Bitumen Brainwashing

A tsunami of pipeline propaganda pushes false and misleading claims

Science Matters | by David Suzuki

An Angus Reid poll found 58 per cent of Canadians think that a lack of pipeline capacity is a national crisis. They can be forgiven for this. The company that owns a near-monopoly on newspapers in Canada, aided by politicians and fossil fuel interests, has put a lot of effort into convincing them.

That the number rises to 87 per cent in Alberta, with 96 per cent believing that not building new pipelines would have a major impact on the Canadian economy, isn’t surprising. All mainstream newspapers there are owned by the same company, political parties across the spectrum prioritize oil and gas interests over everything, and even educational institutions like the University of Calgary have been compromised by industry influence.

When the National Post signed a 2013 agreement with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, its publisher, Douglas Kelly, said, “We will work with CAPP to amplify our energy mandate and to be a part of the solution to keep Canada competitive in the global marketplace.

“The National Post will undertake to leverage all means editorially, technically and creatively to further this critical conversation,” said Kelly.

That agreement and similar language later extended to its parent company, Postmedia, which owns most major daily newspapers in Canada, as well as many community papers.

The National Post’s opinion pages are full of climate-science denial, with few opposing viewpoints. And the Alberta government has spent $23 million on a slick, misleading ad campaign to convince people B.C. is hurting the country by opposing a pipeline project from the oilsands to Vancouver.

Is lack of pipeline capacity a crisis? Are there not things that should concern us more?

Much of the information governments and media are spreading about pipelines is false. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley claims Canada is losing $80 million a day because of a “price discount” on Canadian bitumen that could be overcome with a pipeline to ship more to markets beyond the U.S. Her figure is double the estimate in a Scotiabank report that itself was found to be flawed.

There is no real “discount” on Canadian product, nor are there countries outside the U.S. clamouring for our bitumen. The lower price is because it’s costly to extract and process, and it must be diluted before being shipped by pipeline.

As Will Horter writes in the National Observer, new international marine shipping fuel standards limiting high-sulphur heavy crude are going to “shrink Alberta’s share of marine fuel market and add an additional two to three dollars a barrel in refining costs to remove the sulphur.”

Beyond that, the economic and societal costs from the pollution and climate impacts of rapidly digging up, shipping and consuming these fossil fuels — whether the end product is burned here or in other countries — continue to rise along with global emissions and temperatures. That’s a crisis!

An Insurance Bureau of Canada report found damages to homes, businesses and vehicles from extreme weather events in 2018 cost insurers here $1.9 billion, up from $300 to $400 million in 2009. That represents just a fraction of the overall costs to governments, businesses and individuals of extreme weather events, increasing health impacts, habitat damage and loss, cleanup of abandoned oil and gas wells, fluctuating global energy markets, food and water security, and even increasing refugee claims.

A study in Nature Communications concluded the world could meet Paris Agreement climate targets and slow impacts by immediately phasing out fossil fuels and their infrastructure. That’s in line with a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concluded we must take significant action over the next dozen years to reduce the threat of catastrophic global warming.

Phasing out fossil fuels won’t be easy, but it’s necessary, and we have to start now. There’s no shortage of solutions. Clean energy technologies are improving as costs are dropping, providing economic and employment opportunities. Carbon pricing is a proven tool for reducing reliance on coal, oil and gas, and encouraging energy conservation, efficiency and cleaner alternatives.

What won’t help is continuing to dig up, frack and sell climate-disrupting fossil fuels as quickly as possible before markets tank in the face of climate change and better alternatives. Those in media, government, industry and society who lack the insight, imagination or courage to recognize our plight and work for change are putting everyone at risk.

With contributions from Ian Hanington. Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.