The Tar Sands gas rush

July 18, 2012

Roger Annis reports on the drive by Canadian government officials--including members of the Green Party--to step up tar sands drilling.

A FOUR-page report by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the disastrous pipeline break by Enbridge Crop. in Michigan last year is probably a final nail in the coffin of the company's proposed "Northern Gateway" tar sands bitumen pipeline across northern British Columbia to an export terminal in Kitimat.

The NSTB concurred with investigators' findings that the Canadian pipeline builder knew for years about cracks that ruptured in July 2010 and caused more than 800,000 gallons of tar sands oil to spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. The cleanup has cost about $800 million, and counting. Several dozen lawsuits against the company have been launched.

In releasing the report, on July 10, the NSTB had harsh words for the company, which claims to have an exemplary safety record. "Learning about Enbridge's poor handling of the rupture, you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops," said Deborah Hersman, chair of the NTSB. The report says pipeline operators took 17 hours to shut down the pipeline after the break was first reported.

Demonstrators gathered in Victoria to protest Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline
Demonstrators gathered in Victoria to protest Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline

But any celebration of the possible demise of Northern Gateway should be tempered by the fact that an Enbridge rival, TransCanada Corp., is well on the road to winning approval for an even bigger tar sands prize--the "Keystone XL" pipeline that would deliver tar sands goo to refineries in Texas. That proposal is bogged down in a dispute with U.S. regulatory officials over the precise routing of the line. But the line continues to be built as its contested sections are discussed and resolved.

There is stiff opposition to Keystone XL in Canada and the U.S. But can it prevail over the fossil fuel industry and its paid hirelings in the U.S. and Canadian governments?

A RECENT article in the daily Vancouver Sun explains some of the political fallout in British Columbia of the likely collapse of the Northern Gateway pipeline. The trade-union based New Democratic Party (NDP) is leading polls in the province, both federally and in anticipation of a provincial election next year. It has opposed the pipeline since it was first announced several years ago and is unlikely to suffer from its demise.

But of note in the NDP stance is the absence of opposition to the Alberta tar sands behemoth and the grave threat to the planet's climate that it represents. "Of course" we should be promoting the sale and further development of tar sands product, said party leader Tom Mulcair recently in Calgary.

Mulcair has been publicly quibbling with the tar sands industry because he wants to see it operate on a more "sustainable" basis. He wants to slow the frantic pace of production and expansion in the tar sands patch. For this, he has been criticized by the industry and its hangers-on, but the non-dinosaurs in the industry realize that Mulcair's views should be heard and discussed.

The NDP position is mirrored by the Green Party. It wants to see a "moratorium" on tar sands expansion. Following the halt to a section of the Keystone XL line by the U.S. government last January (a section running through Nebraska), party leader Elizabeth May declared in a party statement, "We should now pause and re-think shipping our unprocessed crude to either the U.S. or China. We can refine that oil here and use it domestically or export the finished product, creating jobs in the process and ensuring environmental controls. It is critical to freeze any new growth of the oil sands [note: not "tar" sands], allowing value-added processing."

The statement said the party "is advocating increased environmental responsibility of oil sands developers and placing a moratorium on further oil sands development (i.e. increases in annual production). Slowing the overheated economy will allow refineries to be built in Alberta."

The Green position favoring tar sands refineries is a nod to the long-held position of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, one of Canada's largest industrial unions. (It is currently engaged in merger talks with the Canadian Auto Workers union.)

For both parties, the idea of shutting down the tar sands is anathema, for they are wedded to the capitalist system as the only possible basis to run society. The alternatives to a society of expanding fossil fuel consumption must necessarily be radical and anti-capitalist in nature if they are to have any chance of success.

THE FAILURE of the environmental policies of the NDP and Green Party is underlined by their failure to speak out against plans for a massive expansion of natural gas extraction, including fracking, in Alberta and northeast British Columbia (BC). Industry consortiums are applying for construction of gas pipelines across northern BC and the construction of at least three natural gas liquefaction complexes and export terminals in Kitimat, on the northern BC coast.

The BC NDP supports the industry's plans. "We've been fracking in BC for decades and we do it fairly well. I've been to a number of frack sites, and I'm comfortable with the technology," BC NDP Energy Critic John Horgan told the Vancouver Sun's Vaughn Palmer last month.

Federal Green leader Elizabeth May is apparently silent. She and her party oppose gas fracking in BC, but have not spoken out on the proposed pipeline-liquefaction-export labyrinth that fracking and more "conventional" gas extraction will feed.

Natural gas is purported to be a less environmentally harmful fossil fuel by those who earn money from its extraction and sale. But this is a myth, long established by scientific study. This is once again highlighted, rather politely in this case, by a new study entitled "Greenwashing Gas." A team of researchers at the University of Victoria in BC have published the paper in the peer-reviewed journal Energy Policy.

They conclude there is much uncertainty about the level of greenhouse gases emitted from the "production" (i.e., fracking) of shale gas and its transformation into liquefied natural gas. Emissions could be only slightly higher than those of conventional natural gas, or as high as those from coal. "Instead of applying labels such as 'climate friendly,' we should be asking: what types of natural gas, under what conditions, can contribute to a more sustainable energy future?" asks Dr. Karena Shaw of the School of Environmental Studies at the university.

The issue of comparative emissions of natural gas fracking is only one part of the story of the hallucinatory plans for natural gas production and export in northern BC. The annual amount of energy input required to operate the proposed liquefaction plants in Kitimat is roughly equal to half the present production of energy in the province and five times the present electrical consumption of the region of Vancouver.

British Columbia already imports electricity each year from the United States at peak demand moments, notwithstanding its very substantial hydroelectricity resources. So where will it get the huge amounts of energy to liquify natural gas? One option is to dam more rivers. Coincidentally, a new, mega-dam, "Site C," has been proposed for some time along the Peace River. But even that would not suffice. So an additional option is none other than to building natural gas-fired power plants.

The timing of the "Greenwashing Gas" paper is interesting because it comes just one month after a declaration by BC Premier Christy Clark that, lo and behold, the burning of natural gas will henceforth be declared a "clean" source of energy if it is used to liquefy natural gas.

Gas was rightly declared a dirty fuel by the vapid and deceptive environmental policies of Clark's Liberal Party predecessor, Gordon Campbell. His government went so far as to close down a gas-burning power plant located in the port of Vancouver. So Clark's policy departure is highly symbolic.

But it's also consistent with the Liberals' environmental policy because that has largely consisted of deception, notwithstanding the award that many of Canada's largest environmental groups presented to Campbell at the UN environmental conference in Copenhagen in 2009. (The award was based largely on his introduction of a "carbon tax" in 2008--from which the oil and gas extraction industries were exempted!)

The NDP's Horgan says there should be "public consultation" before the premier's pro-gas, policy change is confirmed.

Billions of dollars of quick, easy money are at stake in the natural gas plans. Meanwhile, the tar sands pipeline story is far from over in the province. Kinder Morgan Inc., the fourth largest energy company in North America, wants to triple the capacity of its existing tar sands pipeline, Trans Mountain, that already brings 300,000 barrels of bitumen crude daily to Vancouver's harbor for export.

First published at A Socialist in Canada.

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