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Sunken ships and dirty oil

UPDATE: President Obama’s denial of a permit for TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, on the grounds that the Republican-dictated Feb. 21 deadline does not allow sufficient time for a proper environmental review, is likely just the first in a series of setbacks for pipeline proponents.

They’re happenings half a world apart — the grounding of the cruise liner Costa Concordia off the Italian coast, and the hearings into the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline, being held in Kitimat, British Columbia.

What links them is the prospect of tanker groundings in the pristine waters of the 130-kilometre long Douglas Channel. It’s this fear that is motivating B.C. native groups and environmentalists to oppose the plan of Enbridge Inc. to pipe crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to the B.C. coast. The scheme calls for new port faclities at Kitimat that would permit more than 200 tankers a year to ply Douglas Channel en route to Pacific destinations, mainly China.

The case against the oil sands (or tar sands as they were known before  oil industry’s PR machine got to work) is eloquently made by Alberta author Andrew Nikiforuk in his book, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent.

Nikiforuk does more than criticize. While declaring that the pace of oil sands development represents a political emergency, he offers up a 22-point plan to avert disaster, both environmentally and economically.

His arguments need to be taken into account by the National Energy Board in its hearings that opened in Kitimat last week. It’s going to take two years for the NEB to reach a decision. Even then, no matter what  it recommends, the decision could be overturned by the pro-oil Harper cabinet in Ottawa.

From what we’ve heard out of Ottawa, the hearings could turn out to be an exercise in  futility.

They got off to a rocky start with that infamous open letter from the minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, pointing the finger at “environmental and other radical groups ” w0rking with “foreign special-interest groups” in opposition to the pipeline.

That line was set down last fall by Prime Minister Harper when he warned against “American interests trying to line up against the Northern Gateway project.” Another indication that nothing happens in Ottawa without Mr. Harper’s fingerprints on it.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the foreign money of international oil companies who are spending large sums in Canada to back the project. That’s because their cause is in the “national interest,” according to Harper & Company.

Northern Gateway is about more than the pipeline, however. It’s about the morality — and the long-term economic consequences — of the environmental degradation caused by extracting oil from the tar sands.

The premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, was quite accurate when she suggested that some opponents are primarily motivated by a desire to stop or slow down the oil sands.

Pipelines are the only way to get the oil out. Stop the pipelines and you stop the oil sands.

The delay in approving the Keystone XL line in the States — a prospective key carrier of oil sands crude to the Gulf of Mexico — is a serious setback to the hopes of oil sands proponents.

A strong argument can always be made for the jobs and other economic benefits that flow from exploitation of natural resources.

We need to argue equally strongly against destroying our planet to feed the voracious beast of oil consumption. The best way for North America to achieve energy self-sufficiency is to consume less, not produce more. Will anyone make that argument to the National Energy Board?

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