Water, And The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner

Oil companies refuse to put water first. Learn how Canada is dealing with pipeline issues.

By Judith Stapleton

water pipeline

Well, here we are at Nero’s last dinner party and we have a fabulous view of the fire! Just recently added to the conflagration is the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which runs from the tar sands of Alberta to the community of Burnaby, British Columbia, and out to beautiful Burrard Inlet, the shallow-sided coastal fjord that defines the city of Vancouver.

This is the body of water that makes Vancouver one of the most livable cities in the world, and where you will see tug boats and log booms, kayakers and paddle boarders, swimmers and wind surfers, small craft and yachts, and other cargo container ships that come and go daily.

But we at the dinner table have to ask, “In whose world could approval of this expansion make sense?”

The Canadian National Energy Board refused to examine the project’s impacts on climate change beyond direct CO2 and methane gas emissions, and declined to even consider the latest research on the extraordinary risks and liabilities associated with spills of diluted bitumen. Of course, if you don’t do the research, then you can’t be held to its standards. It’s not in your bailiwick.

Texas Kinder Morgan is presently carrying $43 billion worth of debt, and oil prices are in free-fall, yet it has NEB approval to twin its pipeline, and increase its capacity from 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day. Who among us would want the NEB managing our family budget?

Expansion would encourage a doubling of oil sands production, from 2.4 million barrels a day to 4.8 million barrels a day by 2040. “I beg your pardon! What did you just say?”

As a result of this project, oil tanker traffic along the B.C. coast would increase from four or five a month to 34. The Vanterm Port in Burrard Inlet would be the filling station, and the bitumen would travel through some of the most densely populated parts of the province. To date, the best science concludes that there is no established or competent method for cleaning up diluted bitumen once it has been spilled in any aquatic environment. The tar sands produce among the world’s most costly and water-wasting oil, and are already the largest source of greenhouse gases in Canada.

The International Energy Agency says in its latest Oil Market Report that, “There is currently little evidence to suggest that economic activity is sufficiently robust to deliver higher oil demand growth.”

We put down our forks for a moment to ask, “Could this possibly be a trend? What’s OPEC doing lately?”

Many communities oppose the project, including the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby. Two people at the end of my side of the table are overheard to ask, “What’s that thing we say about doing something in your own nest?”

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) noted that, “The issues raised by the Trans Mountain Pipeline proposal are among the most controversial in the country, perhaps in the world, today: the rights of Indigenous peoples, the future of fossil fuel development in the face of climate change, and the health of a marine environment already burdened by a century of cumulative effects.”

A little distracted by the strains of Nero’s playing, Dr. Pangloss, at the other end of the table, pipes up. “Hang on a minute, you gloomy diners, you’re spoiling the entré! Surely Science will figure out how to fix the environment, no matter what the oil barons do!”

Let’s consider Tobias Friedrich’s article, published in the November 9, 2016 issue of the Journal of Science Advances.

Warm air holds more water, and the clouds holding that water are getting taller and moving towards the poles. This is unusual. Using estimates of warming over the next 85 years, the study concludes that, under business-as-usual human- induced green-house gas warming, by the year 2100 the earth will likely be 5.9 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.

Someone at the table drops a glass.

Dr. Pangloss is clearly stunned. “You mean,” he stutters, “that a child born today would see the earth get close to that limit, in her lifetime?”

There is widespread agreement in the scientific community that civilization as we know it could not exist in a climate at that level. And renown scientist James Hansen of Columbia University has said in an op ed for the New York Times: If Canadians continue to develop the tar sands, then it is essentially Game Over.

This is the context in which the young Canadian Prime Minister, father of three, has authorized the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline.

The bitumen it carries will go to China and India where it would be refined, and burned, obviously.

“What,” the dinner guests are now asking, “happened to the vision of Canada as a moral leader?”

“When,” says an indignant yet injured voice, “did it stop seeing itself as a beacon for justice in the world?”

“What about the Paris Agreement? Didn’t that commit Canada to certain targets, albeit rather low targets, set by the previous government?”

When Steven Harper was Canada’s Prime Minister—and one of the world’s leading climate obstructionists, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party roundly criticized him for proselytizing such pathetically low targets.

So it is remarkable that, today, as Prime Minister himself, Justin Trudeau is now telling the world that, “Canada is back!” “Canada is a moral leader!” “Canada is going to confront the climate crisis seriously, and responsibly!”

No one at the table can reconcile these inconsistent claims and behaviour.

But several of the guests admit, quietly, that they recently attended the protest against the Kinder Morgan expansion outside the Vancouver CBC headquarters, where there was a polite but passionate crowd.

As the servants exchange the main course plates and silverware for the dessert course, some of the guests begin to feel quite uncomfortable in view of the spreading conflagration outside across the harbour, the orange flames seeming to expand as they are reflected in the water, where several ships spark and flare before sinking under the surface.

Nero plays on.

In the small but historically significant community of Standing Rock, North Dakota, another pipeline threatens another body of water, Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. It is a critical threat to the water supply for eighteen million people and the largest agricultural area on the planet.

The United States Army Corps of Engineers has the final authority for any construction of any kind near any water on public lands. Their bailiwick is within six miles of said body of water. They have not signed off on pipeline construction.

The National Environmental Act, which was the first (1971) environmental policy legislation in the U.S., requires that before anyone can get a federal permit to change the value or the use of public lands or “the commons,” an environmental assessment and impact statement (cost/benefit analysis) must be completed.

The XL pipeline had such an assessment done. It did not pass, and it is not getting built. Fear of such an outcome must be the motivating factor in Energy Transfer Partners’ failure to submit to this process for the Dakota Pipeline.

And that fear is not surprising. This pipeline crosses and disrupts 209 streams and grave sites and Sioux cultural territory— given to the Lakota, Oglala, Arapaho, and other tribes in the Treaty of Laramie negotiated by General William T. Sherman in 1868. Later, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, violations of this land became common, and often violent.

Today, there are over 300 tribal groups massed on this site in protest against the pipe-line construction, which continues despite its lack of legal authorizations. It is the largest, peaceful assembly of Native Americans in a hundred years.

Robert Kennedy Jr., president of the Water Keepers Alliance, has reported from the site in a number of media about the profound recognition in this convocation that they are doing something not just for Native People, but for American people and for all humanity. They are standing up, at Standing Rock, for the rights of all species to clean water and an environment unpolluted by the carbon that is going to contribute substantially to the destruction of civilization and the planet.

“—There is no argument on the side of American energy independence: this crude oil is going to China. There is no argument on the side of national security: which does the Pentagon believe is the greater threat to national security—ISIS, to which we are devoting vast resources, or global warming, to which we are devoting very few? There is no argument on the side of Jobs: like the XL, this pipeline might produce 30 –40 jobs. That is all.”

The National Security Agency and the Pentagon have already answered these questions in a comprehensive report, which concluded that the biggest threat to civilization and to American security is climate change.

In the wake of Kennedy’s analysis, the guests at the table fall silent. Nobody knows what to say. The heat from the fire is now palpable, and may have slightly stretched the strings on Nero’s instrument, causing the notes to oscillate wildly, changing the tone of the music. Beads of moisture appear on the Emperor’s upper lip, but he is undeterred.

The moral imperative to protect water and its environment moved the United Nations to resolve, in 2010, that clean drinking water is a human right, being “essential for the full enjoyment of the right to life.”

A weekend warrior, sitting mid -table, speaks up from behind the candelabra and f lower arrangement. “Well, I’m certainly glad I live in Canada, where we have thousands of freshwater lakes, and the rivers are so clear you can see the rainbows on the trout!” Some guests are clearly relieved to hear this good news.

However, unlike most other industrial countries, Canada actually has no national standards for drinking water, which is one key reason there are 163 Drinking Water Advisories for First Nations communities alone.

In British Columbia, in 2014, the Mount Polly Mine’s tailings pond collapsed—a catastrophe that released 24 billion litres of mineral waste, including arsenic and selenium, into the creeks and streams that lead into the pristine waters of Quesnel Lake—the source of drinking water for the local community and a major sockeye salmon spawning ground. Mine safety experts and media articles have called the spill one of the biggest environmental disasters in modern Canadian history. British Columbia’s government initially insisted the dam failure was not an environmental disaster.

No Canadian has devoted more effort to making research into Canada’s water available to the public than Maude Barlow. She is worried about fracking. It uses more than seven billion litres of water in British Columbia alone, and is responsible for a notable increase in earthquakes in the province.

If fracking increases, as planned under the provincial Liberal government, Barlow predicts the water needed to blast the gas out of the shale rock “will increase 500 percent or more.”

The bottled water industry in B.C. pays virtually nothing for our water, but it is not only the western-most province being bilked. Nestlé pays Ontario $2.25/million litres for its water in the rural town of Elora.

The threats to water north of the 49th parallel are endless. Problems associated with the Site C Dam, new mines, the clear-cutting of forests and excessive logging are all impacting sources of clean water. Raw sewage is still dumped into lakes and oceans. And then there is the peril from drought, and the forest fires that follow. The droughts in California, Oregon, Washington State, and B.C. are all the consequence of global warming, which is going to get worse over the next decade.

Renown ecologist, William Rees (“environmental footprint” mapper), makes a persuasive argument that government off icials who ignore their duty to protect the well-being of their citizens may be guilty of criminal negligence. He cites Section 219 of the Criminal Code, which states that,“lack of intent to harm is no defence if the damage results from conscious acts performed in careless disregard for others.” Peter G. Prontzos cites this argument in his Vancouver Sun article discussing Barlow’s newest book, Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis.

No one at the table is interested in dessert. In fact, several women have been sick behind their chairs. Four men have fainted, either from the heat or from the smoking bricks of facts that have sucked all the oxygen out of the room.

To the meandering strains of Nero’s f iddle, as the city and everything around it burns, one elderly man stands as erect as he can, and begins torecite a long poem—long enough to push aside his thoughts of pending death. It is Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

“…Water, water everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink…”

Publisher’s Note: Judith Stapleton is a writer in the fields of science and medicine.