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The bitumen pipeline: brains or no brains?

The president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents many of Alberta's oilpatch workers, is in Ottawa this week lobbying MPs to oppose the Keystone XL bitumen pipeline.

The president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents many of Alberta’s oilpatch workers, is in Ottawa this week lobbying MPs to oppose the Keystone XL bitumen pipeline. Why would tarsands miners resist this massive export of the very material they produce?

The answer is that the pipeline will export not only bitumen, but jobs. At present, once the tarry stuff is stripped from the sands, it’s processed in Alberta and exported as oil. But there is not nearly enough refinery capacity there for the massive expansion in tarsands production that’s planned for the near future. Nor does anyone intend to build more. Enter the pipeline, which will carry raw bitumen to be refined in Texas.

It’s easy enough to see why the oil companies would prefer to build the pipeline, rather than invest in new refining capacity in Canada. They are, after all, American companies. And by limiting the number of refineries, they are better able to consolidate power and control prices. Not to mention that Texas is on the Gulf of Mexico, while Alberta is landlocked. Harder to explain is why the Canadian government would be such a strong advocate for the project. What exactly does Canada stand to gain?

The pipeline will provide the means by which we can export vast quantities of bitumen, but at what benefit? We subsidize the tarsands producers to the tune of $1.5 billion a year, ostensibly because they create jobs. Why would Canada subsidize jobs in Texas?

According to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, approval for the bitumen pipeline should be “a complete no-brainer,” given that the “number of jobs that would be created on both sides of the border is simply enormous.” How is it that the union sees jobs fleeing the country, while Harper sees an enormous number of new jobs? Somebody is fudging the figures.

Consider Harper’s vision for a moment. There are an estimated 150 billion barrels of bitumen in the tarsands. Keystone could transport 900,000 barrels a day. By forgoing the right to process the bitumen here in Canada, we can ramp up the pace at which we stripmine the stuff from the boreal forest. So, a lot of jobs that might not have come along for years will be available now. By trading off the jobs that come with refining at home, we gain a lot more extraction jobs that might otherwise have gone to our children.

Here is where the science of Conservative economics excels: in the art of ripping off future generations. Maximize growth and profits, minimize taxes and regulation, get it all happening as quickly as possible, to hell with tomorrow. It’s one giant motorhome charging down the road, its a bumper sticker proudly proclaiming, “We’re spending our kids’ inheritance.”

Tarsands mining in Canada began as a pilot project, aimed at finding more sustainable methods of extracting oil from bitumen. Without actually discovering any such method, we’ve charged ahead with massive new tarsands projects, and hang the consequences. Polluted rivers? Giant toxic tailings ponds? Outbreaks of cancer? Global warming? So? Have you seen the profit margins?

The most curious thing about this drunken-sailor, can’t-take-it-with-you, devil-take-tomorrow approach is that it has somehow attached itself to the name “conservative,” while conserving nothing except corporate wealth and power and the myth that this constitutes a healthy economy.

If we were to go slow on development, there would be fewer jobs in the tarsands today, though with a little more imagination about how we distribute subsidies we could be creating jobs in energy conservation and alternative energy instead. In the meantime, who knows? Science may yet come up with a more sustainable way to use oil, and a less destructive way to extract bitumen from the tarsands. In the meantime, what’s the rush?

When Harper describes the pipeline as a no-brainer, he means to suggest that it’s such an obvious winner there should be no need to think it over. Mr. Prime Minister, this is a very large project, with broad implications for the economy and the environment. It’s the kind of thing people usually reflect upon before leaping in. Time to reconsider. And this time, please, apply brains.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.