March 01, 2007

One Must Choose Between Money or Life

One must choose between money or life
When it comes to Irving's new refinery, it's one or the other.

By Chris Arsenault
Published Thursday March 1st, 2007

As plans for a new $7 billion oil refinery in Saint John develop, the cards are being dealt for a major show-down between short-term economic growth and long-term environmental sustainability.

"To put it in perspective, the new refinery would increase industrial emissions in New Brunswick by 25 per cent," says David Coon, director of the N.B. Conservation Council.

The mega-project, with an expected capacity of 300,000 barrels of oil per day, ups the ante for those who want Canada to adhere to its climate change commitments under the Kyoto protocol. "Operating the refinery will create three million more tons of carbon-dioxide emissions per year," says Coon. "Add to that another 40 million tons, when the refineries' products themselves are burned in cars and factories."

If Canada is to honour its Kyoto agreements, the country must reduce greenhouse gas emissions six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.

The proposed Irving enterprise is a crucial metaphor because its creation will make it all but impossible for New Brunswick to meet its Kyoto targets, if any Federal government were to try and enforce the agreement we signed.

The refinery promises to create 5,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent positions in Saint John.

But, according to Coon, "The Irvings aren't in the business of creating jobs, they're in the business of creating profits. Pollution based profits are no longer acceptable," he says.

Representatives from Irving didn't return phone calls or e-mails for this report. However, in a press release, Kevin Scott, director of refining growth for Irving Oil, said "...we will work with regulatory agencies as this project moves through what we expect will be a very rigorous environmental approval process."

Scott may well be correct on this, however it's indisputable the new refinery is one more card on the political table pushing Kyoto supporters to fold their demands.

"There's no rational argument to pump more gas onto the burning house that is our planet right now," says the N.B. Conservation Council's Coon. But politics and rationality are two very different concepts.

While meekly trying to appear 'green', Premier Shawn Graham has shown his hand in support of Irving's mega-project. In provincial politics, 'job creation' is the ace of spades and 'pinky' Graham thinks he needs the polluting refinery to keep hold of his political chips.

The Harper Tories also think they have a winning hand when it comes to these sorts of energy projects, and they aren't afraid to show it. The Conservatives are clinging to big oil like a sassy casino broad. It's no surprise their dancing with the corporate interests that brought them to Ottawa.

While bluffing like mavericks, the federal Liberals under Stephane Dion are the last party to flip their hand on the proposed project.

While naming his dog Kyoto, and signaling support for the agreement, Dion's in the same bind as all politicians: if he becomes Prime Minister he will hold the post for four to five years and will invariably be enticed by short-term job creation projects.

The science behind climate change is irrefutable and terrifying, especially in light of the recent intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the most comprehensive collection of data on the issue to date.

"It is an unequivocal series of evidence [showing that] fossil fuel burning and land use change are affecting the climate on our planet," said Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) during an early February news conference in Paris when the report was released.

The Irvings aren't so brash as to deny climate change. But they are playing a card that brings out the worst elements in the human spirit.

"We believe refineries will be built somewhere in the world, and the question is, should we take the opportunity and build it here, or should we let it slip and go to the U.S. Gulf Coast or Central America," said an Irving spokesman in an interview with the CBC.

This is the tragedy of the commons in full swing. And Premier Graham won't call the bluff. To put it crudely, what good are jobs when the ice caps have melted and Saint John is submerged? If anyone has the privilege and thus the responsibility to make a bold move and actually do something about global warming, it's us.

When it comes to gambling with the world's future, federal and provincial governments need to learn when to hold their cards, when to fold them and when to walk away, lest run away climate change becomes humanity's final hand.

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