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Stuck in the middle

A personal journey to find compromise on the Alberta-B.C. pipeline debate
Stuck in the middle - A personal journey to find compromise on the Alberta-B.C. pipeline debate. Story by Steven Threndyle

This story began with an innocent question at the tail end of a telephone call I'd been having with a friend from Calgary about the city's "No" vote in its recent referendum to host the 2026 Olympic Games. I was shocked at the outcome, given the almost mythical nostalgia of the city's collective memory of the 1988 Winter Games. You remember, the Games with Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican Bobsled Team? With Alberto Tomba and Katarina Witt?

Don Finley works in Alberta's oil and natural gas industry. He's been involved with the Fernie Alpine Ski Team for the past 15 years, and his kids have competed out here in the Whistler Cup on several occasions, spending those petro dollars in the process. His support for the Games had been rather lukewarm, which, given his sporting background, was surprising.

Albertans, he said, had other things on their minds.

"Did you ever watch that presentation I sent the link to?" asked Don.

I admitted that I had not.

"Well, you should watch it," he said. "Watch it and distribute it to as many people as possible. Because what's happened in Canada in the past year is very bad. My friend Chris (Slubicki) put it together, and there's no ranting or anger. He's just trying to get a message out there about how bad things are here in Alberta."

The oil refinery, owned by Parkland Fuel Corp., located in Burnaby. Photo by Desiree Patterson

What I found out is that Albertans are mighty angry about what's happened out here on the Coast for probably the last decade now. Failure to gain regulatory approval on any new pipelines to get oilsands crude from Fort McMurray to, well, just about anywhere, resulted in not only a glut of product, but product that producers were selling at a 50-per-cent discount. Job loss estimates go as high as 100,000—and unlike past energy busts, this has affected engineers and geologists as much as truck drivers and security staff. Currently, a quarter of downtown Calgary's offices remains vacant.

But it wasn't just an oil executive telling me that. And rather than re-hashing (and hashtagging) the strident and often dishonest voices on social media, I did my own research into the issue and reached out to two enlightened, progressive journalists from the Wild Rose Province to get a more detailed and nuanced discussion about what's happening across the Continental Divide.

'This world needs energy'

As my friend suggested, I watched Slubicki's presentation. Like many Westerners of my age, Slubicki was originally from Ontario—a professional engineer and MBA graduate who has held a wide range of jobs within Canada's energy industry. His company, Modern Resources, has won awards for its environmental innovation while his previous firm, Waterous and Company, was an independent-energy, investment-banking firm with offices in Canada and England. On the recreational front, he coached ski racing in Fernie and served as board chair for Alpine Canada, the national governing body for alpine, para-alpine and ski-cross racing. Slubicki's friends and family are also passionate paddlers, disappearing during the summer months for weeks at a time to canoe the rivers of Canada's north.

Reached by phone at his office in Calgary, Slubicki says that his YouTube video has received more than 120,000 views in the past six months. "I know that I can't reach the 10 to 20 per cent on the radical end of the spectrum," he says. "I'm not speaking to them." Rather, he hopes his sort of "Al Gore in reverse" arguments might resonate with the average Canadian who both cares about the environment and jumps in a car to head to Whistler.

Slubicki's presentation concentrates not so much on production as it does on consumption, and—to be consistent—his presentation converts energy consumption of all kinds into equivalent units of barrels of oil, known as barrels of energy.

"This world needs energy, and it must come from all sources—solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, and oil and gas," he says.

"Global poverty is tied directly to energy poverty. The bottom half of the world's population consumes less than the equivalent of four barrels of energy per year and fully a billion people use less than a single barrel."

It's worth noting that these are hardly failed, destitute states—members of the under-four-barrels-per-day club include India, the Philippines, and Egypt—and even energy-rich nations such as Nigeria and Indonesia.

And while it might seem virtuous at first glance to praise their energy thrift, the truth is that energy poverty has a ripple effect throughout society.

"To raise the standard of living of these countries even up to that of China or Mexico, (14 barrels per year), the world will need to produce the equivalent of an extra 100 million barrels of energy per day," Slubicki says. "To reach North American consumption (34 barrels per year) would require the equivalent of an extra 400 million barrels of energy per day."

And—God forbid—we would never want every citizen on our blue planet to consume the thirsty 67 barrels of energy, or 15 barrels of oil, that the average Canadian does on a yearly basis.

"Who are we kidding? We are a cold country, we rely on transporting goods across long distances, we have an energy-intensive economy, and we live a high quality of life as a result," Slubicki concedes.

Climate change rally in Burnaby, BC. Photo by Desiree Patterson

Hardly a science-denying capitalist, Slubicki recognizes that climate change is real. "We can't afford to be wrong about this," he says. "We've been pumping carbon dioxide into the air since the Industrial Revolution. Right now, we pump 32 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the air every year and about half of that comes from oil and gas. If we don't do anything, and the world's population swells to 9 billion, the amount of CO2 will go up to 42 gigatonnes per year.

"Under the Paris Accord, we're committed to reducing greenhouse gases to 18 gigatonnes per year, and that's a worthy goal. And it's doable if coal is phased out as is currently happening, and renewables continue their accelerated growth. But by the time Paris goes into effect, almost half of the world's energy will still come from oil and gas."

This, believes Slubicki, is where Canada's true opportunity lies. In becoming a technologically innovative energy leader, especially during the time in which, he acknowledges, the world will have to make a transition from fossil fuels to what he calls a "low-carbon, not no-carbon" economy.

Still, his frustration is evident. "Ten years after our industry was first targeted by special interest groups, where are we? We haven't reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, and we'll increase them if we continue to haul the oil by rail—because the oil will find its way to market," he says. "We've decimated the Alberta oil economy and now live in a country where people hate each other because of environmental issues. No matter which side of the debate you're on here, everybody is losing."

Opening the conversation

How did we get here, exactly? How was the link drawn between one of the world's largest industrial energy extraction operations—the dozen-plus projects currently digging and drilling the tarry compound in the Athabasca River watershed—and climate change, which rising U.S. politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claims will destroy the Earth within a decade unless some kind of Green New Deal is passed?

Ironies abound when it comes to this contentious debate between Alberta and British Columbia. Alberta writer Andrew Nikiforuk is probably Canada's most outspoken energy critic. He's taken on fracking, the oilsands, and the cozy relationship between energy lobbyists and government regulators. While he lives in Alberta, one of his main media outlets is Vancouver's The Tyee—an online publication funded partially by the Tula Foundation, described as a "supporter of a wide range of progressive programs around the world."

On the other side, Vancouver writer and researcher Vivian Krause has staked her reputation on "following the money" from major American endowments such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Hewlett Foundation into Canadian environmental groups and First Nations bands opposed to, most specifically, the Northern Gateway pipeline. She's the self-published author of The Tar Sands Campaign Against the Overseas Export of Canadian Oil: Activism or Economic Sabotage? But, as critics point out, she frequently lands paid speaking engagements with business-friendly organizations in Western Canada. Once dismissed as a fringe player in the mainstream media, her research is now grudgingly seen as plausible, even by mainstream outlets like the CBC.

As I mined mountains of data (and took a hard look at my energy-wasting habits), I wondered if there was a wise, clear thinker who had examined the effects of global warming and yet who recognizes that the oilsands contribute significantly to the economy. An environmentalist who might actually refer to them as "oilsands." And then I remembered a name: Chris Turner.

All I knew about the guy was that he had written quite an optimistic book about the future of alternative energy: The Geography of Hope: A Guided Tour of the World We Need. He even ran for the Green Party in a Calgary Centre byelection in 2012 and might actually have won if he hadn't split the centre-left vote with Liberal nominee Harvey Locke, himself an environmentalist of some renown.

In 2017, Turner wrote The Patch: The People, Pipeline, and Politics of the Oil Sands, the last chapter of which was excerpted in a Sept. 2017 issue of The Walrus magazine.

Turner had grown up close to Fort McMurray at a time in which the vast potential of the Alberta oil sands had yet to be unlocked. His award-winning book tells the heartfelt, personal stories of émigrés from Atlantic Canada and recent immigrants from Pakistan.

Speaking from his home in Calgary, Turner explains the genesis of environmental opposition to the tar sands. "Greenhouse-gas emissions, global warming and climate change were simply too abstract for most Americans to wrap their heads around." That is, until they found the Keystone XL pipeline.

In The Patch, Turner details the connection between NASA climate scientist James Hansen and American nature writer Bill McKibben, author of the bleakly titled 1989 bestseller, The End of Nature.

In an essay—some might call it a manifesto—Hansen calls out his fellow scientists to speak out against greenhouse-gas emissions; specifically the burning of coal and development of northern Alberta's oilsands that, if fully developed, would be "game over for the planet."

Burnaby, BC/Canada - March 10 2018: Kwekwecnewtxw Protect The Inlet March against the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline previously owned by Kinder Morgan and now owned by the Canadian government. Photo by Alex Hsuan Tsui / Shutterstock

McKibben knew a good story when he saw one and rewrote Hansen's missive as a call to action. Most importantly, and how this event relates to the Trans-Mountain expansion (TMX), is McKibben's assertion that "The Keystone pipeline (KXL) would be a 1,500-mile (2,414-kilometre) fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent" which would "trigger the final overheating of our planet."

Opposition to the pipeline did not take place in Fort Mac or outside the massive open-pit mines that started showing up in the media, but was centred in Washington, D.C., where in March, 2014, 200 protestors were arrested after zap-strapping themselves to the fencing surrounding the White House lawn. McKibben and members of his successfully organized political opposition—much of it using social media— and gained a huge ally when hedgefund billionaire Tom Steyer read one of McKibben's anti-oilsands essays in Rolling Stone magazine. It was a bold tactic but it eventually worked; by the time Obama left office in 2016, he had officially vetoed the pipeline.

There are even conspiracy theories which posit that these environmental groups—some of which are funded by the Rockefeller family (the Standard Oil/ExxonMobil fortune)—oppose oilsands imports in order to aid oil production in the United States. A recent CBC investigation also showed that Twitter had recently deleted bots that have actively re-tweeted articles that could potentially stoke anti-pipeline sentiment and originated from energy competitors such as Iran, Russian and Venezuela.

In a cruel irony for Suncor, Cenovus and other companies operating in the oilsands, the innovative horizontal drilling methods uses to extract bitumen from the sands have also been able to liberate vast new reserves of oil from shale formations in places such as the Permian Basin in Texas; a field which geophysicists once thought had been depleted. So while close to 100,000 workers were being laid off in Alberta and Saskatchewan due to lack of pipeline access, the state of Texas was in the process of approving 30 new pipelines going directly from the new-found reservoirs to refineries in Houston and the Gulf Coast—needless to say, at much cheaper prices.

Turner publicly criticizes ardent pipeline supporters such as Krause, noting that American foundation money funneled to protect the Great Bear Rainforest was unrelated to any explicit anti-tar sands campaign. "The way she interprets her data does not follow; not even a little bit. For instance, she often quotes the influence of a group called Corporate Ethics International on stopping the tar sands," Turner, who once worked for the oft-maligned Tides Canada, says. "I can tell you for sure that groups like Tides Canada do not take their marching orders from Corporate Ethics International."

Alternately, Turner is dismayed that environmental groups won't own up to the fact that stopping the pipelines will not prevent a "so-called carbon bomb."

"It's verifiably true that American environmental groups used the pipeline to attract donors to a tangible cause," he said. "Opposition to climate change was languishing until the flash-point created by opposition to KXL."

Current—and even future—development of the oilsands is "such a tiny piece of the global energy rush," he said. "You cannot open the conversation about the pipeline without being persona non grata amongst the environmental advocates."

Turner also has critical words for B.C. premier John Horgan, who said his government would "use any tool in its toolbox" to stop the pipeline as a tactic to neutralize Green Party support during an election campaign, while also promising to remove tolls on the Port Mann Bridge to win votes in the Fraser Valley.

Turner said that an enormous amount of progress was being made on the climate-change file between the federal and provincial governments on big issues like carbon pricing, coal plant shutdowns, and spill mitigation. Oil companies both big and small were content with progressive legislation on emissions caps. Alas, this "Pan Canadian moment" as he called it, will likely pass with the election of the rabble-rousing United Conservative Party in Alberta's next provincial election.

Finding Consensus: What the Polls Tell Us

Author Markham Hislop wryly noted that his job is to "explain Alberta to folks in B.C., and vice-versa." His new book, The New Alberta Advantage: Technology, the Oil Sands and The Future of Energy, will be released later this year.

He points to research that clearly shows that there is general consensus among British Columbians and Albertans on a number of energy issues. Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians believe that delays in pipeline construction "represent a crisis in this country," according to a recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute. More significantly, 65 per cent of British Columbians see oil and gas being of paramount importance to the overall Canadian economy, far outdistancing farming, forestry, and tourism. Nationwide, only 18 per cent of all Canadians see tourism as being of major importance to the economy.

Another poll, this one administered by Abacus Data after the purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline from Houston-based Kinder Morgan last summer, showed that 39 per cent of British Columbians have "no strong opinion" on pipelines, nor do 27 per cent of Albertans. Fifty per cent of Albertans are opposed to a carbon tax, but so are 37 per cent of all British Columbians.

Hislop says that Alberta has finally been forced to face up to its large carbon footprint, thanks in part to current Premier Rachel Notley. "She recognizes that the transformation of the global energy industry will have significant effects on the Alberta economy and that there is no going back to the days of the 'Alberta Advantage' under premiers Peter Lougheed, Don Getty, and Ralph Klein," he says.

Hislop interprets Abacus's findings as "Canada's energy consensus," and offers, as an example, B.C. Premier John Horgan's battle with Notley over the TMX last spring. "Polling data clearly shows that support for the pipeline went up—the public was essentially telling Horgan that this was not a key issue for them," he says. Indeed, Horgan has backed away from defending the rights of British Columbians and no longer seems willing to use "every tool in our toolbox to fight the pipeline," as he wrote on Facebook in August 2017.

"Out of 100 million barrels that humans consume every day, 10 million is heavy crude and 3 million of that is de-carbonized heavy crude from Alberta that is significantly cleaner than its competitors," Hislop explains. "Refineries along America's Gulf Coast have spent over $1 billion to process this heavy crude, which has completely different end uses than light, sweet crude which everyone compares it to.

"Canada can improve its competitive advantage by selling decarbonized heavy oil and taking market share away from Venezuela and Mexico. British Columbians need to recognize that if Canadian oilsands production is stopped tomorrow, then these expensive refineries will still want heavily carbonized crude oil from countries that, quite frankly, don't give a shit about emissions."

Despite the polling numbers, you can bet that environmental groups will protest every metre of pipeline that's excavated as it snakes from central Alberta through the mountains of the B.C. Interior to Trans Mountain's tank farm in north Burnaby. More than 200 protesters were arrested in 2018 for defying a court-ordered injunction to stay away from the facility, and actual spade-work has yet to begin. Justin Trudeau's political capital in ridings like Burnaby North and North Vancouver has probably evaporated; indeed, several ridings along the pipeline route were captured by the NDP in the 2017 provincial election.

Build That Pipe or #NoTankers?

Part of the reason why the rest of Canada—and British Columbia in particular—has been blind to Alberta's plight is that we have our own issues to deal with. Neither of the well-educated Alberta engineers whom I consulted knew anything about how Vancouver's housing market has been gamed—according to reports—by druglords with ties to Chinese organized crime paying cash for 15,000-square-foot homes in West Vancouver. Or that close to 1,500 people fatally overdosed on the synthetic opioid fentanyl last year.

It's hard, as a skier, not to accept that climate change is real—after all, how could you not after seeing thousands of square kilometres of vanishing glaciers?

But the foe here is global warming, not "Canada warming," Slubucki contends. Canada, with 0.5 per cent of the world's population, produces about two per cent of global CO2 emissions. On a per-capita basis, that makes us one of the highest energy consumers on the planet. Oilsands account for 10 per cent of Canada's GHG emissions and about 0.15 per cent of global GHG emissions. Although 0.15 per cent does not seem to be a huge number, given the fact the oilsands are—depending on who you believe—the world's largest-ever energy extraction project, it is certainly significant. The carbon footprint from the oilsands also includes the tremendous amount of natural gas needed to make the steam that extracts oil from the muck—and major efficiencies have already taken place at some oilsands facilities to reduce carbon usage.

For his upcoming book, Hislop interviewed electric vehicle experts in the United States who told him that the earliest date for an inflection point—when electric vehicles will outnumber gas-powered ones—will be 2040, and it will then take at least another 20 years for them to be retired altogether. There has to be a better environmental solution than junking millions of perfectly good, fuel-efficient vehicles and replacing them with Teslas— Consumer Reports no longer recommends the Tesla Model 3, citing reliability issues with the car. (For its part, Tesla has pointed to the vehicle's high overall customer satisfaction rating and says it has already corrected many of the issues identified by owners.)

Markets for Canadian petroleum products need to be diversified to reduce dependence on exports to the United States. Outside North America, Canada is the world's most trusted energy producer due to reliability of supply, a stable political situation, and the positive track record of the companies that do business here.

Canadians can hardly lecture people living in the slums of virtually any major developing-world city that only consume their four barrels of energy per year while we guzzle through more than 60. As someone who grew up in a boomtown in the boonies (and harbours zero nostalgia about the place and has no desire to return), I recognize Canada needs places where individuals and families alike can build wealth and own secure housing—without needing to borrow vast amounts of money to attain a professional degree. Tossing 60,000 people out of work to save a fractional amount of carbon seems like folly to me, especially since the buyers will simply look to another source.

In my lifetime, we've overcome the nuclear arms race, acid rain, and mitigated the scourge of HIV/AIDS. Thanks to the internet, we have vastly more resources to solve scientific problems, if our rage at opposing points of view doesn't kill us first.

As for me? I'm placing my bets on carbon capture.

Sidebar: The Kinder Morgan Pipeline

In 2012, Max Fawcett, a brassy young editor at Alberta Oil magazine, assigned me perhaps the first story to ever appear in print about the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion. Under Fawcett’s tenure, Alberta Oil (which ceased publication following the owner/publisher’s suicide in 2015) challenged conventional thinking in the oil patch by publishing stories on alternative energy, climate change, and political opposition in B.C.

With the regulatory support of the Port of Vancouver as well as over a dozen Alberta-based companies rushing to get their oilsands bounty to market, you might forgive Kinder Morgan for thinking that pipeline approval was a slam dunk. At the time, the issue wasn’t when the pipeline would be completed, it was how big the oil tankers passing under the Second Narrows Bridge were going to be.

It isn’t that they weren’t prepared—it’s simply that there have been a lot of unexpected twists and turns along the way. Vancouver-born Ali Hounsell was on the KM team from the very beginning. She says, “The pipeline has become the surrogate for a number of different conversations—from climate change to regulatory oversight to Indigenous peoples’ rights—rather than a discussion of the project itself, which many people don’t really think about. We anticipated that the bulk of the concerns would come from the Lower Mainland. We were prepared to answer questions around tank safety and spill preparedness and we embraced those conversations form the very beginning.”

But why select Burnaby Mountain; adjacent to a university with a history of environmental activism, and near where a gas line explosion occurred in 2007?

Hounsell says, “Trans-Mountain has a spur line to Washington state near Sumas. We explored that opportunity and alternate facilities, but dismissed them, thinking that these issues would arise in Washington state as well. Economically, it wouldn’t make sense to build a brand-new docking facility and tank farm when we already have one that we could upgrade in Burnaby.”

In August, the federal government paid $4.5 billion for Kinder Morgan’s TMX pipeline. Hounsell says, “TMX will be profitable from Day 1. We have thirteen oilsands producers who have been with us since the very beginning in 2012. Each one signed 15- to 20-year contracts with us.”

Alberta’s oilsands are the third-largest proven reserves in the world. Due to the massive amount of new oil being discovered in the United States, it’s imperative that Canadian producers find new markets in Asia—and that means building a pipeline through to the Pacific.

In the meantime, court cases and National Energy Board hearings drag on. Hounsell comments: “We have stopped all geotechnical work on Burnaby Mountain and the Westridge marine terminal. The federal court of appeal hearing on shipping and spill response wrapped up in February, while negotiations with the First Nations band are on-going with no firm time-line set. This has been the most scrutinized project in the National Energy Board’s history, and we remain optimistic that it will get built.”