Every pipeline in North America – whether conveying oil, water, natural gas or some other fluid – is an engineered structure. This means that the sign-off on the design of the pipeline requires a professional engineer’s stamp – and all the ethical and legal obligations that come with it.

Given the established fact that fossil-fuel combustion contributes to climate change, and the clear emergence of technological alternatives, the engineering profession faces a huge dilemma. Responsibility to protect the environment renders any engineer putting his or her stamp on a fossil-fuel pipeline today in a precarious position.

As a regulated profession, engineers follow a code of ethics, which places their responsibility to protect society above all considerations, including obligations to clients or employers. The engineer’s duties to society include the safety, health and welfare of the public, and protection of the environment.

These environmental responsibilities aren’t just local in nature – they extend to global challenges such as climate change. Guidelines from Professional Engineers Ontario in 1998 (Section 16.3), for example, observed that a professional engineer should: “recognize that humanity is dependent on the ecosystem of this planet and that the planet has a finite assimilative capacity.” In Alberta, the Guideline for Environmental Practice defines “environment” to be “the components of the earth” including “all layers of the atmosphere.”

Engineers designing oil pipelines do so with full understanding that the oil will get combusted, resulting in greenhouse-gas emissions. Spurious arguments have been made suggesting that pipelines produce less emissions than shipping oil by rail, for example. Such arguments are misframed and deceptive. It has long been understood that fossil-fuel infrastructure systems cause carbon lock-in, hooking communities, prolonging their dependence on fossil fuels and thereby increasing emissions in the long run.

If we are serious about reducing emissions, then the economic case for both fossil-fuel pipelines and rail transport also falls apart. This was made clear in a 2012 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development environment working paper (No. 46). Pipeline construction captures scarce capital, which could otherwise be used to build infrastructure that supports a low-carbon economy, such as transmission lines, renewable power generation or better building envelopes.

Investing in oil pipelines is doubly bad because it uses up resources to construct tomorrow’s stranded assets rather than directing them toward social benefits. The motives for constructing pipelines are really only the narrow economic interests of the fossil-fuel industry – but such motives are trumped by the engineer’s code of ethics.

Engineers have yet to come to grips with the ethical dilemma they face. At some point soon – if not already – engineers stamping oil pipelines will be in violation of their duties. At the least, this requires a serious discussion of the ethical issues, both among engineers and in society as a whole.

If I had made these argument 10 years ago, fellow engineers might have dismissed them, as the alternatives to fossil-fuel technologies were so expensive as to make them impractical. But we live in a time of rapid technological change, which has seen prices for wind power, solar power, batteries and electric vehicles fall sharply.

These days, China constructs wind turbines sufficient to supply all of B.C.’s electricity requirements in one to two years; so, too, does the U.S. Data from the International Energy Agency suggest that electric vehicles now capture over five per cent of new market share in cities such as San Francisco, Stockholm and Shanghai, and have reached 12 per cent in Amsterdam and 36 per cent in Oslo.

The reality is that the world cannot switch off fossil fuels overnight, but we could stop building new fossil-fuel infrastructure. The work of engineers in creating technological alternatives to fossil fuels has been fantastic. When will they become true to their code of ethics, and stop stamping pipelines?

— Chris Kennedy, PhD, chairs the civil engineering department at the University of Victoria