Did you hear the one about the tar sands project and the bike lane?

About 13 years ago, a company called ExxonMobil thought it would be a really good idea to start a tar sands project in Alberta. Five years earlier, in Toronto, a report for the City concluded it would be a really fine idea to put a bike lane along major downtown streets called Bloor and Danforth because so many cyclists used this popular east-west route.

There are actually a few differences between a tar sands project and a bike lane:

Oil from the tar sands is used by people to fuel their cars; bike lanes let people ride their bikes so they don’t need oil from the tar sands.

A tar sands project uses huge amounts of water and natural gas while destroying forests, wetlands, and wildlife habitat; a bike lane needs a painted white line.

The ExxonMobil project would emit 3.7 million tonnes (Mt) of greenhouse gases (ghgs) each year — about the same as 800,000 cars — for 50 years; bicycles don’t emit ghgs.

Now, in a sophisticated country like Canada you can’t just decide to mine a tar sands deposit — or to take over a bit of the road to make it safer for cyclists.

We’ve got rules.

For the giant open pit of a tar sands project there has to be an environmental assessment (E.A.) so that governments can make smart decisions that avoid damaging the environment. For the painted white stripe of a bike lane you probably don’t need an E.A., but you can’t be too careful – so the City decided to do a rigorous E.A.

In 2006, a panel of experts was appointed to study the impacts, including ghg emissions, of the tar sands project (now involving Imperial Oil). A number of months later, the experts concluded that 3.7Mt of ghgs wouldn’t cause significant negative effects on the environment. They didn’t say why, they just said it didn’t. The government in Ottawa carefully read this report and decided it looked really good, and approved it. Around the same time, concerned groups asked a court to review the panel’s decision.

The judge ruled that the panel couldn’t just decide that 3.7Mt of ghgs was insignificant — it had to give reasons. So the experts got back together in 2008 and said it wasn’t significant because there wasn’t much evidence that it was significant and, anyway, the government of Alberta was on top of the problem. Ottawa decided these reasons also sounded really good — and they gave a green light to the project.

Meanwhile, back in Toronto the bike lane wasn’t doing as well.

After the 1992 report, City Hall kept saying that cycling was a really good thing and more people ought to do it. More people did cycle and in 2001 the City said it would put in lots of bike lanes, except it didn’t (but that’s a different joke).

Finally, in October 2007 Toronto’s council ordered a study to see if it was feasible to find a bit of room for bikes on Bloor-Danforth. About a year later, the report concluded a bikeway was feasible and would hardly even interfere with car traffic. The head of the city’s bicycle committee announced a bikeway would finally happen. But some councillors and other folks were unhappy so in 2009 the City said it would do another study to look at the environmental impacts of the bikeway.

It took a full year to choose a consultant to prepare the E.A. — maybe because studying the environmental consequences of pedaling two-wheelers is a complex business.

The City was in no rush to have the E.A. started, and certainly not before the fall 2010 municipal elections. (Debating issues during an election can be awkward). The E.A. was scheduled to be finished in 2011. In the meantime some candidates running for mayor said the City already had too many bike lanes, meaning bike lanes on 2 per cent of the city’s 5,600 km of roads was excessive. Apparently bikes were causing congestion. (It hadn’t occurred to the candidates that bikes need far less room than cars, and with more people on bikes there would be more room for cars.)

The tar sands project is now under way with strong government support. Cyclists in Toronto, on the other hand, are mostly still left to fend for themselves while breathing the fumes of ever-increasing amounts of tar sands fuel.

Funny, eh?

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer, an adjunct professor in natural resources law at Osgoode Hall Law School, and a founding member of the cycling group Bells on Bloor.