While climate change is likely our world’s greatest threat, pipelines are not at the crux of the problem, and protesting their construction is not a solution to alleviating climate change.
Oil is mined or pumped from underground. After being extracted and sometimes upgraded, oil is then transported via rail or pipeline to a refinery, where it is refined into various products ready for consumer use.
Pipelines are a conduit in this cycle. They’re also somewhat replaceable. Without them, crude-by-rail has grown exponentially over the last decade, as a lack of pipeline infrastructure has led to increased rail infrastructure. Companies like CN Rail and Canadian Pacific Railway have thrived as they continue to carry increasing amounts of oil.
In other words, whatever does not get transported by pipeline will eventually get transported by rail, and crude-by-rail carries many of the same risks as transportation by pipeline — spills often occur. In order for pipeline protesters to achieve their goal of ceasing oil spillage entirely, they ought to successfully block locomotive travel — and for that matter, oil tanker trucks and ships — in addition to pipeline construction, which is clearly not a sensible solution.
But even more important is the demand for oil that triggers its transportation in the first place. We should really be lying down on runways to protest air travel, or blockading major intersections to protest driving gas-fueled vehicles. If we weren’t so reliant on oil for our day-to-day activities, there would be no need for Suncor to pump oil out of the ground, and no need for Kinder Morgan to transport it.
To cease oil spillage altogether, protesters must successfully block all other forms of oil transportation.
So how can society advance into a greener future? Given the capitalist framework of our modern world, the private sector needs to be the engine of this electric car, and the government its driver.
Socially conscious consumers are a minority. We therefore need a renewable energy source which is less expensive than fossil fuels and which people will actually use. In order for this to happen, we need more capital to invest into research on the development and infrastructure of a clean energy system. Such a system can then expand, and will cost less to produce and consume. This can occur through government subsidies and creating investor-oriented tax incentives for clean energy, in addition to organizations taking it upon themselves to invest directly in clean energy companies.
For many developing nations, oil is cheaper than investing in clean energy; it may seem unfair for these nations to forego economic prosperity in the name of preventing climate change. However, as clean energy technology improves and becomes cheaper, and as the price of oil trends ever upwards, it may be economical even in the short-term for these nations to to invest in renewables over oilfields.
In North America, two excellent examples of clean energy advancement have come from the least likely of people. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund recently replaced about $50 billion of its oil and gas holdings with clean energy investments, and back in 2013 Stephen Harper gave big Canadian oil and gas companies $400 million to subsidize development in wind, biofuels, and carbon capture storage technology.
This is the type of activity that will lead to a renewable-energy world. Rather than blockading pipeline construction in an ineffective attempt to reduce the flow of fossil fuels that we ourselves demand, we should be looking for proactive strategies to help our population seamlessly transition from fossil fuels to clean energy without drastically hampering economic activity. The science behind renewable energy is nearly there; now it’s all about the financial capital.