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Did Canada’s Tar Sand Pipe Dream Just Die?

by Lou Dubose

Dec 9, 2015 | Environment, The Interval


photo: Flickr user buen viaje

Did the U.S. media miss a big environmental story while the world is focused on Paris? (And the neo-fascism of Donald Trump.)

Maybe the biggest single-source climate victory in the past decade.

On Monday, Canada’s daily Globe and Mail reported that the Northern Gateway Pipeline is “probably dead.” Nobody outside of Canada seemed to notice.

Huge news, you would think.

Northern Gateway would have linked the tar-sand-oil reserves in Alberta, Canada, with a Pacific tidewater port in Kitimat, British Columbia.

Fully exploit the tar sands and “it’s game over” for the climate, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen wrote in The New York Times. Keep the tar sands in the ground and you prevent a global temperature spike of .75 of one degree Fahrenheit––about half the increase in the planet’s average temperature over the past century, according to Scientific American.

Keeping the bituminous sands in the ground is a major goal of Bill McKibben’s 350.org movement, which waged a successful four-year campaign to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

But stopping one pipeline, as President Obama did when he rejected the Keystone permit in November, doesn’t kill Canada’s tar-sands pipe dream.

Stop two, and you’re close.

Writing in The Washington Spectator earlier this year, Mark Dowie observed that because American and Canadian politicians lobbied so hard for its approval, Americans came to believe that construction of Keystone would secure the future of the tar sands.

“Not true,” Dowie wrote. “To even approach break-even, at least four other pipeline routes will be needed to carry bituminous crude to the world’s market. . . . If two or three of those pipelines are stopped, the stranding of the tar sands will escalate and Canada will cease to be a petro-state.”

Only one cross-border pipeline is close to moving tar-sand oil to refineries: Enbridge Energy Partners’ Alberta Clipper. Last December, I reported that Enbridge executives had gamed the State Department permitting process Obama used to stop Keystone, insisting that an existing cross-border stretch of pipe built in 1967 and retrofitted for tar-sand oil needed no permit.

State Department officials capitulated, but Enbridge’s Alberta-to-Wisconsin pipeline isn’t moving tar-sand oil yet. In October, Al Franken and 10 other Democratic Senators (including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to look into the Enbridge’s “bypassing the State Department’s permitting process.”

With the Alberta Clipper under attack by Congressional Democrats, and the obituaries for two pipelines written, the $160 billion investors fronted for the tar-sand scheme––which Dowie predicted could only be saved by a “miraculous last-minute escape”––looks like a tax write-off.

So two, or maybe three of five pipelines, will never be moving Canada’s tar-sand oil. The extraordinary work of the coalition that McKibben built around 350.org gets much of the credit for stopping Keystone XL. As do Greenpeace and the NRDC. In Canada, the aboriginal communities Dowie mentioned in his March 2015 article did much of the heavy lifting.

One community stands out.

Twenty-eight of the 40 First Nation “bands” along the pipeline route signed equity agreements with Enbridge, securing a 10-percent share in Gateway North’s profits. Among the holdouts, British Columbia’s Haisla Nation refused to be bought, because of the threat the pipeline posed to woodlands and coastal waterways.

Market forces, Canada’s newly elected Liberal government, and Canadian environmentalists all came together to block the Northern Gateway. But in the end, the 1,700 members of the Haisla Nation control the port at Kitimat. Without them, Enbridge was left building a pipeline to nowhere.

Somebody at the Paris climate talks ought to be raising a glass to the Haisla.

And some news outlet in the United States ought to be reporting that 360.org, President Obama, and British Columbia’s Haisla Nation appear to have turned the Athabasca Oil Sands into what Mark Dowie predicted might just become the “world’s largest stranded asset.”


Lou Dubose is the editor of The Washington Spectator.

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