When it comes to energy resource development in Canada, the two views most often heard are maximalist positions, one arguing that there is an economic imperative to pursue development, with social and environmental impacts as the price for progress, and the other saying that we develop fossil fuels at our peril, they must be left in the ground.
It’s hard for a reasonable person to deny that the world would be better off if we stopped using fossil fuels. There is no honest way to avoid the fact that continuing (and expanding) their development compromises our air quality, contaminates our water and destroys a significant amount of wildlife habitat. As well, increases in our greenhouse gas emissions will only make the situation worse. Along with people concerned about the environment and public health many of Canada’s First Nations and rural communities oppose such development projects which threaten their way of life.
So what’s the way out of this dilemma? First, we should accelerate our transition to clean energy alternatives. Governments should incentivize these efforts as they withdraw subsidies to fossil fuel industries.
However, the truth is we are a long way from clean energy becoming a major supplier let alone our principal energy source and it’s naïve to believe that fossil fuels are not needed or going to be developed. So let’s come up with a long-term strategy that makes environmental and social health a priority and meets our responsibilities to future generations, public health and the environment.
Let’s use fossil fuels efficiently. Fossil fuels are finite, their development and use is hazardous and that they are too valuable to waste is well established. Driving to the golf course or movie theatre in a 2.5 ton, gas-guzzling SUV is selfish. We also need to respect the rights of future generations to their share of these resources.
There also are compelling economic reasons for slower, more sustainable development models that creates long-term jobs, community investment and environmental protection. Our current break neck pace of development may enrich corporations and their investors but these assets are going to become more valuable over time. Who benefits from burning them away in a few generations or shipping them overseas, risking environmental disaster and the health of people in other countries? For example, China where shortages of clean water already are a crisis.
Let’s develop fossil fuels in a way that seriously prioritizes minimizing environmental impacts. Canada has incredible natural inheritance; it’s our responsibility to protect it.. Secondly, Canada has international responsibilities and commitments to human rights and traditional societies to uphold.
Let’s develop them close to home. Lac Megantic starkly reminded us it’s risky to transport fossil fuels. We should develop these resources close to the source to reduce risks increase jobs and other benefits to local economies. It’s also important to ensure Canada’s long-term self-sufficiency. When governments consider the various pipeline proposals risk reduction and self-sufficiency should be of greater importance than short-term economic return. Arguably, the Northern Gateway pipeline poses greater risk and lesser benefits on environment, human rights and self-sufficiency than Keystone and the eastern corridor, the later seemingly the best choice of the 3 major proposals. Shipping by rail or ocean seems a disaster waiting to happen.
Let’s export the cleanest versions possible, if we do export. The risk of environmental degradation is too great for us to be shipping unrefined oil, especially diluted bitumen from the tar sands. As responsible people we should use the dirtiest versions closest to home where we can be regulate and monitor responsible behaviour rather than export environmental risk to countries that may have weaker regulations and enforcement as well as little or no ability to deal with environmental disasters.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in a short opinion piece. In a nutshell, fossil fuels will be developed for the foreseeable future. Whether we like it or not all of us live if the fossil fuel era. The fundamental question is whether development is motivated by short-term economic gain, the rights of the people and environment be damned, or whether we develop and use these resources wisely, giving priority to long-term benefits for the greatest number of people and the protection of human rights, public health and the environment. Now it’s time for an intelligent discussion.