Pipeline victory celebrations? No, just sadness for a declining country

No, it’s not a corporate bail out.

No, it’s not a sop to the petroleum business.

No, it’s not going to change global warming in the slightest way.

No, it is not a setback for indigenous rights; it may well be the opposite if they buy in.

If the war on fossil fuels is actually the war the media wants it to be, then the Trans Mountain expansion (TME) decision by the Trudeau government would be a “victory” for the oil industry, just as the Energy East annihilation was a “victory” for opponents of fossil fuels.

There is not a glimpse of joy in the oil patch about this decision though, not in any spheres I’ve been witness to. The broadest consensus seems to be a sort of sadness that it’s come to this for a once-vibrant country, a shoulder-slump of weary resignation that the federal government has to nationalize a pipeline in order to get something built.

Want to know what’s on the mind of the oil patch? How about the price of natural gas, which is at levels not seen in three or four decades, with ridiculous barriers between Canadian production and world markets, or TransCanada Pipelines’ gleeful announcement that more gas is coming to a glutted market now that they can connect BC production to their mainline system? How about the fact that foreign capital will go to Nigeria before it will go to Canada?

Actually, that’s not true about what’s on people’s minds; most don’t have time for that sort of philosophical mental meandering. Here’s a typical example what’s on the minds of people who get things done – the house-hunting habits of ferruginous hawks. Or vast grouse leks. Ever heard of them? I’m sure there are a good dozen of you that have, outside of biologists, but these birds are now major partners in infrastructure development on the prairies. And they aren’t actually partners, they call the shots.

A friend of mine is working on a new solar project in east Central Alberta. A solar project, please consider. The environmental consultant being used to evaluate the site spotted one of these hawks in a tree, which could lead to a nest, and then no activity can occur within 1,000 meters of the tree throughout the spring and summer.

Or consider ground leks, which are areas where certain species of birds gather during their breeding seasons, as a biologist would put it, or are areas where “these goddamn chickens prance around to attract their mates” as a solar-project construction manager would put it.  The setbacks, or areas that need avoiding, are different for different species with the Greater Sage Grouse commanding the largest at 3200m. Yes, that’s 3.2 kilometres. Their dances must be more awkward than those of Grade 7.

If those two were it, that would be one thing, but there are dozens of other species at risk that have their own quirks and habits and hangouts that industry and humans need to avoid. When these special areas are overlapped, as they must be, construction activity can proceed unhindered in the areas touched by none of these zones, which are about the size of a trampoline.

This isn’t a critique of protecting species at risk; this is a noble conservation act that Canada should be proud of and that the world should hear more about. What it is though is just another confirmation of the fact that, in Canada, it is virtually impossible to build anything. There are natural habitats that need to be respected, there are physical and weather factors that are impossible not to respect, and there are economic realities that need to be respected, such as the lack of capital.

On top of that, there are legal and regulatory requirements, and these hurdles deserve special mention because another wild card has recently been thrown in with the TME. Industry must comply with legal and regulatory hurdles as part of the development planning process, while opponents simply ignore the rules under which they are supposed to operate.

This last is probably the biggest depressant in the oil patch right now. A project like the TME, which crawled forward at a glacial pace as condition after condition of the regulatory process was met, in the end faced an opponent that simply said the rule of law does not concern us, and the rest of the nation stood there and watched.

Politicians broke the law, and were proud of it. Vancouver’s mayor said he would consider breaking the law, and the vocal and powerful opposition to the TME made no bones about how eager they were to do just that. Rules are for others. We’ve heard this rationale countless times in history before, when the greater good was deemed to be at stake. The greater good in this instance is climate change, and anything goes in the fight against climate change.

But people, you want all this stuff. You want a great standard of living, you want to travel wherever you want whenever you want, you want to rid the world of hunger and injustice, and you want it now, and without an environmental footprint. The fact that this is impossible is not your problem; your problem is a piece of pipe, which makes zero sense, because thwarting that pipe changes absolutely nothing with respect to global warming.

And as noted above with the hawks and grouses, this is not simply a fossil fuel problem. Solar projects face incredible hurdles as well, as do wind farms that can get shot down because people don’t like the look of them (as has happened in Nova Scotia and who knows where else).

For those that never build anything and only consume, this is just a boring topic. For those who build, it is wearying in the extreme. There is a gulf between those who demand and those who provide that is miles wide.

Western Canada was built, settled, and secured by a cross country railway that could not be built today. That’s OK; times change and rules change, but for the world to keep its standard of living, building is necessary. There is no way around that; the question should be, how do we do that in the best possible manner.

But we choose other routes to maintaining our gluttonous lifestyle instead, like running up unbelievable debt loads for our children and their children, and that debt load will be a faithful friend to all for generations whether the earth warms or not. In this country, we choose to sacrifice our economic engines in futile gestures to limit global emissions; engines which are necessary not just for our way of life but to pay for the development of these green technologies. For Canada, capital will continue to flee, and the realities of economics will show themselves in ways that words apparently can’t. We will find out the hard way what all these obstructions cost, someday. We watch the news and read about coal fired power plants being built all over the world, we watch mortal enemies Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Turkmenistan (together with the Taliban) come together to build a pipeline, and we sit on our hands and wait for a greater sage grouse to stop dancing so we can build a solar farm, and we wonder how the even the government will be able to expand a pipeline.

That’s not a celebratory mood by any stretch.

Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here. To reach Terry, click here

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