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.


Big Oil vs. Beautiful Orca: Which Side Are You On?

Originally published 03/19/2014 - Huffington Post

Everyone in the Vancouver area was thrilled to see or hear about the pods of dolphins and orcas showing up in English Bay and False Creek this past weekend. Probably the only people not happy about it were the folks at the massive Texas-based energy corporation Kinder Morgan.

They want to build their new Trans Mountain pipeline through British Columbia’s most heavily populated areas to the Vancouver harbour. The appearance of these beautiful creatures serves as a reminder of the natural wonders that would be at risk if their new pipeline project went through.

Their new pipeline would increase tanker traffic in the region from about 80 a year to over 400 tankers a year. Most of these tankers would carry tar sands diluted bitumen, which is even more dangerous and difficult to attempt to clean up than conventional crude oil.

With overwhelming opposition to Enbridge’s toxic Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, some have called the Kinder Morgan proposal the “compromise pipeline.” The idea is the oil will get to market one way or another, so why not along an existing pipeline and shipping route? That suggests that the Vancouver harbour is an industrial sacrifice zone of sorts.

The problem for Kinder Morgan is that every time we see beautiful species like these orcas and dolphins in the area we are reminded that our coast is anything but a sacrifice zone.

Now of course some might suggest that industry and wildlife can safely co-exist. Some industrial activity is necessary in the region. Even with this traffic there is still much to be done when it comes to minimizing risk and restoring our local ecosystems as they are impacted. So then here’s the real question: is Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline essential for the region or would the risk be worth the benefit?

First of all, it’s worth pointing out that far more jobs would be put at risk by the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal than would be created.

But if we look at the big picture, the truth is not only do we not need more oil locally or globally but in fact this kind of development is irresponsible in the age of climate change. Demand for oil actually seems to be shrinking even without the kind of policies that are going to have to be put in place if we are going to be responsible members of the global community.

Many regions are already implementing fuel efficiency standards or carbon taxes that hurt demand for bitumen which is 22 per cent more carbon intensive than conventional oil. If we are going to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem then saying no to pipelines like Kinder Morgan’s proposal is essential.

The International Energy Agency has reported that our energy needs can be met by alternatives in a cost effective and efficient manner. Last year was the biggest year ever for solar power and meanwhile the cost of fossil fuels are just getting higher as we run out of conventional sources. Solar is already on par with natural gas (the cheapest of fossil fuels) in many jurisdictions.

Land use and transportation planning are also a big part of this conversation. UBC Prof. Patrick Condon has worked with Metro Vancouver municipalities to develop land use and transportation plans that would not only eliminate our need for fossil fuels but would actually create a healthier, safer region with greater food security and more vibrant communities.

The opportunities we have to move beyond fossil fuels are exciting and provide a lot of hope for a better tomorrow. What probably scares the folks at Kinder Morgan even more than the word spreading that we don’t really need the oil is our visceral desire to protect beautiful creatures like the ones who showed up over the weekend.

The Vancouver Harbour is not a sacrifice zone; in fact this heavily impacted area is showing signs of ecological restoration efforts working. As people enjoy the seawall in Vancouver’s Stanley Park and look out on the coastal waters in the years to come they want to see more orcas, not more oil.

This is where you come in. It’s time to take sides in this fight. Make no mistake about it, Kinder Morgan is one of the biggest pipeline companies in the world and they will stop at nothing to push the Trans Mountain pipeline forward. It will take a movement to stop them. It’s not a matter of one tactic or another, it’s about an ongoing and growing group of dedicated people who are willing to speak out, get involved and spread the word.

Now is the time to pick sides and act. The orcas and dolphins showed up and reminded us what is on the line. Let’s all do everything we can.

NOTE: Photos taken from other sightings of Orca’s in the time since this piece was first published. The risk to this species continues as climate change destablizes local ecosystems and our biosphere as a whole. Meanwhile the Government of Canada has purchased the Kinder Morgan pipeline as the company was about to walk away from the project and then their permits were overturned in the courts as the result of First Nations opposition. At the time of this post (May 2019) Canada’s government is trying again to make this project a reality against the strong opposition of native and non-native people in the region.

Protect the Sacred: Finding New Ways to Work Together for Alternatives to Tar Sands Oil

Originally published 01/28/2013 at www.huffingtonpost.ca.

Earlier this summer it filled my heart with pride and joy to watch my good friend Chief Rueben George, stand before the sacred tree in the Arbor of a Sun Dance ceremony in Lakota territory, South Dakota and read a declaration of indigenous spiritual leaders against tar sands pipelines and tankers.

Rueben and I met a couple years ago as allies working to stop Houston-based oil giant Kinder Morgan, from building a new pipeline that would bring over 400 oil tankers a year into Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. Rueben’s people, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (which means people of the inlet), have been the stewards of Burrard Inlet since time immemorial.

We have become good friends over the last couple years and my life has been so enriched by opportunities, such as taking part in ceremony, and learning of ancient stories and teaching. In the last year I have taken on the role of fire keeper for Rueben’s sweat lodge, a huge honour. Our friendship now led me, a white Jewish guy with roots in Eastern Europe born in Vancouver, to join Rueben on a trip to the Lakota Nations territory and a powerful, sacred ceremony.

Before we started the trip, Rueben asked our friend Josh, an environmental lawyer, to draft something for the spiritual leaders to sign that would be like the Save the Fraser Declaration — a statement of sovereign authority for indigenous people to protect their land and water.

En route, Rueben’s two children both shared their thoughts and feelings about the declaration, as did our other traveling companions, all participants in Rueben’s sweat lodge ceremonies back home. After our long journey, we finally arrived at Crow Dog’s Paradise, located on the Lakota Reservation in Rosebud, S.D.

Crow Dog’s Paradise is a magical place. The sacred tree is covered in colourful prayer ties dancing in the wind. Bright dragonflies paint the air. The sound of the drums resonates deep inside your body. The sunrises turn the clouds into a pink gateway over the arbor’s east gate. Spectacular rainbows follow the overpowering thunder and lightning of summer storms. All of this is home to Chief Leonard Crow Dog, a powerful spiritual leader and activist who has touched the lives of many, many people. Perhaps it should not be surprising that this place is so special, as the area is not far from where the legendary Crazy Horse once lived, hunted and did battle.

 Crow Dog can trace his lineage back to a long line of Lakota medicine men. As the medicine man for the American Indian Movement, he played a critical role in bringing back traditional ceremonies that had almost been lost. He was part of the seven-month occupation of Wounded Knee in 1967, and many other actions in the fight for the sovereignty and strength of the Native American people. It was Crow Dog that made Rueben a Sundance Chief and this year was his 17th year in a row dancing in the sacred ceremony.

After the declaration was drafted there was a process of consulting with Chief Crow Dog and the other chiefs to revise the text. I will never forget the smile on Rueben’s six-foot-five, 15-year-old son Cedar’s face one day as he giggled and said, “They just called for all the chiefs and Ben West … you better run”.

At first I didn’t believe him because Cedar often gets me good with his practical jokes. I hadn’t heard the announcement, but after I realized he wasn’t joking I ran across the camp barefoot and then awkwardly sat down behind Rueben at this meeting of larger-than-life spiritual leaders as they discussed the declaration.

Cedar and I spent several afternoons driving back and forth to use the wi-fi in a nearby grocery store and the printer in a small town library in Mission, S.D., working on drafts and revisions to share with the Sun Dance chiefs. Later, Cedar and I were off across state lines into Valentine, Neb. for one final print run on the weekend when the library was closed. We found an embroidery shop that was open and they were nice enough to print a big version of the declaration to be signed by the leaders.

At last, the declaration was complete. It was a hot, dry day in the Arbor at the Sun Dance ceremony. Everyone listened silently as Rueben spoke, standing under the cedar bough roofs of the outer circle of the Arbor during a break between rounds of the ceremony. Over 600 people danced in the hot sun as part of Chief Leonard Crow Dog’s Sun Dance ceremony this year, supported by thousands of others from across North America. Rueben has a rare ability to touch the hearts and minds of people, and when he finished reading all in attendance erupted with support. These chiefs and supporters had come from all the way from South America to Alaska. They lined up close to the west door of the arbor, all wearing stunning ceremonial regalia. They signed the declaration on Chief Leonard Crow Dog’s desk as he watched and smiled approvingly.

Now half a year later Rueben was back in South Dakota last week taking his resolution to a gathering he organized along with Chief Phil Lane Jr. and others called “Gathering to Protect the Sacred.” They were joined by native Americans and First Nations fighting the Keystone XL pipeline proposal and others fighting the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines. This time I wasn’t able to join Ruben in person but I loved watching the live stream and blog from the event.

I feel strongly that as non-indigenous people living here in what we now call North America that we all have a lot to learn from those that were here long before we were. Working together, we need to find ways to heal from the history of colonialism and find new ways to work together to make healthy alternatives to dangerous tar sands oil, a reality. There are very real energy, housing and transportation solutions already readily available.

I sincerely hope that these challenges that we collectively face can provide an opportunity for cultural exchange, healing, empowerment and a clear pathway to move forward together.


Is Bitumen Oil? Moving From Tar Sands to Sensible Solutions

Originally Published 1/23/2013 Georgia Straight

A judge in Texas did something very interesting recently. He approved an injunction to temporarily stall the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, because the bitumen from Alberta to be pumped through that pipeline does not meet the definition of “oil”.

So if bitumen isn’t oil…what is it? Well clearly it’s a fossil fuel, just like coal and gas. All fossil fuels are basically stored solar energy captured by bogs and other long-dead vegetation.

Over time, this dead plant matter is buried under intense pressure below the ground and transformed into fossil fuels. Some of that stored energy was closer to the surface and easier to access. As we’ve run out of the easy stuff, we have increasingly shifted to nontraditional fuel sources—like the mixture of sand, clay, and oil deep underground in Alberta. 

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, when bitumen was first discovered by oil-industry pioneers, they called it “tar sands” because of the viscosity and its appearance.

It’s funny, really, that folks in the industry and their supporters get defensive about this terminology, given that it was a term invented by the industry—not by environmentalists.

Pro-oil folks now prefer to call it the “oil sands” after an aggressive rebranding effort in the last couple decades. Ironically, some public-relations experts suggest that “oil sands” is actually worse framing, since oil’s brand reputation is bad enough already. Nobody has ever heard of a “tar spill” or a “tar baron”, or the influence on our government from “big tar”. 

Personally, I don’t care what you call it… “Mordor” seems like a good fit. Who needs The Hobbit to see something truly out of this world? Just take a look at the massive earth-scarring open-pit mines and tailings ponds (more like toxic tailings lakes) in the tar sands.

“Tar sands” is a useful term in the sense that it highlights the difference between traditional oil and unconventional oil. As was recognized by the Texas courts, tar-sands oil is different. Not only is it harder and more expensive to extract, it is also low grade “sour” crude.

This means it’s high in sulphur, making the refining process even dirtier.  Extracting and “upgrading” bitumen requires massive amounts of water and natural gas, and to make it transportable it must be diluted with natural-gas byproducts.

To make things worse, that gas is increasingly coming from fracking operations that release methane, pollute groundwater, and cause earthquakes. 

In Canada we recognize the tar sands (as well as fracked gas) as unconventional fuel. Our federal government provides over a billion dollars a year in subsidies and tax incentives to oil companies extracting unconventional fossil fuels. 

Oil was bad enough before, but tar sands is even worse. It’s blended with even more dangerous cancer-causing chemicals like benzene to reduce its viscosity for pipelines. It must be transported at higher temperatures and pressures, which could increase the likelihood of cracking pipes causing oil spills—especially on old pipelines.  

Diluted bitumen also seems much harder to clean up. The 2010 Kalamazoo River spill showed us that when exposed to water and open air, chemicals used to dilute bitumen evaporated, leaving the oil to sink as tar balls and exposing locals to much higher levels of toxins in the air.

With traditional oil, recovering 15 per cent of the oil is considered “successful” (better described as 85 per cent failure). Cleaning up diluted bitumen is an even greater challenge.

Ultimately, we’re acting like a self-destructive alcoholic who is drinking paint thinner because he ran out of beer. Our addiction to fossil fuels was already destabilizing the planet’s climate and exposing increasing numbers of people to the effects of extreme weather conditions. Those in the global south—who have done the least to create the problem—are most intensely feeling the effects. 

To kick our addiction, we need to take stock of the ways we’re mistreating our global neighbours and change the way we think about our relationship to this planet. We can no longer take stored energy from beneath the earth’s surface and dump it into our atmosphere.

Disturbing the balance of energy on the planet is what’s causing climate change. There is enough energy coming from the sun to more than provide for all of our needs using existing technology. This energy expresses itself as wind, tides, and heat, all of which can be safely put to use if done responsibly. 

Perhaps the first step in this transition off fossil files is to recognize the differences between traditional fossil fuels and the increasingly dangerous unconventional fuels that are now becoming the norm. This awareness could help turn the tide. Stopping tar sands pipelines is a fundamentally important step to move us from a trajectory that leads to more danger and toward a more sensible set of solutions.

NOTE: This video was produced by the TWN Sacred Trust Initiative in 2018 . For more information visit TWNSacredTrust.ca/dilbit 

The National Academy of Science did a comprehensive study of Diluted Bitumen in 2016.

“In comparison to other commonly transported crude oils, many of the chemical and physical properties of diluted bitumen, especially those relevant to environmental impacts, are found to differ substantially from those of the other crude oils. The key differences are in the exceptionally high density, viscosity, and adhesion properties of the bitumen component of the diluted bitumen that dictate environmental behavior as the crude oil is subjected to weathering (a term that refers to physical and chemical changes of spilled oil)… 

…For any crude oil spill, lighter, volatile compounds begin to evaporate promptly; in the case of diluted bitumen, a dense, viscous material with a strong tendency to adhere to surfaces begins to form as a residue. For this reason, spills of diluted bitumen pose particular challenges when they reach water bodies. In some cases, the residues can submerge or sink to the bottom of the water body.”

Rogue Weather Girl Reminds Us to Put Climate Back on the Agenda

Originaly Published 10/3/2012 - Huffington Post 

When was the last time you can remember global warming being the top story on the evening news?

Yeah, I don’t remember either.

The United Nations’ international climate policy negotiations in Copenhagen back in 2009 was the last time that global warming was consistently front page news.

That seems strange, doesn’t it? Particularly given that the United Nations has stated repeatedly that climate change caused by global warming is the “single biggest threat facing humanity today”!

Okay, I know, the end of the world is “so yesterday,” right? We need new ways of telling the same story to keep it interesting. Climate campaigns have to ride waves of public interest at critical moments, as if somehow the stability of our biosphere were just “a story” or “a belief.”

Some reporters have closely followed the science and accurately reported the biochemical realities of what is happening to the planet as the result of too much pollution that contains heat-trapping greenhouse gases being dumped into Earth’s atmosphere.

There is nothing hypothetical about it. All countries in the world agree that it’s a crisis, yet they all are pointing their fingers at each other, effectively saying “I won’t change unless you do first.” Meanwhile the evening news continues to show business-as-usual stories every day, with rarely a word about the climate crisis.

This is even more frustrating as we see increasingly extreme — even record-breaking — weather events and little, if any, connection being made to this internationally recognized cause.

Have you ever wished that a weather person on the news would “go rogue” and express his or her fears about all the extreme weather? Well, I guess the cool kids at Deep Rogue Ram felt that way too, because they have made a comedy sketch in which a “weathergirl goes rogue” and actually lays out the full scale and severity of what is currently underway.

I was so stoked to see my buddy Pippa Mackie show up in this YouTube video on my Facebook wall. She was so fantastic I literally laughed out loud. I shared it all over the place and so did a bunch of other people — this rogue weathergirl went viral fast.


Thanks to this creative video, hundreds of thousands of people have been laughing and learning all at once.

Kai Nagata is sublime as the straight-faced anchorman trying to keep things on script. Apparently the fantastic Heather Libby from Tck Tck Tck helped write the sketch, so it’s no wonder that it’s awesome, funny and terrifyingly accurate.

This video has re-inspired me to talk about climate change. Lately, I’ve been so focused on stopping oil spills locally that I haven’t been talking as much about the big-picture reasons why we need to stop the growth of the tar sands. As the CEO of Enbridge was kind enough to point out recently, there is an international “energy revolution” underway; we should all more actively embrace the revolutionary shift off of fossil fuel energy that we need so urgently to make as a society.

If we don’t talk about global warming, who will?

I think the next generation will be the ones to change our course. This latest video is part of an emerging youth movement that is ecologically literate and has a kickass sense of humour.

Speaking of inspiring youth, I’m excited by the recent efforts of the organization called “Power Shift”. It’s a great name that explains exactly what we need — in more ways than one. They have a big conference coming up in Ottawa next month, which I’m looking forward to taking part in.

Let’s all get re-inspired to see ourselves as part of the global climate movement.

We need to see more “rogue” weather reports, and news reporters too — people who have the courage to cover the issue of climate change with the urgency it deserves. People who will tell the hard truths.

Burning Garbage is Unsustainable and Unimaginative

Originally published Aug 2nd, 2011 on Vancouver Observer

Last week, B.C. took a big step away from sustainability when Environment Minster Terry Lake rubber-stamped a plan to build a gigantic “mass burn” waste incinerator.

 I have been fighting this plan for years. What frustrates me the most about waste incineration is the lack of imagination. We must not knowingly continue to be fundamentally unsustainable when it comes to our consumption and waste patterns.

The majority of us hear the words burning garbage and instinctively know that it is bad. There is a mountain of health and climate studies explaining why incineration is a bad idea but you don’t need to read them all to know that this is the wrong way to go.

The appeal of waste incinerators is that they seem like a fancy new gadget, complete with nifty diagrams and design schemes, plus spreadsheets declaring success. Waste incinerators are not such a new idea. Burning stuff is one of the oldest human ideas. We are all coming around to understanding that it’s time to move beyond fire as the answer to all our questions. Isn’t it burning stuff that causes all the pollution and the carbon emissions that cause global warming? Yeah sure you can turn a turbine with steam from burning a pile of garbage. But is that really such an accomplishment? Can’t we do a lot better than that? The heart of the issue at hand is still being ignored.

Sustainability means that we must learn to continuously cycle resources- ecosystems create no waste, and we must do the same.

Burning stuff is the fastest way to be truly wasteful. Industry reps call incineration Waste To Engery; it is really a Waste Of Energy. Enormous energy goes into extracting minerals and resources to manufacture and deliver goods and is all wasted when that stuff goes up in flames. For every tonne of garbage burned you can capture 1 barrel of oil worth of energy — but it took about 10 barrels of oil to produce the stuff to begin with. And this scheme never addresses our unsustainable dependence on oil-that’s what much of the flammable garbage is made of.

There are smarter, non-polluting ways of producing energy than burning garbage. But beyond this, if we are going to achieve sustainability we must stop endlessly consuming virgin materials. This is a design issue, and zero-waste designs exist. We need to change the way things are made.

Lack of imagination is unacceptable given the challenges we all face. We need to stand up to the powerful corporations and demand change. Why should we pay to bury or burn their flawed products? Regional policy makers responsible for waste plans need to tell companies making disposable, un-compostable and un-recyclable materials that they are being put on notice. Strong extended producer responsibility (EPR) rules already exists in BC.

We need much higher diversion rates which means EPR rules must be supported and enforced to successfully ban materials from landfill. We need to work with manufacturers to find better ways to provide essential products and services in ways that bring us closer and closer to zero waste by keeping everything out of the landfills. Right now the regional “waste diversion” rate is around 55 per cent composted or recycled. Their goal is to get to 70 per cent waste diversion from landfill, but sustainability means 90 per cent or higher. Its doable; its just going to take clarity of focus and imagination. We have no choice, its our role in this era in our collective history to solve this problem.

For more information visit No-Burn.org

This one minute clip from The Story of Stuff does a great job of summarizing the issue.