Year in Ideas: How vital oil infrastructure became a villain in Canada – by Jen Gerson (National Post – December 27, 2012)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

In the first of a series on the most interesting ideas to emerge over the past year, the National Post’s Jen Gerson explores how pipelines became politically toxic.

For decades, pipelines were the invisible infrastructure, the veins that stretched across the continent to feed a North America ever-hungrier for energy and growth. Oil companies pulled crude from the ground and shipped it between refineries and wells with little comment.

A small leak was rarely noticed in the media, much less reported on. Then came Keystone XL, and the massive environmental campaign to stop the line from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. Then, everything changed.

Now opposition to pipelines has grown so intense that the completion of Northern Gateway, a line that would ship Alberta bitumen to the B.C. coast at Kitimat, is looking increasingly unlikely.

Some politicians — including B.C. premier Christy Clark and little-known Liberal leadership candidate Joyce Murray, a B.C. MP — have scored points with the public by playing to pipeline hysteria.

Anti-pipeline fears have also been stoked by the product they are meant to carry. Many lines carry conventional oil, but the new routes being proposed would cart diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands. Environmentalists have characterized the oilsands as a “carbon bomb” waiting to single-handedly unleash catastrophic climate change, a claim that is patently absurd.

Opposing oil pipelines is about as rational as taking a stand against highways, which is not to say pipeline safety is a topic that does not deserve scrutiny; nor have pipeline companies done themselves any favours, of late.

To sway public opinion, environmental activists cite figures suggesting hundreds of spills from pipelines per year. They’re not wrong.

Energy company Enbridge’s ability to build and operate a line through the sensitive northern British Columbia habitat has come under question after several spills and a scathing U.S. National Transportation Safety Board report.

Despite this, pipelines retain their record as one of the safest ways to transport oil, the companies contend.

Philippe Reicher, a spokesman for the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association said that in 2011, pipelines leaked 5.5 litres of liquid for every million litres transported. On average, pipeline companies transport 3.2 million barrels per day.

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