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Alternative Person of the Year Award for 2013: Pipelines

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The Institut de recherche et d'informations socio-économiques (IRIS) has released its third Alternative Person of the Year Award. In 2011, rating agencies had been its recipients whilst last year Chinese labour camps rose to the top. This year, competition was rough. After lengthy discussions, our jury came to a conclusion: in 2013, oil pipelines came first.

In contrast with preceding editions, we did not choose a subject which goes under the radar, but one which is discussed using the wrong terms of reference. In Quebec, especially since the Lac-Mégantic disaster last July, the ongoing conversation on oil transportation has often taken strange turns. As early as August, commentators praised the merits of the Line 9B Reversal Project, which was developed to bring Alberta's tar sands oil to Quebec, in the name of security and economic development. The reaction of oil producers and their experts following the trauma of last summer's tragedy was swift.

Pipelines or fantasizing about risk-free oil

One of the most troubling facts in the debate concerning the Line 9B Reversal Project is favourable analysts' shameless ability to use baseless arguments. We were first told that we must accept the reversal for its economic benefits. However, they never clearly define these benefits: they are rather taken as a given. Yet, they turned out to be marginal when we did the math. At most, the reversal could create a hundred jobs or so whilst having very little impact on public finances. In short, these benefits do not justify our economic and political elites' generalized eagerness to approve the project.

When the economic argument is seen to falter, we are offered up a second pseudo-argument: supplying oil through pipelines is safer and greener. Yet, Enbridge, which owns Line 9B, has a dreadfully poor record regarding pipeline safety. Over the past 10 years, there has been on average over 70 oil spills annually throughout its pipeline system.

Furthermore, increasing oil production comes hand in hand with increasing the share of oil from supply sources which pollute the most. Tar sands oil, which is one of the dirtiest in the world, is globally more harmful than many types of imported oil. For example, tar sands oil pollutes 67 per cent more than oil from Algeria, which is Quebec's main supplier.

Our chosen 'person' of the year stands out mainly for the weakness of the arguments in its favour. Once the sound of spurious claims is dimmed, pipelines reveal themselves to be an open highway to accelerate oil production, nothing more.

Three special mentions and a prediction for 2014

At the beginning of the text, I said that it had been hard to settle on a single IRIS Alternative Person of the Year for 2013. Here are back-to-back our list of finalists:

Zero deficit: A classic, which comes up every single year. Since its advent has been delayed in Quebec, you can bet it'll rank pretty high up next year too.

Austerity: The word has been in vogue throughout the world since 2008. It's been introduced for the sake of rigour, but it's jeopardizing the odds of an economic recovery.

Free trade: Our jury went back and forth until the very end. With the Canada-EU free trade agreement talks and the proliferation of bilateral agreements between various countries, free trade (and more importantly the social and environmental risks that come with it) ranks very highly in our list of bad omens for 2014.

A final prediction. With the tabling in 2013 of the D'Amours report on the future of pension plans in Quebec, the follow-up presentation of an action plan, and the morbid fixation of Quebec City and Montréal's mayors on this issue, I'll bet you that it will receive our Alternative Person of the Year Award in 2014.

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This article was written by Guillaume Hébert, a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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