Pipelines and sustainable business models

Pipelines and sustainable business models

By Amy Huva

January 17, 2012

Back in the days before David Suzuki started bemoaning the inbuilt obsolescence of products and we all just had to have the next iPhone every year or two, things were built for the long term. A product just wasn’t good enough quality if it broke down 12 months after you purchased it. But now, it seems normal if your laptop breaks after a year, or you feel mildly unfashionable with the same skis as last winter. We just don’t question it.

I think this is why in all the media explosion around the hearings for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline that started last week (1,240 articles at last Google count) no-one seems to be asking about the long-term plans for the pipeline. Yes, there are billions of dollars to be made right now according to Enbridge’s PR website that shows lots of happy and smiling pipeline employees, but what happens after that?

We have 20 years, at best estimate to redirect our world’s economy to sustainable business practices and position ourselves to successfully mitigate the effects of climate change.  Which means linear projections for projects like oil pipelines will not necessarily be accurate. Obviously, the world’s need for oil is not going to disappear in the next 20 years, but hopefully by then markets and demand will have shifted and we’ll be well on our way to seriously reducing our oil needs. Shipping tar sands bitumen as fast as possible out to Asia to make the quickest buck may not be the best way to benefit industries or Canada.

To me, it looks similar to the war in the woods that happened over Clayoquot Sound in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Forestry companies came in, and offered remote communities lots of high paying jobs; fast money in boom and bust industry. Then, once all the local forests were clear-cut and there was nothing left, the companies bailed just as quickly, taking all their money with them and leaving nothing behind except a lack of infrastructure and investment in the communities, a whole heap of newly unemployed people and gaping holes in the landscape where they’d logged. Their business models at the time were not economically or environmentally sustainable, and not in the long term interests of the communities they were sold to.

The Enbridge deal looks pretty similar. They’re going to come in, put a great stonking pipeline through the middle of the Great Bear Rainforest, provide a whole heap of new jobs with fast money to communities, and when they’re done with it, or a diminished market for unrefined tar sands bitumen means the pipeline is no longer profitable, what then?

At a time when the world is looking to be more sustainable, and we are all aware of the finite nature of our natural resources, is it advisable to put a pipeline through the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world (yes, world),  and then send fully loaded oil tankers out through the 4th most dangerous stretch of ocean in the world – the Hecate Strait?

Oil fields in Baku, Azerbaijan

Is a pipeline built in a mad rush to export tar sands bitumen as fast as possible to gain the biggest short-term profits really the best idea? It will be at the long term expense of not only the environment, but the communities the pipeline goes through, not to mention the loss of Canadian jobs that could be created if we refined the oil ourselves. And why should we allow ourselves to be bullied by a Federal Government who has decided it wants this project ‘now!’ regardless of costs so they can curry favour with international business and trading partners while mortgaging our future? (For a detailed economic breakdown, this report from the Pembina Institute is excellent )

Governments and businesses think short term, because they know they’ll only be around (and therefore responsible for their actions) for the next 5- 10 years. However, short term-ism will not succeed in the new low carbon economy, and the long term costs of rashly developing this pipeline may outweigh whatever short term billions can be made. We have to start thinking long term again. The environment and the economy depend on it.

(Azerbaijan photo courtesy of Edward Burtynsky "The End of Oil")

Also from Carbon Talks