The government must listen to Canadians on the Keystone XL pipeline

September 23, 2011

WINNIPEG, MB, Sept. 23, 2011/Troy Media/ – It has been hard to open a newspaper lately without seeing an article about the Keystone XL pipeline. From environmentalist actors on one side, to provincial premiers on the other, people are arguing passionately for and against the plan to build a 3,500-kilometre pipeline that will transport 700,000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, before being shipped to market around the world.

Thus far, the Government of Canada has come down solidly in support of the project. Federal officials tout the construction of this pipeline as a means to provide long-term continental energy security and give a $20 billion boost to the economy. Gary Doer, Canada’s ambassador to the United States, has been promoting the project to Americans for months, while Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has also jetted down to Washington to meet with prominent figures and trumpet the benefits to America of a pipeline linking our two nations – including over 20,000 construction and manufacturing positions. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper expressed his strong belief that approval for the pipeline should be a ‘no-brainer’ for the Obama administration, because ‘the number of jobs that would be created on both sides of the border is simply enormous’.

Is pipeline actually a ‘jobs killer’?

While environmentalists and native groups continue to express concern over the potential environmental impact of the pipeline, Canada’s leaders have held firm to the position that the overall benefits are worth the risk. With the global economy in an ongoing state of fragility, this pipeline is assured to bring jobs and prosperity to the citizens of Canada and the United States.

At least, that is what we were told up until this week.

On Thursday, however, representatives from our country’s largest energy workers association, the Communications, Energy, and Paperworks Union (CEP), went to Ottawa to inform MPs their organization opposes the project. According to union president Dave Coles, the pipeline is actually a ‘jobs killer’ in Canada because it will carry untreated crude to American refineries instead of having the resource turned into fuel and chemicals here. In fact, he cited a new study that estimates Canada will lose 40,500 direct and indirect jobs because of the increased export of raw bitumen.

Interestingly, a number of industry observers have made this argument before. Recklessly uninhibited expansion of the oil sands, they claim, created a dangerously overheated Albertan economy, with construction costs so high that energy companies built only what was necessary to get the oil out of the ground and down to U.S. refineries. Effectively, Canadians got short-term construction booms while the long-term, well-paying refining jobs went south.

This latest opposition by the CEP, representing 35,000 employees in the energy sector, should give the government pause on the direction of oil sands development. Specifically, our elected representatives should ensure they are not confusing the ends and the means of energy production. The purpose of oil extraction is not to extract oil; it is to provide livelihoods and prosperity for the people of this country. Proponents of Keystone XL argue that Americans need our ‘ethical’ oil to avoid having to purchase petroleum from countries where women are abused and democracy ignored; and of course, selling our energy supplies on the international market does bring currency into Canada. But the resource is no good to U.S. consumers until it is refined, so why are we not pushing harder for greater value-added production here, in order to benefit from the long-term employment opportunities and the ability to sell a refined commodity at a higher price?

By law, energy supplies belong to the citizens of the province in which they lie. Alberta’s oil sands development should therefore be done in a way that most benefits current and future Albertans (which, it should be noted, may mean leaving the resource in the ground because the environmental and social costs of extraction are just too high). When the people of the province no longer believe the production of their resources is being done in an advantageous manner, it is time for a reevaluation of the future of the industry.

The claim that the Keystone XL project will bring thousands of new jobs has been contested, and those directly affected by developments in the oil patch are speaking out in opposition. It is thus time for government officials to stop their uncritical promotion of this pipeline and listen to the concerns of constituents, in order to do what they were ultimately elected to do – put the interests of Canadians first.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy.  He works as a downtown development consultant in Winnipeg.