. This at a time when the world is energy hungry, and China and India are growing at blistering rates, along with many other southern economies. The most optimistic forecasts tell us that even if we reduce energy consumption, and invest heavily in alternative cleaner sources of energy, the world will still need fossil fuels for the next 50 years. Canada’s oilsands are among the world’s largest proven reserve of fossil fuels, and demand will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Canada needs more pipeline capacity if it is to move its oil responsibly to world markets.
So, if we should be building a pipeline, the big question in Canada is: which pipeline is least environmentally damaging? The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline is by far the riskier proposition. It would cross the traditional lands of more than 60 native peoples on its way to the west coast, and threaten their traditional patterns of livelihood. Aboriginal leaders have said in no uncertain terms that they will not permit the pipeline to be built.
There are risks on the water as well. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is front and centre in everyone’s mind. A year ago, Canada's environmental watchdog concluded that Canada is not prepared to respond to a major oil spill from a tanker. Tankers would have to travel through inland waters to reach Kitimat, the terminal of the proposed Northern Gateway line. Finally, there is "Great Bear," one of the world’s greatest remaining temperate rainforests, which could well be at risk from the tanker traffic.
The Keystone project seems a far better bet for Canada. Designers of the pipeline have already found an alternative route around the environmentally sensitive Sandhills of Nebraska, although why they waited to do so until after Obama delayed construction is beyond me. This pipeline is clearly less environmentally risky than the Northern Gateway project.
So what should Canadians do? We should continue to press the oil industry to develop cleaner technology that requires less water to extract oil from sand. We should press our governments to tax carbon emissions so that oil producers have an incentive to continually clean up their act. And then, we should hope that the Keystone pipeline goes ahead.
For The Agenda with Steve Paikin, I'm Janice Stein.