Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/10/2017 (252 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The sudden announcement by TransCanada Pipelines to scuttle its Energy East project landed with a clang amid the environmental activist community.
Good news, to be sure, but after a year of struggles, temporary victories and then imperious Trump-issued executive orders that paved the way for completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, it was unexpected.
It’s like pushing hard to keep the door from opening, only to have it slam shut when the person on the other side gives up and lets go.
It would be nice to think that the cancellation was a sign of corporate social responsibility, that TransCanada realized the harms (real and anticipated) of the Energy East pipeline were not worth the risk to future generations. One can always hope for such enlightenment, but no doubt this played a minor role compared to the fact that someone, finally, did the math.
Investing in pipelines these days is like investing in new whaling vessels in the late 19th century. People did not stop using whale oil lamps because we ran out of sperm whales, but because there was a smarter (and eventually cheaper) alternative.
In the same way, I recall Saudi oil minister Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani’s famous 1973 line about how the Stone Age did not end because people ran out of stones. The age of oil will not end when people run out of oil, but when people realize there are smarter, eventually cheaper, and more ecologically sustainable alternatives.
Pipelines need both a source of oil and customers to buy the finished product. One without the other is pointless. The current systems (leaks and all) are managing current levels of supply and demand. New pipelines are a huge investment in a future in which oil prices will be high enough to justify collecting and refining the tar sands crude — something that implies an increasing demand.
Apart from inconvenient truths — such as that there is enough carbon buried in the tar sands to guarantee extinction by global warming of much of the life on Earth, including our own — the idea of an oil-needy future is seriously delusionary.
Simply put, it is bad business. I would love some forensic accounting of who is invested in these operations right now, because I suspect the money of those in charge of the fossil-fuel industry is invested elsewhere. Mutual funds, pension plans and other things that are supposed to guarantee our personal economic future, are likely the shills still paying for obsolete fossil-fuel technological infrastructure.
Pull the direct and indirect government subsidies out of the fossil fuel industry and that investment becomes even more dubious. In a warming world in which increasing greenhouse gas emissions are the harbinger of disasters, from droughts to forest fires and to hurricanes, even General Motors is making a major shift to electric vehicles. Proposing expanded investment in the fossil-fuel industry would be as popular with shareholders these days as trying to corner the market on whale oil.
Of course, we are not just talking about shareholders anymore. We also need to consider the stakeholders, the people whose lives are affected by the operations of any business, whether or not they have an investment in it. Customers, neighbours and citizens near and far can be affected by what a business does.
Any business has more than a commercial licence to operate. It also has a social licence. In effect, we give permission to corporations to operate the way they do. As consumers and citizens realize the damage that can be done to the health and well-being of their communities, their children and their futures, they are demanding changes and improvements.
A social licence can be withdrawn — by boycotts, any number of legislative barriers and by people refusing to work for or buy from a company that does terrible things. As we watch the future crumble because of the inaction of governments, the irresponsibility of corporate interests and the blind selfishness of everyone for themselves, something has to change.
TransCanada was wise to get out of the way when it did.
I wish the federal government had led the way on this decision, though, instead of ducking and dodging. Jim Carr, our minister of pipelines, has been more concerned about the greenhouse gas emission consequences of American cuts to the EnergyStar certification program than about building renewable energy infrastructure.
The path to a sustainable future does not depend upon our having energy-efficient dishwashers. We need to leave the oil in the ground and find another way, which is what other countries and industries are doing.
Remember Sheikh Yamani? Last February, Saudi Arabia announced an investment of US$30 to US$50 billion in renewable energy — and the Saudis are not running out of oil.
Peter Denton is a local sustainability consultant, writer and speaker. He chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.