Canada’s highest-ranking science geek, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, shared a stage with Bill Nye the Science Guy at the University of Ottawa today — and shared a teachable moment on the subject of oil pipelines.
The event was a forum focusing on the Canadian federal government’s plans for investments in innovation, conducted in front of an audience of students and VIPs.
Most of the hour was given over to a feel-good discussion about science and Canadian society. Nye, a former engineer at Boeing and Sundstrand Data Control who became an internationally known TV personality, chatted amiably with Trudeau as well as the researchers who were brought up on stage.
At one point, Nye seconded Trudeau’s views on the importance of basic research as well as diversity in the science community.
“I’m a big fan of diversity,” Nye said. “Just fundamentally, everybody, half of the people are girls and women, so why don’t we have half of the scientists and engineers be women?”
The subject that grabbed most of the headlines, however, had to do with Trudeau’s plans to move ahead with the $6 billion Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion project, which would boost the flow of oil from Alberta to the pipeline system’s terminal in Burnaby, B.C.
British Columbia’s provincial government has been talking about putting new limits on pipeline shipments, due to concerns about the potential for oil spills, and that has sparked threats of a lawsuit from Alberta’s government. It’s a big controversy in Canada, but it hasn’t gotten much attention south of the border.
Nye waited until the end of the chat to bring up the subject. “If you don’t mind, tell my colleagues in the States … tell us about the Kinder Morgan pipeline,” he asked Trudeau.
He cited a study facilitated by The Solutions Project that suggested “you could power all of Canada, renewably, right now, if you decided to do it.”
“Nevertheless, there’s this enormous fossil-fuel industry,” Nye said. “So tell us about that.”
Trudeau agreed that there is “tremendous potential” in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, and that the Canadian government was investing in the required technologies.
“However, we can’t get there tomorrow … so we are going to have a transition phase while we develop alternatives to fossil fuels,” the prime minister said. “While we are developing those alternatives to fossil fuels, we still need to be able to power our homes, our cars, our economy.”
Trudeau said technological innovations made it possible to extract oil from Alberta’s tar sands, providing a stopgap for the transition. The big challenge is to make use of those resources “in a way that does not contribute to global warming,” he said.
The prime minister argued for a course that included putting a price on carbon emissions, while beefing up the pipeline to open up new markets for Canadian oil exports. “Most people understand that the environment and the economy need to go together,” Trudeau said.
After the forum, Nye told reporters he understood where Trudeau was coming from.
“The prime minister had a very well-thought-out answer, that it’s for economic development in the short term,” The Canadian Press quoted Nye as saying.
“The pipeline is, in the big picture, bad,” Nye said. “But in the short and medium term, what are you going to do?”