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Brace yourself for another round of pipeline debates

The U.S. mid-term elections having delivered both houses of Congress to the Republicans, and some Democrats feeling the heat, we’re already seeing renewed calls to move ahead with the Keystone XL pipeline.

President Barack Obama continues to be wary of the project. An immediate change of heart is unlikely given that just this week he committed to seeing his country reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025. The pledge was part of an accord with China, which also agreed to changes, though only to slow the rise of its emissions over the next 15 years.

A pipeline to funnel more dirty tar sands bitumen to refineries on the Gulf Coast may not be in keeping with plans to reduce GHG emissions. The accord also puts a crimp in Stephen Harper’s climate change denial stance, as he’s indicated Canada would make changes in tandem with U.S. policy.

Obama’s eventual decision will dictate just how serious his commitment to combating climate change, the crux of his impassioned speech this week, really is.

Significantly, proponents in this country see the U.S. decision as the only real hurdle, despite significant resistance to the plan here. Given Alberta’s position and the mindset of the federal government – clear in the tar sands propaganda advertising/Tory election ads masquerading as an economic action plan, with the bill picked up by taxpayers, no less – the goal must be to cram the pipeline down Canadians’ throats, resistance be damned.

And we’re clearly unsure about these large pipeline projects. Keystone has been slammed. Northern Gateway, which would see bitumen flow to a West Coast port, has been panned by almost everyone. Now, a plan to run a pipeline east is meeting increased resistance.

Our hesitancy is understandable. Spills, commonplace already, are inevitable.

The industry claims pipelines are still the safest way of transporting oil. That’s true. It would take millions of trucks or railcars to move the oil, each providing numerous opportunities for spillage. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, as problems occur far more frequently than we hear about.

In Alberta alone there have been thousands of pipeline ruptures since 2005, spilling the equivalent of some 28 million litres of oil. In 2010, for instance, the province’s pipelines had some kind of failure every 1.4 days, releasing about 3.4 million litres of oil.

Pipeline problems aren’t rare, industry claims notwithstanding. They’re fairly commonplace. That said, the infrastructure still delivers far more oil and gas on a daily basis than is inevitably released at intervals. Supporters essentially tell us that the spills are the price of doing business, the business of feeding our oil addiction.

As long as we’re so reliant on oil, we’ll be taking it out of the ground and moving it around in large volumes. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t be more careful about how we do that while we go about finding alternatives.

Oil offers us many advantages, which we may or may not choose to enjoy over the many negatives. While we use the stuff, we’re all complicit in the pollution, habitat destruction and increased cancer rates and other health problems that come with that arrangement. That’s no reason, however, to cut off debate about how we might start changing the situation.

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