The absudity of the pipeline debate

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 2013.

“The real risk is not regulatory rejection but regulatory approval, undermined by subsequent legal challenges and the absence of ‘social license’ to operate,” Jim Prentice, (then) CIBC executive and former Harper environment minister, on the reality of National Energy Board approval for Northern Gateway.

In the greatest non-shock of recent political history, the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel on Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the BC coast was given the green light, albeit with 209 essentially political cover-like and nearly meaningless conditions.

And as I have argued, it might be the most irrelevant green light ever given to a resource project by the NEB.

But, hey, let’s not let critical thought and reasoned debate get in the way of a good old fashion Twitterverse brouhaha.

Northern Gateway antagonists screamed bloody murder (in 140 characters or less), describing the review process as a slap in the face to democracy and a death sentence for the climate.

Meanwhile, over in the protagonist camp, the epic triumph was celebrated by with statements like “fact triumphed over fiction” and “radical ideological agendas failed” and “beware of any ENGO (environmental non-profit) suggesting they speak for the public because this victory demonstrates how off base they were.”

Apparently few pro-Gateway cheerleaders brushed up on their Churchill. There was very little magnanimity in this victory.

Lacking Context

But the bigger disappointment (very little shocks me anymore) was that the intelligent minds from both sides of this debate failed to put the NEB’s decision into context.

The National Energy Board is a regulatory body – it almost always green lights resources projects and doesn’t have a mandate to give equal weighting to polls.

Nor was the Joint Review Panel passing judgement on agendas – ideological or otherwise – or, for aforementioned reasons, declaring that the real Canadian public supports Gateway.

NEB’s approval for Gateway is but one step in a long journey. The real state of the pipeline project is summed up well by Jim Prentice’s quote and is well articulated by the reasonable Michael Den Tandt, columnist with the National Post.

So why all of the hyperbole?

Industry knows that the real fight has just begun and are trying to prime the hearts and minds for the inevitable gong show ahead.

In the case of environmental activists, they are taking a page out of (US President Obama’s former chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel’s playbook: Never let a good crisis go to waste.

Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste

Activists are setting up their chess pieces for the battle ahead, but more than anything, they’re milking every charitable dollar they can by getting concerned citizens frothing at the mouth about NEB’s all but irrelevant decision.

Look, I don’t doubt there is legitimate disappointed about NEB’s decision amongst the true believers. After all, most environmentalists are sacrificing better paying jobs in exchange for a lot of grief because they genuinely feel this is a critical issue (and not because they hate prosperity, happiness and Canada).

And it’s hardly a fair playing field between the oil sands companies and the environmentalists, no matter what Minister Joe Oliver says. (Yes, environmentalist opinions matter because, in Canada, it’s a democracy and open debate, as a result, is, apparently, part of that process.)

Still, it’s all a bit disingenuous.

Is the Northern Gateway battle really about the spirit bear and the threats of tanker spills? Not for most activists. It’s about shutting down the oil sands.

There’s a valid debate to be had about increased oil sand production, but why can’t some environmentalists just call a spade a spade? It’s this lack of truthiness, to blatantly steal Stephen Colbert’s line, that is so often the undoing of reasonable and valid debate.

Moreover, by blurring lines needlessly, it creates muddy polls that opposing sides can use to claim victory; it disenfranchises legitimate bases of support (who are against the nonsensical tanker route Enbridge has selected, but not against the oil sands as a whole); and it makes taking the moral high ground almost impossible.

We Don’t Live in Utopia

At the end of the day, we all use oil. I’m sure most of us wish this not to be the case. But alternative energy isn’t close to replacing oil and while we need to more urgently invest in alternatives and reduce consumption, it won’t happen over night.

It’s the old philosophy of Realpolitik: humans are humans and we will always look out for number one, in the most shortsighted way possible.

This doesn’t mean all hope is lost, but it does mean that zero sum games (played by both sides of this issue) are counter productive.

In the case of Northern Gateway, environmentalists can sit back and watch this pipeline be defeated by the courts or they can do their best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – something the movement is becoming very good at.

Increamentalism has worked for Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives. Why can’t it work for the environmental movement?

Because the climate change crisis is so overwhelming and omnipresent that there isn’t time for incrementalism?

The Case for Incrementalism

Okay, I get that, but what’s the alternative? Current climate campaign strategies have yet to yield meaningful gains and I can’t be the only who sees that this reality isn’t about to change.

Wouldn’t ensuring that the environmental footprint of oil doesn’t increase by selecting a pipeline route that could potentially devastate the largest intact temperate rainforest and one of its most important and biologically diverse carbon sinks on the planet be, I don’t know, somewhat of a victory?

And wouldn’t leading a thoughtful and adult conservation on how to balance resource development and the environment blunt opposition accusations of doom-and-gloom, extremism that can be used to neutralize large swaths of the public that, at the end of the day, do support nature in one context or another?

Maybe I’m crazy and no doubt my thoughts on this are not popular within the environmental movement, not our increasingly sound-byte, 140-character driven dialogue that passes for public policy debate in this country.

But maybe, since nothing else is working, a new approach is worth a shot.