OTTAWA - Energy East, the pipeline being designed to carry massive amounts of oil from Alberta through Ontario to Eastern Canada, will tell Canadians a great deal about their energy future.
Potentially one of the largest pipelines in North America, TransCanada’s project would span 4,600 kilometres and move 1.1 million barrels of oil a day to eastern Canadian refineries and export terminals.
With other proposed new pipelines to haul Albertan crude facing fierce political opposition, Energy East has emerged as possibly the most obvious near-term option for a petroleum sector desperately in need of export facilities.
But the pipeline is also part of the wider standoff over natural resource development that has become a defining struggle in the country’s environmental and economic future. While opposition to Energy East has so far been modest, it is growing. So the outcome of the National Energy Board’s approval process for this latest pipeline proposal may indicate whether Canadians will accept any megaprojects that enable more oilsands production.
“The Energy East pipeline is only the latest (planned line) and Energy East is existing because other grassroots movements are succeeding,” Graham Saul of Ecology Ottawa told a hundred people at a recent anti-pipeline forum in Ottawa under the banner: “Energy East: Our Risk — Their Reward.”
He was referring to today’s environmental movement, which despite being aligned against some the world’s largest corporations and national governments in Washington and Ottawa, has called into question the future of the Keystone XL project going into the United States and other planned pipelines from Alberta to the British Columbia coast.
“We cannot do our fair share to fight climate change and allow the tarsands to expand as they are projected to expand,” Saul declared. “This is a reckless and irresponsible and ultimately unethical agenda. We need to turn our federal energy policy around.”
Much of Energy East’s planned line would be the conversion of an existing natural gas pipeline. But its impact would still be significant, as it crosses hundreds of rivers and streams (many in Ontario), would pass through or nearly 155 aboriginal communities and potentially affect 5,500 landowners along the route from Alberta to New Brunswick.
There is also particular concern among activists about a spill of oil sands-derived crude. They point to the experience of Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. in Michigan. The company is still cleaning up its 2010 pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River, a difficult process that has reinforced questions about the added problems of mitigating accidents involving bitumen, the molasses-like product from the oilsands.
But TransCanada, despite having seen the Keystone proposal thrown into doubt by environmental activists south of the border, is not worried about getting the go-ahead for Energy East. As a $12-billion construction project that would partly wean eastern refineries from imported oil, as well as provide an export platform for Alberta’s domestic crude, Energy East has been praised as a nation-builder by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several provincial premiers.
TransCanada has taken pains to engage early on with the public over Energy East. The company has already held 75 public forums along the route from Alberta to Eastern Canada and is conducting in-depth environmental assessments.
“We’re really confident of Energy East going forward,” TransCanada spokesman Phillipe Cannon told the Star.
In the past few years, the struggles over these multi-billion-dollar projects have starkly etched the fissures in Canadians’ views on resource development and the need to address climate change.
With multinational efforts to curb global warming showing little impact, environmentalists have turned their sights on the pipelines they see as enabling climate change through increased production of greenhouse gases from the oilsands. It’s a proxy battle that few appear to have foreseen back in 2006 when Harper declared Canada “an emerging energy superpower.”
Internationally, Canada’s reputation as a leader in the effort to combat climate change appears to have faded. Harper, who once dismissed the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” pulled Canada out of the agreement. And Canada has often been labelled a dinosaur by greens because of Ottawa’s alleged foot-dragging on efforts to reach a new global agreement to significantly cut carbon emissions.
The words “climate change” can’t be found in the 415 pages of the Conservatives’ 2014 budget plan and the federal government has said Canada will fall far short of its promise to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.
Also, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq’s statements about global warming have sparked questions about whether she believes burning fossil fuels is causing climate change.
NDP environment critic Megan Leslie says Canada is now near the bottom of the pack among industrialized nations when it comes to combating global warming. “From pulling out of the Kyoto accord, to sabotaging international climate talks, to appointing a minister who doubts climate science, the Conservatives’ dismal record on climate change speaks for itself,” Leslie said.
Aglukkaq disputes the allegation that she doubts the science of global warming. She told the Commons last fall she’s “a very strong advocate for taking actions against climate change.”
Aglukkaq regularly says Canada is a “world leader” on this issue. Ottawa is working with developing countries to curb greenhouse gases and, at home, is working with the provinces to reduce oil and gas emissions, Aglukkaq says. But it’s “premature” to talk about pollution rules for oil and gas producers, she recently told MPs.
In Europe, Canada has been lobbying for years to head off a move by the European Commission to classify Canadian crude from the oilsands as dirtier than other fuels. If that happened, it would hurt chances of selling Canadian oil on the continent. But Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford recently said that, given Ukraine-related tension over European energy supplies, he’s received “very positive signals” that make him think European authorities are less likely to pin a negative label on Canadian crude.
To combat such criticism and build support for pipelines, the federal government earmarked more than $20 million for advertising in Canada and internationally in 2013.
But opposition to the Conservatives’ approach has grown steadily. Last year, for instance, 12 climate scientists and energy experts wrote to then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver to express their concerns about Canada’s policies.
“We are not convinced that your advocacy in support of new pipelines and expanded fossil fuel production takes climate change into account in a meaningful way,” the scientists from Queen’s, Harvard and Western universities, among others, said.
“Avoiding dangerous climate change will require significantly reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and making a transition to cleaner energy,” the letter continued.
“The infrastructure we build today will shape future choices about energy. If we invest in expanding fossil fuel production, we risk locking ourselves into a high carbon pathway that increases greenhouse gas emissions for years and decades to come.”
Since 2011, Harper has used his parliamentary majority to try to open the way for massive new resource projects by streamlining pipeline vetting procedures and shifting final decision-making power on approval of energy development, including oilsands production, to the federal cabinet.
At the same time, Ottawa’s energy policies and its aggressive support for the oil industry’s expansionist goals have been widely criticized, with some saying Harper’s approach has had the unintended effect of empowering opposition.
“The fact is that the oilsands have somehow become a poster child for climate change,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau commented. “That is a failing of both government and industry for allowing that to happen because they weren’t doing enough to reassure people that the environment is a priority.”
Jim Prentice, the former Conservative cabinet minister now seeking the leadership of the Alberta Tories, recently said Canada can no longer afford to be seen as a laggard on climate change. “If you are in the energy business today, you are in the environmental business today,” he told federal Conservatives at a convention in Ottawa.
Speaking of his experience as environment minister at the 2009 international meeting on global warming in Denmark, where Canada was accused to holding up efforts to develop global action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, Prentice said, “I can say from hard experience: We can’t ever again allow ourselves to be off-footed and in a position where we are following rather than leading.”
And U.S. President Barack Obama has pointedly referred to Ottawa’s policies in the context of whether the U.S. will grant approval of the Keystone XL pipeline plan. Canada could “potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release,” Obama told the New York Times last year.
An outcry against Harper’s energy strategy has been building for years. But Ottawa’s streamlining of environmental protection measures in the 2012 omnibus budget package has ignited opposition among a particularly formidable group, the First Nations. The federal government’s environmental changes contributed to the emergence of the Idle No More movement and increased awareness of the potential role of aboriginals in environmental clashes.
Most recently, First Nations activists have stepped up their efforts to stop Energy East.
“Our treaty rights are paramount in this country,” said Eriel Deranger, a spokeswoman for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, who has joined the anti-Energy East campaign promoted by the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians. “You cannot negate those rights, even if you try and hide it by doing it in such things as an omnibus budget bill.”
An early test of aboriginals’ legal clout may emerge over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline in B.C. An approval of the pipeline by the Harper government is expected to prompt numerous First Nations in B.C. to launch lawsuits, most likely on the grounds that the approval process violated their constitutional rights or that Ottawa failed to consult with aboriginals on the project. Many observers expect construction of the pipeline to be held up for years as a result.
Aboriginal groups have already initiated legal action on a number of fronts in the energy wars, including the following:
• The Tsleil-Waututh Nation in Vancouver has gone to court in an effort to force the National Energy Board to rewrite the terms for its review of Kinder Morgan’s planned expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver from Alberta.
• The Haisla First Nation, Gitxaala First Nation and Gitga’at First Nation are involved in legal actions asking for a judicial review of the National Energy Board’s recommendation for the Northern Gateway pipeline through northern British Columbia. They argue that the NEB’s review lacked appropriate evidence and gave undue weight to the economic impact of the pipeline. They want the court to order the NEB to review its decision.
• The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has taken legal action to challenge Ottawa’s approval of Shell Canada’s proposed expansion of its Jackpine oil sands operation in northern Alberta.
• The Mikisew Cree and Frog Lake First Nation have gone to court to challenge the Conservatives changes to regulatory protection of fisheries and waterways.
Looking ahead, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair says Canada must reverse its approach to make sustainable development, including a cap-and-trade system of market-based trading of emissions allowances, the top priority.
“We know that there are basic principles of sustainable development like polluter pay that can and should be applied, so we make sure that while you’re developing and exploiting an important resource like the oilsands, that you’re making the polluter pay,” he told the Star. “It’s one of the most important issues that any government’s going to have to deal with.”