Photo: Northern Gateway is about profits versus environment

When we build infrastructure such as pipelines to support the fossil fuel industry, we increase the incentive to use fossil fuels for a longer time and decrease the incentives to invest in cleaner energy. (Credit: rblood via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington

The battle lines are drawn, and Northern B.C.'s pristine wilderness is the latest front. With hearings underway into the proposed $5.5-billion, dual 1,172-kilometre Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project to transport bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Kitimat and imported condensate to dilute it from the coast back to Alberta, the fossil fuel industry and its supporters have stepped up the rhetoric. Environmentalists and people in towns, rural areas, and First Nations communities in B.C. have lined up in opposition.

It's not just about potential damage from an oil spill along the pipeline route or from a supertanker plying the precarious fiords and waterways along our northern coast — as critical as those concerns are. The larger issues are about our continued reliance on polluting fossil fuels and the economic impact of rapidly exploiting and selling our resources and resource industries.

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It's about Canada's national interest. With lax royalty structures and massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, not to mention foreign ownership of tar sands operations and lobbying by foreign companies, Canadians are not enjoying the real benefits of our oil industry. In fact, increasing reliance on the tar sands is hurting other sectors of the economy, manufacturing in particular.

Thanks to the government's support for the fossil fuel industry, ours is a petro dollar that rises and falls with the price of oil. The high price of oil has increased our dollar's value, and that has hurt the more labour-intensive manufacturing sector, which relies on exports. Not only have hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs been lost over the past few years, Canada has also been missing out on opportunities to join the boom in production of renewable-energy technology.

And when we build infrastructure such as pipelines to support the fossil fuel industry, we increase the incentive to use fossil fuels for a longer time and decrease the incentives to invest in cleaner energy.

Industry adherents have come up with many arguments supporting the Northern Gateway project. Some have more holes than an oilfield.

Take the jobs argument. Even Enbridge admits that most would be in short-term construction work. Only about 35 to 40 long-term jobs would be created at the Kitimat marine terminal, with some additional jobs in pipeline maintenance. It hardly seems worth risking tens of thousands of jobs in tourism and the fishing industry, among others, for a few short-term and even fewer long-term positions.

Most economic benefits from increased tar sands production would go to the companies and their shareholders, including firms from the U.S., Korea, and China. In fact, state-owned PetroChina, which already operates in the tar sands, has just bought 100 per cent of the MacKay River project.

The "ethical oil" argument is so absurd as to be hardly worth mentioning, but it's one the government has latched onto. Oil can't be ethical or unethical. People, and by extension the companies they own and operate or the governments they represent, can behave in ethical or unethical ways, but a product can't.

The Northern Gateway project, and much of the recent and pending tar sands expansion, will help companies owned by the government of China dig up the bitumen and send it there for refining and use. The ethical oil folks admit that China is a police state, so why do they support selling them our industry and resources? Canadian tar sands companies also do business in the countries tagged by the ethical oil folks as being unethical — often in partnership with state-owned companies.

The anti-American conspiracy theories are even more absurd. Saying that opposition to the Northern Gateway is a plot by U.S. funding agencies to protect America's access to Canadian oil is just idiotic in light of the fact that many of the same groups and funders also oppose the Keystone XL pipeline project that would carry oil from the tar sands to Texas. It's odd to see such anti-Americanism coming from conservatives who apparently support Communist China!

The only real argument for Northern Gateway is that it will increase profits for the oil industry, and hand over more of our resources and the associated profits and jobs to China. The arguments against it are so numerous we've barely touched them here.

January 11, 2012

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Feb 27, 2013
4:30 PM

this is a ridiculous article. not only are all of your objections to the project based on it’s indefinite potential to do harm that enbridge have clearly responded to, but your logic to justify said objections have the classic bias that a deluded environmentalist as yourself would have. your facts are incorrect

Feb 10, 2012
8:40 AM

For those wanting to take action to stop this destructive pipeline, please sign this petition to stop N. Gateway pipeline:

Jan 18, 2012
8:24 AM

We must stop the destruction of our precious natural resources. Selling to foreign countries makes no sense to me, especially at the environmental cost. What is our government thinking, beyond dollars? How can we, those who feel a connection to the earth, stop the "elected" from using their power in all the wrong ways?

Jan 18, 2012
2:02 AM

what are the environmental impacts … are there any to speak of? not in the case of spillage but in terms of constructing a pipeline in a forest region, impact to wild life and disruption of nature?

Jan 17, 2012
4:32 PM

The only way to reverse the insanity is to find ways for consumers to save money by using less oil. A dollar saved is the same as a dollar earned and now that oil prices are on the rise the oil based economy is ever more vulnerable to competition from another meta paradigm, especially in light of the fact most people already feel they work more for less and often can't find meaningful work..

Jan 17, 2012
12:08 PM

I don't consider myself an environmentalist, it feels to me that you must then follow a group vote rather than look at issues independently. I do enjoy hearing David Suzuki's opinion on our planet, and the various issues that arise. I find him credible and rationale and thank you for that.

I agree that the core of the pipeline argument is that we are investing in a future of oil when we should be investing in a future of clean energy. (I also agree that the environmental risks are too high — how quickly we forget the many oils disaster in our oceans) We seem to be on the cusp and have the capabilities to do so much with renewable energy, but there's monkey business going on with the governments and global corporations. So much of it is criminal in my eyes, and I think I possibly know about 1% of the whole story, if that.

I think for the most part when people are given the facts fair and square (which I know will never happen) they would make the right decision. I know DSF is against endorsements, but can you at least point people to the alternatives. I don't mean just a vision but a step by step here's who and how. If you are going to take something away you have to offer people the better option. The proponents see the dollars, if you give them an alternative way to create those dollars, only logic would make them pick the option that was better for the planet. Who should we be investing in, what is in development, what could it mean to our job market, economy and planet if they were successful? If we went with green power, how much power could we generate, and how much of our planet would remain in tact.

Lastly I don't feel this is an aboriginal or environmental issue, I think it's a Canadian issue (of which those groups also belong to). This is yet another opportunity for us to change our direction on a global issue. If all Canadians (not just the "special" interest groups) speak, the government will listen.

I know the wrap I'm going to get for that last comment, but we have to believe in order for it to become true.

What an opportunity we have before us, lets embrace it and rise to the challenge!

Jan 14, 2012
7:44 AM

The problem with the Northern Gateway Pipeline is not only an oil one. Sure, the shipment of oil by tankers from Kitimat is a disaster to happen

Jan 13, 2012
1:45 PM

Hi , I live in Ontario. I am totally against the pipeline going thru BC or anywhere . Plus I am against the tar sands . I am retired from General Motors as an assembler of 30 years of cars and trucks built in Oshawa Ont . During the time I worked there, for many years, I and other workers have suggested many times to the company to build more fuel efficient cars and trucks for 17 years til 2007 . That was when they wanted input from the workers to better the company when we had meetings with upper management ,but they didn't listen to us but they sure did listen during bankruptcy .
It is time Canada should shut down the tar sands and build green energy transportation from the sun , wind and water or cleaner other sources.There are inventors out there .

Jan 13, 2012
5:59 AM

I wonder if we need to start talking about this issue in terms of profit vs planet? It is all life systems that we destroy in this process. It is so integrated and somehow we, humans, can't wrap our heads around the idea that we are part of the environment.

I see the struggle as a quality judgement issue. People's ability to assess the quality of the judgement is impaired by a variety of issues. It is noble in a very short timeline to want to give people jobs. As the article points out so clearly the amount are very limited and certainly those who will truly profit are limit too.

So it is noble to create jobs if we extend our caring only to our community of allegiance: in this case people in the west — that is who will profit. Oh and those who own the oil companies and drilling companies etc.

But we, as human beings, have the capacity to do so much better in our caring. We can care about our country, our species (think disaster relief, we can do it) and we can also, although its harder, care about the planet. This last one also requires the ability to think creatively through time as the cause and the consequence are not immediate and do not happen, generally in 4 year election cycles or 4 month business cycles.

It seems to me the problem is a failure of imagination on a grand scale by those we elect into office, those who run corporations and we, who are so emeshed in the system that we can't see past the walls to see accurately what is real and what is man made. We become so blinded by the immediate, short term gains that they can no longer use common sense to recognize the dangers and anticipate error.

I see much of this as an education issue. We progressives need to be reeducating ourselves constantly to be in this battle for the planet, but we also need to educate our future generations on using imagination and our conscience in harmony in order to consider possible futures and assess their quality based not on what has come before, or what I as an individual have done but what could be done. This will never be taught in schools, as that would undermine the economic system and that is what we, culturally, adhere to as our dominant belief system at this time in history.

We have seen examples of this kind of ideal emerge in all totalitarian regimes, we have seen small groups of people stand up for what is right and just in the frame of species care (think Romeo Dallaird, think Resistance movement in WW2, think UN Declaration of Human Rights) but this level or planetary care is a larger leap forward. We can keep moving the boundaries and having this conversation. Thank you for being a strong and vital visionary.

Jan 13, 2012
1:37 AM


You seem to have missed a major point of Dr. Suzuki and Mr. Hanington's post with your first paragraph. Yes, we are addicted to fossil fuels. However, as a society, we can choose to continue that addiction or begin to break it. When we invest 5,5 billion dollars in a fossil fuels project, we commit ourselves to that type of energy. The goal should be to invest in reliable and safe alternatives such as solar and wind to begin the gradual transition away from fossil fuels.

Every dollar that is spent in a fossil fuel project is a dollar that we are not spending in a renewable energy project. And yet, when you look at solar and wind, we have incredible potential. Germany is a world leader in the production of solar power despite the fact that their latitude and climate means that they receive much less solar energy than we do. Their intelligent government policies have allowed the solar industry to thrive which has led to the reduction in cost of solar PV units, which then helps the industry grow even more. Imagine how much less electricity we would have to produce with a solar PV unit on every roof in Canada. And with the size and low density of our country, imagine how many solar farms we could create. Imagine how many jobs would be created to make those kinds of projects happen.

Everyone knows that renewables are not perfect. However, they are the future of energy production and we are missing an incredible opportunity to invest in that industry. Not only such an investment create jobs and economic wealth, but it would actually create energy for us! Most of what comes out of the Tars Sands goes to other countries… except for toxic tailings ponds. Those we keep.

Jan 12, 2012
12:45 PM

We're dependent on fossil fuels. It would be great if we could find some other means, but until such a day when a cheap, reliable and safe alternative exists in high supply, we'll work with what we have.

The idea of a product being ethical being absurd? How about blood diamonds? Royalties for oil from the Middle East has been known to support…unethical regimes. If we can get away from that, all the better.

"Tens of thousands of jobs in tourism and the fishing industry"…

Really? That's hard to believe. We're talking about Northern BC and Alberta, right? That's a significant percentage of the population in the affected areas.

I was born and raised in Northern BC, and I currently live in Northern Alberta. I support this pipeline. Having lived the effects of the turbulent lumber and coal industries time and again, decreasing our reliance on the US for the health of our economy is a must.

Jan 11, 2012
6:06 PM

Mr. Suzuki,

Your article has as many holes as you claim the Canadian government's has. The first one that jumps out is the photo subtitle. It is far reaching to believe that if this pipeline is cancelled, consumers will stop their habits. As an avid supporter of DSF and a terrified occupant of the planet, I am disappointed with this backwards view.

You mention the people lined up against the project but not the first nations peoples that have bought into as owners to the pipeline. You talk about Chinese but don't give any ratios of national to foriegn ownership. For someone so anti-economy (your argument about a living economy being absurd is a brilliant one), I'm surprised to read a few paragraphs about how the pipeline is hurting the manufacturing sector.

You're damaging your reputation as a scientist. This article smacks of the propaganda-esque terms used in popular media and other organizations less rooted in science than the DSF. "MOST economic benefits….US, Korea, China", "Communist China", "hand over most of our resources…to China". You use semantics to dismiss the term "ethical oil" then oddly enough, make an argument about one of the sides. Obviously, you understand the intended meaning of the term.

The article is chalk full of catchwords and noticeably short on facts and statistics. The last time I checked, the DSF is a scientific organization. Perhaps the direction and mission of the organization has changed, but it no longer appears that science and the scientific method reigns. You may be gaining some emotion-fueled support from the general public but you are alienating those supporters that believe in the integrity of science and the professionals that should be maintaining the meaning of the word.

Jan 11, 2012
3:32 PM

Building of the above mentioned pipeline shouldn't even be a question — every right minded person would agree that it's suicidal. I wish there were more people willing to open up their minds to retrieve some of the actual facts about the pipeline and its consiquences rather than reading Joe Oliver's open letter that is edited well enough to appeal to the regular joes who are easily convinced he is a hero, protecting injustice by saying things such as "Our regulatory system must be fair, independent, consider different viewpoints, including those of Aboriginal communities, review the evidence dispassionately and then make an objective determination." — ridiculous. We need to stand together, and stand strong to fight back.

David Suzuki — Will you appear at the hearings? You and your wisdom is what they need.

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