There are countless little brooks and rivulets garlanding the islands and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest in remote northern British Columbia, many without even a name. But the salmon know them well, and return each September, paddling relentlessly against the current, leaping over rocks and little waterfalls, shedding their skin and dying from the outside in to give life to another generation.
Because salmon are the keystone to this ecosystem’s food chain, many never make it back to their birthplaces to spawn. At this time of year, the banks of the streams are littered with salmon carcasses and splayed guts like the remains of some grisly bacchanal. Many are tidily decapitated and otherwise fully intact, because the local wolf packs feed only on the heads.
Later in the month, the black bears come, accompanied by a few of their elusive cousins, the kermodes, born with a recessive gene that leaves their coats a ghostly pale yellow. The locals call them spirit bears. Salmon give life to this lush band of forest stretching from Prince Rupert to the north shore of Vancouver Island, the largest pristine ecosystem of its kind left in North America. But the spirit bears are the icons: August’s National Geographic cover featured one, with the headline “The Wildest Place in North America.”
That wild place is set to become the front line of a battle over Canada's energy future.
At the beginning of 2010, the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency formed a Joint Review Panel to consider an application made by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. for permission to snake a pair of oil pipelines 1,172 kilometres from the oil sands north of Edmonton to the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. Traversing the territories of more than 40 first nations, both pipelines would end at a new terminal in Kitimat, a small industrial town.
One pipeline would carry Alberta-mined bitumen to Kitimat for international shipping; the other would deliver condensate (needed to make bitumen viscous enough to flow through pipelines) back to Alberta. Transporting the product out of Kitimat would generate oil-tanker traffic of unprecedented frequency and scale.
Enbridge calls the project Northern Gateway, promising jobs, prosperity and expanded markets. Opponents, including nearly all of the first nations along its intended route, see it as an oil-spill catastrophe waiting to happen. Yet while pipelines are fast emerging as a flashpoint in the climate-change debate, so far the argument has been muted in Canada – a symptom of our conflicted feelings about the role our energy resources should play in our national destiny.
Oil pipelines are making headlines as never before. An all-star roster of climate-change activists staged a sit-in at the White House in the last two weeks of August over a pending State Department decision on the Keystone XL – a proposed expansion of an existing pipeline bringing oil from central Alberta to Texas refineries. More than 1,000 people were arrested, including climate scientist James Hansen, actress Daryl Hannah and authors Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein.
Nine Nobel Peace Prize winners signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to say no to the Keystone project, arguing that the pipeline would “endanger the entire planet.” If unconventional fossil fuels such as Alberta's bitumen were allowed to proliferate, Mr. Hansen said, it would be “essentially game over” in the fight to stabilize climate.
Meanwhile, politicians and industry leaders have been speaking another language entirely. Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged the U.S. to increase its oil imports “from the most secure, most stable and friendliest location it can possibly get that energy,” while Canada's ambassador in Washington talked up job creation. A spokesman for TransCanada Pipelines touted the “conflict-free” pedigree of Alberta's hydrocarbons.
The main dispute is about the dirtiness of Alberta's oil. Is it simply 700,000 barrels a day of petroleum like any other, delivered by a trusted friend? Or a singularly deadly “carbon bomb” (as Mr. McKibben has put it)?
Mr. Hansen argued that a fully exploited oil-sands operation could add 200 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere. Andrew Leach, a business professor at the University of Alberta, crunched the numbers and determined that even at five million barrels a day – among the rosiest scenarios for Alberta production by 2030 and more than triple its current output – it would take until the year 3316 to reach Mr. Hansen's prediction. As Mr. Leach pointed out, advocates and opponents are using different kinds of calculations to yield the figures that serve them best.
This split on numbers reflects a much deeper division: To proponents, new pipelines are a matter of job creation and energy demand. To climate activists, the focus is on emissions and the long-term health of the planet. As Mr. McKibben wrote recently, “We're fighting back against the rise of this new energy paradigm, and this is the clearest place to make the fight.”
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