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What have the Romans ever done for us?

One of my favorite scenes in Monty Python’s Life of Brian begins with the question posed by the leader of a group of militants intent on ending Roman rule in Judea (played by John Cleese): “What have the Romans ever done for us?” he yells.

Instead of unified voice “nothing,” one person says “the aqueduct.” “Oh yeah. . . . They did give us that. That’s true. Yeah,” says Cleese.

Other voices ring out with other good things the Romans did, leaving the head militant to growl: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health . . . what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Now that the federal government has effectively approved the Enbridge/Northern Gateway pipeline that will pipe oil sands bitumen through British Columbia to oil tankers destined for Asia, I’m wondering if many British Columbians are having the same kind of discussions.

Imagine someone (sounding a little like John Cleese) saying: “What has Alberta oil ever done for Canada?” “Big paying union jobs,” says one person. “Tax revenues to support our social services,” says another. “More clout on the international stage,” says another. “A higher dollar,” yells yet another. “Gasoline for my car so I can drive to work and take my kids to hockey.” “Fuel for aircraft so we can fly around the world.” “Diesel for farming equipment.” “A stable supply of oil that doesn’t come from a theocracy that tortures and kills people.” “A good return on my RRSP.” “Fuel for electric generators in remote areas.” “Plastics and other by-products,” etc.

“All right, all right, but other than all that, what has Alberta oil ever done for us?”

It’s about to get ugly in B.C. People will be lying in front of bulldozers to prevent construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Indeed, on June 19, the Vancouver Sun ran a story that Stanley Park could become a training ground for civil disobedience, spearheaded by ForestEthics Advocacy, a group that will train citizens in civil disobedience tactics (lessons on the rule of law and parliamentary democracy don’t appear to be offered by the group).

ForestEthics Advocacy isn’t the only environmental group ramping up to train people to lie in front of bulldozers. I predict it will become a cottage industry in B.C. As well, the courtrooms will be filled with opponents of all pipelines (despite the fact a pipeline has existed between Edmonton and Burnaby since 1953). One wonders what British Columbia would do if Alberta simply shut off all oil to B.C. for six or seven weeks just to show us what happens to a province without oil.

There are cool heads in this debate, like former Liberal leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay, who said in The Globe and Mail  this week, “you can’t always say no to nation-building,” rhetorically asking what if we had, as a nation, rejected the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the Trans-Canada Highway, the St. Lawrence Seaway, the TransCanada pipeline, Churchill Falls, and the James Bay power projects — all of which had environmental consequences.

It’s a highly contentious issue, and opinion in B.C. is very much divided. Indeed, former NDP premier-apparent Adrian Dix was soundly defeated in the last B.C. election because he was against pipelines. So politicians who agree with no-compromise environmentalists do so at their peril.

And without being an engineer, maybe Kitimat is the wrong place for a bitumen terminal, and maybe bitumen is the wrong fuel to ship by ocean tanker given that it doesn’t evaporate if there’s a spill. If a B.C. ferry like the Queen of the North can ram smack into an island at 17 knots in the middle of the night because the person driving the ship may have been squabbling with his deck mate (and former girlfriend), any accident can happen.

My old legal colleague Calvin Helin is now CEO of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., and suggests a pipeline that moves Alberta oil to the B.C. coast would be more palatable if there was an upgrader to refine the bitumen to a lighter more conventional product like gasoline or diesel; a proposal that has been endorsed by at least two B.C. aboriginal communities. Whether it’s located in western Alberta or Eastern B.C., there is a credible argument that we should be refining this product in Canada and giving jobs to Canadians.

Indeed, Victoria businessman David Black is planning to build a refinery in Kitimat that would convert the heavy bitumen into other fuels that would evaporate if spilled in the water. He has found an unlikely supporter in Oak Bay Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver (I can hear the environmentalists screaming at Weaver, (just like in the Life of Brian) “SPLITTER!”)

Weaver has effectively supported Black’s proposal for a refinery in Kitimat or even in Alberta. As reported in the Victoria Times Colonist, he has said: “I’m pragmatic and I recognize at some point one may need to develop a compromise and a compromise solution is one that would actually give jobs in B.C.

“I like to think the Green Party as a science-based, evidence-based common sense party. . . . It’s a party that realizes that we need gasoline in our cars but we also need to have a strategy to wean ourselves off that.”

I agree with Weaver. As with all l tough decisions, practical people have to compromise their positions for the public good, taking account of public opinion. You can’t say no to nation building. You can’t stop all industrial projects. But maybe we can make them less harmful.

It may be that David Black and Calvin Helin’s solutions each offer a measured and thoughtful compromise that may well satisfy many of the concerns of the environmentalists and First Nations.

I suppose that won’t do anything to change the opinions of people who still believe they should lie down in front of bulldozers and the Alberta Oil Sands are unethical and the product of the devil (despite filling their tanks with gasoline from Iraq and Saudi Arabia).

But these other alternatives may sway public opinion and assist with alleviating the environmental concerns of all of us who still drive our cars to work, fly to Mexico and Hawaii, use computers, iPhones, and other products made with plastic, and consume foods harvested using diesel-powered heavy equipment until engineers and technologists can come up with something else so that we don’t have to live in the stone age.

  • For Better or Worse

    Albin Foro
    This isn't going to be decided by BC, Alberta or Canada. The fact is that Alberta sprouting pipelines in every direction like nosehairs will not solve the main problem, that every continent in the whole world has frackable oil reserves that make its tar / bitumen uneconomical. Canada's best export will be expert people to help those countries develop their own resources, rather than pricy and messy tar exports from the eco-mess Alberta has made of its north.

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