Photo: Paris changed everything, so why are we still talking pipelines?
(Credit: Shannon Ramos via Flickr)

By David Suzuki

With the December Paris climate agreement, leaders and experts from around the world showed they overwhelmingly accept that human-caused climate change is real and, because the world has continued to increase fossil fuel use, the need to curb and reduce emissions is urgent.

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In light of this, I don't get the current brouhaha over Kinder Morgan, Keystone XL, Northern Gateway or the Energy East pipelines. Why are politicians contemplating spending billions on pipelines when the Paris commitment means 75 to 80 per cent of known fossil fuel deposits must be left in the ground?

Didn't our prime minister, with provincial and territorial premiers, mayors and representatives from non-profit organizations, parade before the media to announce Canada now takes climate change seriously? I joined millions of Canadians who felt an oppressive weight had lifted and cheered mightily to hear that our country committed to keeping emissions at levels that would ensure the world doesn't heat by more than 1.5 C by the end of this century. With the global average temperature already one degree higher than pre-industrial levels, a half a degree more leaves no room for business as usual.

The former government's drive to make Canada a petro superpower distorted the Canadian economy into greater fossil fuel dependence, with catastrophic consequences when the price of oil collapsed. The lesson should have been learned long ago: Heavy dependence on a single revenue stream like fish, trees, wheat, minerals or even one factory or industry is hazardous if that source suffers a reversal in fortune like resource depletion, unanticipated cost fluctuations or stiff competition.

Coal stocks have already sunk to the floor, so why is there talk of building or expanding coal terminals? Low oil prices have pushed oilsands bitumen toward unprofitability, so why the discussion of expanding this carbon-intensive industry? Fracking is unbelievably unsustainable because of the immense amounts of water used in the process, seismic destabilization and escape of hyper-warming methane from wells. Exploration for new oil deposits — especially in hazardous areas like the deep ocean, the Arctic and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other critical wildlife habitat — should stop immediately.

Pipeline arguments are especially discouraging, with people claiming Quebec is working against the interests of Alberta and Canada because the leadership of the Montreal Metropolitan Community — representing 82 municipalities and nearly half the province's population — voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposed Energy East pipeline project, which would carry 1.1 million barrels of oilsands bitumen and other oil products from Alberta to refineries and ports in the east. Some have thrown out the anti-democratic and, frankly, anti-Canadian notion that because Quebec has received equalization payments it should shut up about pipeline projects.

National unity is about steering Canada onto a sustainable track and looking out for the interests of all Canadians. Continuing to build fossil fuel infrastructure and locking ourselves into a future of increasing global warming isn't the way to go about it. Shifting to a 21st century clean-energy economy would create more jobs, unity and prosperity — across Canada and not just in one region — than continuing to rely on a polluting, climate-altering sunset industry. Leaders in Quebec should be commended for taking a strong stand for the environment and climate — and for all of Canada.

The Paris target means we have to rethink everything. Energy is at the heart of modern society, but we have to get off fossil fuels. Should we expand airports when aircraft are the most energy-intensive ways to travel? Why build massive bridges and tunnels when we must transport goods and people differently? The global system in which food travels thousands of kilometres from where it's grown to where it's consumed makes no sense in a carbon-constrained world. Agriculture must become more local, so the Peace Valley must serve as the breadbasket of the North rather than a flooded area behind a dam.

The urgency of the need for change demands that we rethink our entire energy potential and the way we live. It makes no sense to continue acting as if we've got all the time in the world to get off the path that created the crisis in the first place. That's the challenge, and for our politicians, it's a huge task as well as a great opportunity.

January 28, 2016

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Mar 01, 2016
2:08 PM

The argument that pipelines are more environmentally responsible than rail or trucks misses the point. To avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we must stop wastefully burning fossil fuels. Building more infrastructure locks us into continued fossil fuel use and continued global warming. Here’s more info:

Rail versus pipeline is the wrong question

Ian Hanington

David Suzuki Foundation

Feb 29, 2016
7:49 PM

Uh… because pipelines are more ENVIRONMENTALLY RESPONSIBLE than the inevitable trucks and rail cars that will carry oil in the absence of pipelines, that’s why.

Feb 26, 2016
3:47 PM

keep up your great work

Feb 22, 2016
2:34 PM

Both the article and some of the comments bring up good points. We keep on using oil

Feb 11, 2016
2:48 PM

Perhaps Canada should end its use of foreign fossil fuel that is being shipped across the ocean and instead use Canada’s oil that sits under the prairie/western regions of our great country. Killing Canada’s oil industry while continuing to import blood oil from overseas amounts to nothing more than cutting off your nose to spite your face.

And btw, since when are politicians discussing spending tens of billions of dollars to build pipelines? Those pipelines, like the ones before them, will be built by 100% private funds…or do you know something the rest of us don’t?

Feb 11, 2016
1:10 PM

My comment to David Suzuki is this…. Many people ask questions in regards to David Suzuki’s stance on many things especially oil but sadly we do not hear of any replies to these questions.

As an example… 1.Why are you so focused on Canadian Oil? If you were truly an environmental champion would you not focus on the biggest polluters? 2. Why not focus on how to truly cut down on pollution AND benefit our economy? By this I mean lobbying the government to apply heavy taxes to goods be shipped into Canada from places like China. This would have the added benefit of then allowing our manufacturers to be able to compete.

There are many questions that have been asked but no real answers ever appear.

Feb 05, 2016
9:34 AM

Trying to eliminate fossil fuels through regulation will be as unsuccessful as prohibition was at eliminating alcohol. To suggest that stopping a pipeline or two will affect any real change is just wishful thinking. The irony is that it would also be a step backwards in terms of emissions and safety. Not to mention a massive reduction of wealth, which could have been used in part to transform to a greener society.

Jan 31, 2016
6:43 PM

Why are we putting gas in our gas tanks? Why are we going to burn coal for the next 14 years?

We are still talking about building pipelines because it will take decades to bring the hydrocarbon age to an end. And, when we do leave oil in the ground, why not leave ISIS oil in the ground?

And pipelines do not cause global warming. Driving cars causes global warming. And, driving cars creates the demand for the oil that pipelines are to deliver.

We need to be responsible when we develop our resources. But, being responsible in developing our resources does not mean not developing them at all. When Obama said no to Keystone XL, the price of oil went down, not up. If Alberta does not sell its oil, people who care nothing about the environment will.

Jan 31, 2016
11:22 AM

I think that a general move away from fossil fuels is great, and inevitable. But a rejection of local fossil fuels in favor of the same thing shipped in from some other far flung land that has little to no environmental regulation is not a step forward. Canada is a net producer that still imports huge quantities of petroleum! It is not more efficient or more green to do the same thing with foreign oil vs domestic oil. Sending money overseas for a product we sell at a discount locally is not only a drag on the whole economy but also not efficient at all! We need to first curb our dependency before chopping the head off the industry that Canada has relied on to keep us all afloat. So to all of you who wish to make a real difference — take a look down at that asphalt and figure out another way. Cement is extremely energy intensive to make, figure out another way. Electricity without nuclear or water power generation is not the way forward for your electric (coal?) powered car — solve the real problem first!!!!!!!

Jan 30, 2016
4:14 PM

I’m afraid that humans only respond to a crisis when it comes up and slaps them in the face. We’re unfortunately not there yet. This crisis will have to rear it’s ugly head again and again before we get it. People will actually have to start losing wealth before they respond, but by then it’s way too late. Requiem for a species I’m afraid.

Jan 30, 2016
2:21 PM

I think this article pretty much sums up the stupidity and ignorance surrounding the anti-oil argument. I don’t think anyone wants to destroy our planet but very few actually want to change their lives to make a difference. All of the armchair environmentalists read this article and think to themselves that the mayor of Montreal was actually standing up for the environment. The reality is he did nothing. The problem is the fundamental misunderstanding of the issue. The issue is NOT the supply of oil. The issue is the consumption of oil. If the mayor of Montreal had stood up and said that he was going to ban gasoline fueled vehicles in his city then I would say he was actually trying to make a difference. All the mayor of Montreal did was state the politically correct answer that makes it look like he is the “good guy” and is trying to reduce Montreal / Canada’s carbon footprint. What he really said was that we don’t want Alberta’s oil and instead we are going to buy our oil elsewhere ignoring all of the environmental issues surrounding the supply from other countries. Could you imagine the uproar in Montreal (or any other city for that matter) if its citizens were asked to reduce THEIR carbon footprint and make the sacrifices needed to achieve it: no gasoline powered cars, no natural gas to heat your home, no plastic toys for your kids, etc. No one really understands or wants to acknowledge the sacrifices that are required to reduce CO2 emissions. People take the self-righteous stance and blame the “evil” oil companies as the root of the problem when the problem is actually all of us consumers. In my opinion, the reduction in the supply of oil (and therefore pipelines) will take care of itself when the consumption of oil decreases in both Canada and around the world. But at this point just because it feels good to say Alberta’s oil is “bad” and to try and shut down Canada’s oil industry doesn’t fix anything. The reality is if Alberta and/or Canada doesn’t supply the oil to the world’s consumers then there are 50 other countries lined up right behind us to supply it.

Jan 30, 2016
12:15 PM

Paris and pipelines David, in the real world of many of your readers, all things must die a natural life. Fervid articles regarding pipelines in Canada will continue until the public and political parties have their say. Perhaps you could start this process by changing the channel for those of us who totally agree and by challenging another issue? Raw sewage and industrial contaminants blithly emptied into our waters, a very good topic for federal infrastructure funds?

Jan 29, 2016
4:44 PM

Not only should we be looking at ways to keep oil and coal in the ground, but the government should also immediately raise the taxes at the pumps for the average driver. We have shown we will pay well over a dollar a litre

Jan 29, 2016
10:38 AM

I’m also perplexed at how we got back to this point so quickly after the Paris climate agreement. I’m frustrated to hear people around me, elated by the results of the Paris agreement back in December, now supportive of another pipeline. As always, David Suzuki has distilled the issues eloquently and thoughtfully. Thank you!

Jan 29, 2016
8:23 AM

I completely agree that agriculture and more sustainable streams of revenue and energy are necessary. However, I present this as food for thought. Agriculture, solar/wind/hydro power, the electricity in our homes, vehicles and places of work all require the bi-products of oil and gas. It is necessary to have some level of oil and gas manufacturing for all of these endeavours to function. To this point, we need to consume oil and gas products so why import them from overseas markets that DO NOT adhere to the strict regulations that Canadian manufactures follow and the money we pay can easily end up in the hands of the very people we are deploying our young men and women to fight to maintain the safety of our boys and girls here at home? Furthermore, this oil we are currently importing is shipped thousands of miles across the ocean where we all know a spill would have monumental negative environmental impacts and clean up is not as quick or as easy as on land or even a lake. Numerous studies on oil sands land and animal habitat show that Alberta does NOT have the dirtiest oil as is wide-spread belief by people such as yourself, and in fact, the dirtiest oil is produced in California — just outside of Los Angeles. I invite everyone who is rip-roaring mad at me right now to read this article and also take a look at Do a lot of research, really read and understand the impact of what we, as a nation are doing, and what pipelines like energy east and keystone are really asking. Work WITH the oil companies to make true and lasting change instead of fighting them unrealistically. Take a look at what it takes to manufacture ‘green’ energy and reach the undeniable conclusion that oil and gas manufacturing is a fact of life and wouldn’t you rather have it done here, where it can be closely monitored and regulated, help our national economy and set a world standard for the safest and most environmentally friendly way to manufacture natural resources. That is what all Canadians can contribute in a world that is full of fighting, bitterness and bad-business. Let’s come together Canada and work towards a future that can be BOTH environmentally friendly and economically viable. We can’t be environmentalist and keep the standard of living we all enjoy but we CAN work together to create that world.

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