Brian Lee CrowleyMore measures to assuage environmental activists over pipelines are on the way. But pretty soon, writes Brian Lee Crowley in the Ottawa Citizen, politicians are going to have to face a hard choice between pipelines and activists.

By Brian Lee Crowley, Jan. 29, 2016

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume said it best: reason is, and ought only to be, a slave to the passions.

If you’ve ever tried to reason yourself into a feeling (“I really ought to love Mr. X, or Wagner operas, or pickled herring”), you’ll know that for the vast majority of humanity it is a vain enterprise. That’s because feelings don’t come from reason and the mind. They come from emotions and the heart. Hume’s point was that reason doesn’t tell us what to want, only how to get it.

You may be surprised to learn that this matters where oil pipelines are concerned.

Ottawa has announced it intends to expand the factors regulators consider when weighing whether to approve new pipelines, such as Kinder-Morgan, Energy East and others. Henceforth the National Energy Board, for example, when considering pipelines will be called upon to assess the contribution of upstream operations to greenhouse gas emissions in addition to things like design, safety, environmental impact, and conformity with legal requirements like consulting and accommodating affected Aboriginal communities.

Opposition to notoriously resistant to reason and evidence.

That’s perfectly reasonable. The issue of climate change caused by human activities is a huge one and has spawned significant public opposition within Canada to our petroleum industry and to the pipeline infrastructure needed to gets its products to market. The problem, however, is that our whole regulatory process for pipeline approval is based on reason, on a thoughtful attempt to design a process that examines objective evidence dispassionately. When that weighing of the evidence shows that pipelines meet the tests established by legislators and regulators, those pipelines are approved.

Opposition to pipelines, however, is notoriously resistant to reason and evidence. The US State department conducted numerous environmental reviews of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring Alberta and US crude to the US Gulf Coast. Those reviews included looking at the impact of KXL on greenhouse gas emissions. Every one of these reasoned evidence-based reviews said that KXL’s impact would be negligible and that this was not a ground to refuse the presidential permit TransCanada Pipeline needed to build the project.

But the pipeline opponents didn’t care about the evidence. They believed that they were eco-warriors fighting for “climate justice.” President Obama bowed to their unreasoning opposition to pipelines when he turned down KXL.

Here in Canada, in an attempt to mute the opposition of environmental groups to pipelines to the east and west coast, Alberta’s NDP government negotiated a deal with some of the oilpatch and several environmental groups that would cap the GHG emissions of the oilsands and raise already high environmental standards even higher.

At some point our politicians are going to confront the hard truth that there are no process fixes that will satisfy pipeline opponents

This strategy of making reasoned process changes to win over opponents has already failed. On the west coast the opposition to the KinderMorgan pipeline to Burnaby is only getting noisier, while the federal Liberals themselves are trying to kill the Northern Gateway project indirectly by legislating an oil tanker ban in northern BC waters.  In Montreal all the local mayors have come out in opposition to Energy East. On the day Ottawa announced its new regulatory measures over 70 NGOs wrote the prime minister and premiers to oppose any new pipelines.

Toughened process requirements cannot satisfy pipeline opponents or even cause them to be less vociferous in their attacks because they believe that any process that approves pipelines is itself vicious and flawed and they are willing to toss democracy, the rule of law and balanced treatment of conflicting interests on the trash heap to achieve their aims.

At some point our politicians are going to confront the hard truth that there are no process fixes that will satisfy pipeline opponents; they believe pipelines are bad and the approval process a weapon to be commandeered in the struggle against them. There is no compromise that will win their assent. Then our leaders will have to make choices about whose side they’re on. It won’t be pretty.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.