Opinion: A cultural deficit hinders pipeline expansions
Gas and oil lines must be viewed as more than ribbons of steel
Unlike other forms of transportation, the movement of oil and gas by pipeline has no magic about it, no glamor. It’s all mind, no heart, and that helps to explain why new pipeline projects are facing so much opposition these days. And it’s not going to get any better unless the companies that build pipelines learn a few tricks to help them get more heart and less mind.
Here’s how that could happen:
Think about other means of transportation whether by plane, by boat, by trucks on the road or by rail. Each and every one of them has some glamor attached, some image for the public that goes well beyond the every day mundane tasks of moving stuff around.
Much of this glamor comes from the pictures, the songs, the books and the poems that we’ve grown to know over the years that set these transporters apart from our dreary pipelines. Think of images of ocean liners cutting gently through the waves while the black-tied passengers gaily dance the night away. Think of exotic railway lines like the Orient Express taking customers in comfort through the steppes of Asia. Think of the thrill of the classic airliners’ latest models with names like Super Constel-lation and today’s Dreamliner. And for the highways, you have the Greyhound and its Americruiser bus – all glamor, all elegance and comfort and it is all just waiting for you.
“Fly me to the Moon”, sings Frank Sinatra while Gordon Lightfoot takes us back to relive the history of our Canadian railroads with his long-famous trilogy. Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans” tells of the excitement of crossing the darkened land by train. And not just the songs – we all grew up with a wealth of stories and writings, going as far back as the boat-borne travels of Herodotus some 400 years before Christ; the self-discovery possibilities offered by Jack Kerouac’s open road, and Mark Twain’s Mississippi River adventures.
To be fair, some of this glamor continues to exist only in our memories but, even there, it holds a promise that pipelines simply can’t begin to match. But while they have all the stories, the songs, and the glamor, all of these other means of transportation are also going through many of the same challenges faced by pipelines today. TransCanada’s mainline natural gas conduit is seeing its costs go up as Alberta-sourced throughput declines. You know that the ever-increasing tolls will soon see shale gas from Pennsylvania replace Alberta gas in the Ontario market.
Similarly, our rail transport costs go up as the Americans, our most important bilateral traders, envious of the shorter distances our ships need to travel from Kitimat and Prince Rupert, British Columbia to China, and the consequent loss of their West Coast ports’ throughput, seek to impose a $450 container fee on shipments of Canadian railcars going into the United States.
Canadian producers and pipeline companies know all too well the efforts of Americans to limit access of Alberta bitumen to U.S. markets with both California Congressman Henry Waxman’s section 526 prohibition on our bitumen for the military and his border adjustment mechanism making that product less competitive. This effort is similar to the environmental challenges faced by the airlines as the European Union (EU) attempts to impose a carbon fee on all non-EU planes landing in and taking off from European airports.
So, all these transportation industries share some pain. But the really big challenge for the pipes, the one unique to them and the one we’re seeing in the long-delayed Mackenzie Gas Project, the uncertain Northern Gateway and the super-charged Keystone XL, is one of access, of being allowed to build across the land. And here is the crux of the issue – the rails, the planes, the ships all face similar challenges to the pipelines, especially where new roads, rail lines, ports or airport expansions are concerned. But they face them with a reservoir of goodwill that the pipes simply don’t have. And I’d argue that the pipes don’t have it because they don’t have the songs or the stories.
What all these songs have told us over the years, what all the stories have offered, is simply this: these open roads, these far-flung airline destinations, this call of the sea, are all there for each and every one of us. We can go where they go, seeking whatever economic gain, literary thrill, glamor or adventure we want to pursue. We can use this stuff. And so, opposition is tempered.
Pipelines don’t offer that (although Enbridge Inc. has been trying with CEO Pat Daniel describing Northern Gateway of late as a “nation-building” project.) There are two major road projects underway – projects that one can argue are just as environmentally intrusive as building pipelines – that show how this works.
The Mackenzie Gas Project went through a long, overly thorough environmental review and faced many challengers. Yet the proposed Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk highway that would be built over some of the same territory is an almost foregone conclusion with few, if any, opponents. TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL pipeline is facing concerted challenges, particularly in Nebraska, and its future is uncertain. At the same time, the state is considering an expansion of the Heartland Expressway (get the name?) that will see some 320 kilometers of new road construction. Guess what? Only two environmental sessions are planned for that project.
So what is the moral of this story for the oil and gas industry? The moral is pipelines have steel, gas, oil, and markets. But in order to gain public acceptance they need to be seen as more than ribbons of steel. And for that to happen, they need some glamor, some romance and some songs.