Beating Big Oil not the victory it seems

What is not legitimate is to deny the benefits in what is a very complex debate

By Dylan Jones

In April, the people of Kitimat voted 58 per cent against in a plebiscite on whether to support the Northern Gateway project.

The anti-pipeline crowd has been celebrating their victory over “big oil” loudly and widely. They see it as a victory both in protecting the B.C. coast and in building a new relationship between progressive groups in Kitimat and the Haisla First Nation.

What is confusing is the lack of acknowledgement of the environmental and human costs of this “victory.” At best, this is a win-lose outcome.

All across western Canada, resource development partnerships are creating tangible improvements in the quality of life for First Nations and remote communities.

Companies like Rio Tinto Alcan, Suncor and Cameco have supported Aboriginal economic and skills development, while also building prosperity that pays for schools and hospitals and services all over the West.

The confidence and satisfaction that come from high quality employment – and the opportunity to shape environmental standards – are creating many scenarios that appeal to the best values of westerners.

At the same time, in the emerging economies of the world, people are climbing out of poverty and demanding higher quality food, energy and materials.

This reduction in poverty is reducing family size, which in turn offers the best hope for the environmental future of the planet.

In fact, the most important environmental question we face is whether the benefits of lowering population growth through poverty reduction will happen quickly enough to counter the increased environmental footprint of global industrialization.

The answer to that question isn’t starving the developing world of necessary natural resources and raw materials.  Rather, it lies with technology and partnerships. None of that is advanced by simply opposing pipelines.

It is tragic that environmentalists are often cast as ignorant zealots. We should celebrate the values of people who care deeply about, for example, the precious Douglas Channel. At the same time, it is absurd to think of oil companies as evil and greedy.

What I see is a lot of people across Western Canada trying to do the right thing. Casting these complex issues as battles of good versus evil just means we all lose.

Also, we should not celebrate a community process that just further polarizes a difficult discussion.

The non-binding plebiscite exercise seemed a long distance from the ideal of a community gathering and taking the time to learn about and grapple with some complex questions.

So, was there a win here at all? Will Douglas Channel be saved? With the adoption of double-hulled tankers, the risks presented by oil tankers are radically lower than in the days of the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound.

It is extremely unlikely that there would be any harm to the marine ecosystem from Northern Gateway.

At the same time, there is some risk. It is a legitimate view to say that risk is unacceptable.  What is not legitimate is to deny the benefits in what is a very complex debate.

The opportunities to help eliminate global poverty, to create meaningful employment across the West, to build new positive partnerships between industry, community and First Nations people, to fund schools and hospitals and services, are meaningful.

More resources should also be directed to technologies that can help reduce carbons in emerging economies.

Others will have different views on what to do with the proceeds of our oil, but no one should think that simply “beating big oil” and avoiding these potential wins is anything but a pyrrhic victory.

Dylan Jones is President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, which exclusively focuses on policies that shape the quality of life in western Canada.

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