Rail vs Pipelines, Are Those Really Our Only Choice?

Originally published 07/24/2014 - Georgia Straight

I never thought I would say this, but I think oil pipeline proponents are going to be happy about our new website that went live last week.

My colleagues from ForestEthics (NOTE: the organization has now changed their name to Stand.Earth) in the United States have just launched a new website, Blast-Zone.org,  which shows the risk along oil-by-rail routes in North America. It’s shocking just how many people are living in the danger zones.

This is, of course, a new threat we have all become more aware of due to the horrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. We’ve just passed the one year anniversary of this unforgettable day and it was commemorated last week by citizens in various cities organizing events along rail shipping routes.

Folks are waking up to this threat in the U.S., but here in Canada it’s becoming a more complicated conversation as it relates to highly controversial pipeline project proposals.

I’m glad there’s growing awareness of the risks posed by oil by rail. But let’s face it, the proponents of pipelines like Enbridge and Kinder Morgan are also happy about this; as I say, they may even appreciate the new ForestEthics website.

Why would they like this website? Well, my experience as an anti-pipeline campaigner sums it up. These days I find myself being asked the same question over and over again, “Yes, but what about the exploding trains, aren’t pipelines safer?”

This is a false choice. The answer is none of the above. The “choice” between pipelines and rail is like asking what’s better for you, chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes? Both are extremely dangerous and highly toxic. The only real solution is to quit tobacco.

Like with the tobacco industry, it’s in fact many of the same companies looking to profit from both of these false choices. Kinder Morgan, which is behind the massive new TransMountain pipeline proposed from Alberta to Vancouver Harbour, have also recently invested heavily in a new oil-by-rail terminal in Edmonton.

With the success of the campaigns against Keystone XL, Enbridge Northern Gateway, and other pipelines in North America, the oil industry is trying to use rail infrastructure as a back door route to get around public scrutiny and democratic consultation processes.

For the communities in the path of Big Oil, it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s travelling by rail or pipeline. Those who have faced a spill will tell you that no family should have to live with the threat of crude oil poisoning their community.

As we run out of easy-to-access conventional crude oil globally and shift to unconventional fuels like heavy tar sands bitumen and shale oil from rocks, the problems of finding, mining, refining, and burning oil are compounded. Conventional crude spills like the Exxon Valdez caused immeasurable harm, but unconventional oil products are even worse. Tar sands spills have proven to be even more difficult to clean up, as we learned from Enbridge’s spill in the Kalamazoo River, and shale oil has a tendency to explode, as we learned at Lac Megantic.

Unconventional fuels come with a bigger price tag not only in terms of the risks but also in terms of dollars and cents. The price of gas at the pump is only going up and the subsidies to industry to facilitate the shift to more expensive extraction of these bottom-of-the-barrel fuels is coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. It really is nuts for our hard-earned loonies to be going to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, especially given the disregard the oil industry has shown for human health and safety.

The only reason the oil industry can get away with framing the question as rail versus pipeline is that we are being led to believe that there are not currently viable alternatives.

The good news is they are wrong and it’s time we all start talking about it.

Did you know that more people today work in the solar panel industry than in the coal and gas industries combined in the United States? Did you know the second best stock on NASDAQ last year was a Canadian renewable energy company called Canadian Solar? Did you know that Tesla Motors is now the biggest auto industry employer in California? Did you know that the World Bank has recently put out a report that says renewable energy is a 2.6 trillion dollar a year opportunity?  Did you know that the International Energy Agency says that not only can we decarbonize and meet global energy demand from renewable sources but it will actually save the global economy approximately 71 trillion dollars by 2050?

So it’s not about rail versus pipelines, but about whether we are going to be part of the emerging new energy and transportation economy. We should be moving people on those trains, not fossils.

I’m confident that Canadians are savvy enough to see through the industry spin. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. That’s bad news for Big Oil and good news for everyone else.


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