Opinion

Letter from the editor: Bridging the pipeline divide

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It’s been nine days since a federal court ruled to halt the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Things appear to have gone to ground as everyone prepares their next moves in the ongoing dispute that has pitted province against province, First Nation against First Nation, and party against party. As I watched the events unfold last week, I was struck by just how polarizing the debate had become. You were either for the pipeline or for the environment, with no one, it seemed, willing to meet in the middle.

And yet, hanging over all of this, the larger facts remain the same: the country is facing a demographic cliff, a strained education system, unaffordable health care, aging infrastructure and rising income inequality—not to mention an unpredictable economic future with our largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, whether by pipeline or by rail, we remain heavily dependent on carbon usage and exports, and will remain so, by some accounts, for the next four to five decades, at least.

As bleak as this seems, it isn’t an intractable problem.

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For a long-term national view of the carbon economy that supports energy security, encourages a transition away from fossil fuels and strengthens relations with Indigenous Peoples across the country, just look across the Atlantic Ocean to Norway.

The Nordic country has built a social consensus around balancing the environment, oil development and the clean-energy transition.

Canadian provinces like Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland have ridden massive commodity swings. But in Norway roughly one-fifth of the country’s national budget comes from a predictable revenue stream through its US$1-trillion sovereign wealth fund every year. It’s the largest fund of its kind in the world, and it’s built almost entirely by direct contributions of oil revenue. That money is then redistributed back to Norwegians through public infrastructure that leaves no region behind, transforming Norway’s energy grid into one of the cleanest in the world. Everybody wins.

Greg Poelzer, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has spent years studying renewable energy and energy transitions. It’s worth reading his 2015 essay, which explored how Norway’s sovereign wealth fund grew while Alberta’s Heritage Trust Fund sputtered over almost the same time period.

Back to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion: I asked Poelzer what key innovation led to Norway’s success in getting pipelines built.

“They don’t formally call it a strategic environmental assessment, but indeed it is,” said Poelzer—who was in Alta, Norway, on a research assignment—by phone.

“It’s a multi-stakeholder approach of the different industries, local communities, the Big Oil industry [and] government, and they have processes for this ongoing engagement that looks at things like cumulative effects and all the different economic impacts on the coastal areas.”

This assessment includes determining whether oil projects abide by what Norwegians call their “Ten Commandments” around ethical oil development.

“We don’t do that in Canada; we go project by project,” said Poelzer.

Poelzer argues that a comprehensive long-term plan around Canada’s Pacific and Atlantic coastlines—agreed upon by First Nations, municipalities, provincial governments and different sectors of the economy—would cost more upfront, but would result in a more efficient and legitimate process with clear outcomes and buy-in from the region.

He also suggests that even just putting aside the federal government’s tax revenues from activities related to the resource sector could provide a healthy return with compound interest, which could then be used to fund innovation in cleantech or infrastructure.

It may not result in a trillion-dollar asset pool, but it could help lead parties away from polarizing short-term wins and toward shared long-term goals on energy transformation.

It’s not too late.

As the old proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”

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