Oilin’ the machine: Pipelines, politics & 1984

Where there’s a will, there’s a way..

In recent Canadian environmental news, one can’t help but notice a slight thread of subversive strategy and a smattering of the authoritarianism so brilliantly parodied in Orwell’s dystopian book 1984.

Below are three brief parallels for your consideration:

1. Doppelgänger Ministries

1984:  In the book 1984, the totalitarian ministries which govern the fictional land of Oceania could be considered doppelgängers, as they are are paradoxically named and represent the dark double of their namesakes.  For example, the Ministry of Love is largely responsible for the practice and infliction of misery, fear, and torture.  The Ministry of Truth, similarly, is the ministry responsible for propaganda and rewriting history to this effect.

Canada: In January, Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver publicly equated Canadian environmental organizations to extreme radical groups, using further descriptive words as in “hijack”, “exploit”, “kill”, “undermine” in his open letter.  The letter’s main message is that processes that delay rapid resource development and exploitation (that is, the environmental assessment processes that would normally accompany oil pipeline development) are now an urgent matter of Canada’s national interest.

“National interest”…now there’s some fightin’ words.

Last I remember, Natural Resources Canada’s mandate included the words “enhance the responsible” development and use of Canada’s natural resources, but I must have been trumped up the verbs.  “Enforce the rapid” is more fitting.

2. The creative use of language to subvert public discourse

1984: In the book 1984, an individual’s use of doublethink is encouraged.  Doublethink enables one to believe that two contradictory ideas are both correct, i.e. to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient and yet to recall it again when required, etc.

Canada:  The platform Ethical Oil, brainchild of Ezra Levant, basically posits that Canadian tar sands oil – because it comes from a country that “respects the rights of women, workers, indigenous peoples and other minorities including gays and lesbians” – is more ethical than oil produced in conflict areas such as Nigeria, Iran, etc. and therefore should be considered a preferred energy source.  This bizarre platform has diverted debate about the environmental impacts of Canada’s oil sands extraction and transportation into a completely different arena, with “ethical oil” on one side and so-called “conflict oil” on the other.

But basically, as detractors say, this is a red herring as there is no such thing as ethical oil.  Like most fossil-based energy sources, all oil has its problems, and tar sands oil in particular.  By promulgating tar sands oil as ethical by nature of Canada’s human rights record, Ethical Oil is doing its very best to ensure we sidestep the real issue at hand, which is the significant environmental degradation associated with extracting and transporting tar sands oil.

Interestingly, it seems that Ethical Oil – while ostensibly a grassroots organization – has some convoluted ties that involve not only Sun Media but also the PMO, and moreover happily embarrasses itself on national television to avoid directly answering who funds its activities.

3.  Down with dissent

1984:  In this book, society is presided over by Big Brother who keeps a gimlet eye on all the doings and sayings of Orwellian society.  In such a land, talk is muted and dissent intolerated, to the point where ‘suspicious persons’ simply disappear into the bowels of the Ministry of Love, ne’er to be seen again.

Canada: Recently Canadian charities have come under increased scrutiny by the federal government to assess whether they are spending over 10% of their budget on advocacy based political activity.  Under Canadian law, organizations that exceed this allocation stand to lose their charitable status.

The possible result?  That charities run scared and pull back funding for research and other initiatives that might indicate dissenting viewpoint to government positions… for example, initiatives that would otherwise be exploring alternatives to the the rapid development of oil pipelines.

As charities are often major contributors to environmental organizations and initiatives, there are some that say this increased scrutiny is actually a strategic effort to muzzle the depth of environmental debate in Canada.

So there you have it.  A few ideas, for starters.  Agree?  Disagree?  Other ideas?

What Dilbert has in common with oil pipelines

About time we oil got serious around here

You have all heard of Dilbert right?  Yes, that Dilbert, the cute, muzzy-headed engineer king of the nerdworld.  What you might not have heard of though is his free-flowing hydrocarbon sidekick: “DilBit”.  Yep, you read that right.  There is a character called DilBit living large on the world stage out there, and he’s worth noticing.

Who, or what, is Dilbit?  Basically DilBit is short for Diluted Bitumen, a relatively new arrival on the Alberta tar sands scheme. DilBit was created in order to get thick viscous oil like bitumen to flow through pipelines (by adding fun stuff like naptha). The problem with Mr. DilBit – aside from his suspect origins – is that he is even more toxic, explosive, and corrosive than previous generations of his oily brethren.  Wait a second, corrosive you say?  Yes, and unfortunately DilBit is the prime stuff planned for the two big pipelines making the headlines these days: TransCanada’s Keystone XL through Alberta and the Northern Gateway through British Columbia.

(As a brief backgrounder, the planned Keystone XL is expected to transport on order of 550,000 barrels of this DilBit per day over a 2,000 mile stretch.  Unfortunately much of this pipeline passes through sensitive areas in the US and in Canada, as in Nebraska’s Ogallala aquifer, the most heavily used aquifer in the US.  Similarly, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project is expected to also carry 525,000 bbl per day.  This route crosses more than 785 rivers and streams and the headwaters of three of the continent’s most important watersheds – the Mackenzie, the Fraser, and the Skeena.  The route also traverses.. wait for it… a seismically active area).

Ok, so this is where it gets interesting. TransCanada estimates that the Keystone XL pipeline could see – hmm, maybe about 11 spills over the next half-century, with each spill releasing an average of 50 barrels of oil or so.  Doesn’t seem so bad right?  Keep in mind though, that TransCanada’s current Keystone pipeline had 35 leaks in its first year in operation – 21 in Canada and 14 in the US. Other precedents exist, including four large Enbridge spills just between 2009 to 2010, which ranged in scale from 3,000 barrels of syncrude up to 19,500 barrels of tar sand oil.  It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that these are orders of magnitude and frequency higher than the projected “11 spills or so, 50 barrels of oil, next half century, tops.”

When you combine this context and history with Mr. DilBit’s little personality quirks, as he is rather a corrosive type with toxic tendencies, what could possibly go wrong?

P.S.  I decided a P.S. was warranted as the above only points out a problem.  Setting aside the bigger issue of tar sand oil extraction (as we are principally dealing with oil transportation here), other alternatives to pipelines exist. CN rail for example already ships oil and coal – did you know that 5 – 7 trains alone can match the daily capacity of the Keystone XL, and move five times faster?  Each railcar can carry ~ 660 barrels of bitumen.  What’s more, because the bitumen does not have to be diluted to be transported = no DilBit.

Lastly, because bitumen does not flow at ambient temperatures (unlike Dilbit, which does) – any sort of “spill” would be quickly contained, as opposed to the scenarios posited above.

Makes one wonder…