Energy Transition is a very good argument for supporting Kinder Morgan pipeline

BEN-Masthead-FINAL-NoTextDuring energy transition from oil to alt fuels, producing and exporting oil to drive economic growth/pay for transition is reasonable compromise

My wife and I often stroll the picturesque beaches of Semiahmoo Bay with our little dog, enjoying the cool ocean breezes and the sand in our toes. Sometimes, I look out over the water and think about the Kinder Morgan pipeline, wondering if I’ll be able to eventually see oil tankers from our vantage point. Probably not, but we do spy the odd huge grain carrier, so maybe.

East Beach, White Rock, looking west.
East Beach, White Rock, BC looking south.

One cannot live on the West Coast of Canada without falling in love with its natural beauty. To a Prairie boy born and raised, the temperate winters, the lush greenery, the fresh fruit and vegetables almost all year round, the beautiful parks – I could go on, it’s a long list – are a revelation.

When First Nations talk about their deep connection to the land, how their relationship to the land is the bedrock of their culture, I get it.

When young environmentalists protest the Alberta oil sands and pipelines outside the BC Legislature in Victoria, I get it.

And when a British Columbian express concern about bearing the environmental risks of a pipeline while enjoying few of the economic benefits, I get that, too.

Which is why I’ve argued for years that pipeline boosters should stop disrespecting British Columbians for opposing the Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain Expansion projects. When you live on the West Coast, the relationship with the water and the land and the animals that inhabit them is different. That relationship must be respected.

Transition from oil to alternative fuels has begun

I have good news for West Coasters engaged in the pipeline debates specifically, and the energy debate generally: the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy technologies is underway.

As an energy journalist, I have interviewed dozens of experts – economists, engineers, utility executives, heck, even Big Oil CEOs – who all agree we’re probably five to 10 years into a 75 to 100-year process.

Even Big Oil now gets the energy transition. Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden recently gave a speech to the Norwegian Parliament in which he acknowledged the energy transition and outlined some of the challenges for the global economy, such as reducing emissions while energy demand continues to grow at staggering rates.

The all electric Chevy Bolt hits Canadian markets in 2017.
The all electric Chevy Bolt hits Canadian markets in 2017.

Tuesday’s announcement that the Chevy Bolt will get 238 miles (400 kms) to a charge is, according to the experts I interviewed for this column, more evidence that alt-fuel vehicle technology is finally ready to chug up the S-curve and radically change the way humans transport themselves and their goods.

So, then, what about the future of oil?

Petroleum will be with us for many decades yet. There are any number of reputable expert forecasts, including the International Energy Agency, making that argument.

Energy transitions are a process and they always play themselves out over a long period as technologies mature, consumer preferences change, and economies adapt.

But we can see the end of oil as a transportation fuel from here.

How does Kinder Morgan’s TMX pipeline fit into the energy transition?

In my opinion, the TMX pipeline is not a permanent installation. The eventual end of oil will make it redundant.

The standard model for technology diffusion. Clean energy technologies will follow similar processes over similar timelines.
The standard model for technology diffusion. Clean energy technologies will follow similar processes over similar timelines.

That may take 50 years, or maybe even a bit longer, but it will almost surely happen.

Which raises the quite reasonable question, one raised by many West Coasters, why build it in the first place?

Here’s the answer to that reasonable question: because during the better part of the transition, alternate fuels like electricity and hydrogen will compete with oil and gasoline for market share. Eventually, over time, if technologies continue to slowly improve as it appears they will, alt fuels will win out.

Oil and its fuel derivatives like jet fuel and gasoline will just fill niche markets, like cold weather applications.

But until then, the world needs oil.

And if Alberta can produce oil that competes on international markets, then it should be enabled to sell that product to its customers. Especially if producers are incentivized by a carbon tax and regulations to decarbonize oil sands bitumen.

To “take the carbon out of the barrel,” as industry puts it, a process that has begun in earnest thanks to aggressive climate mitigation policies recently adopted by Rachel Notley’s NDP government.

The economic benefits of selling Canadian oil to international customers are enormous. In fact, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that Canada needs the tax revenue generated by those sales to fund the energy transition.

And that is why I am asking my fellow British Columbians to consider supporting the Kinder Morgan project.

To weigh the very small medium-term risk of spills from the pipeline or oil tankers against the economic benefits.

Knowing that the pipeline is not forever. Knowing that the energy transition will eventually render oil redundant.

And knowing that during that transition we have to make compromises.

Renowned energy expert Vaclav Smil (Bill Gates’ favourite author) is fond of saying that energy revolutions arrive at a crawl.

While this energy transition slowly gathers speed, a little give and take with Alberta is not a bad thing. We’re all going to end up at the same destination eventually, and a compromise here and there may get us to the endgame faster.

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