The case against the Energy East pipeline

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Energy East Pipeline

Quebec is being portrayed as the bogeyman once more after 81 Montreal-area mayors announced they are opposed to current plans to run a pipeline through the heart of the province to carry Alberta’s oil sands bitumen to East Coast ports.

“Just imagine if we were trying to build a railroad 100 years ago and mayors were saying no. What kind of country would we have?” asked Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson.

Better yet, let’s imagine what kind of world we’ll be living in 100 years from now if current mayors agree to support a pipeline that will allow oil sands production  to increase by 40 per cent at a time when this country is supposed to be joining worldwide efforts to reduce, and eventually eliminate, our greenhouse gas production.

By comparing the pipeline to the continental railroad whose “Last Spike” was struck 130 years ago, Iveson is suggesting Quebec mayors have thrown themselves across the track of progress, impeding the engine of the Canadian economy. But like the carbon-belching coal-fired engines of yore, the days of “dirty oil” extraction are numbered. The bubble has burst on sky-high oil prices that made the tar sands economically viable. Most of the world (aside from U.S. Republicans and Canadian conservatives) now acknowledges what the oil industry has known (and hidden) for decades: burning fossil fuels is fueling unprecedented and potentially catastrophic climate change.

If there is a “last spike” metaphor to be had here, it’s that the failure to convince Canadians of the necessity to build expensive infrastructure for a dying industry may well be the last spike in the oil sector’s coffin lid.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flew out of Paris just a few weeks ago after signing an agreement that, if we are to honour our commitments, means eliminating  our use of non-renewable energy sources within 35 years. Where do the oil sands fit into that equation, especially when we know that the extraction process alone is expected to increase GHG production by 45 million tonnes from 2005 to 2020?

And that’s just what we burn to get it into the pipeline, never mind what happens when it flows out the tailpipe. In fact, the oil and gas sector of the economy produced 25 per cent of our greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, larger even than the combined output of the transportation sector. We spew out carbon dioxide to produce the fuels we burn and, when we add production and transport emissions together, they represent almost half of our output already.

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Yes, the Canadian economy is hurting because of job losses in the oil patch, but the unemployment has not been caused by a lack of pipelines. Energy companies have cut investment because they have no confidence in their ability in the short or medium term to make money selling expensive-to-produce (and did I mention highly polluting?) bitumen in a market flooded with much cheaper oil. Building a pipeline won’t solve that problem.

Which is why it’s strange to see people like Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and the usually much more intelligent Rick Mercer lambaste Quebecers for their opposition to the pipeline. Both trotted out the tired cliché of Quebec receiving equalization payments as one of the country’s “have-not” provinces. The suggestion was that, because the equalization cheques were funded in part by Western oil, we owed it to the West to bend over while they inserted a pipeline.

But that’s not what equalization is about. Canadian provincial economies evolve over time, and provinces that were once among the wealthiest, like Ontario, now find themselves in the have-not class because of a declining manufacturing base, among other factors. Newfoundland and Labrador, on the other hand, was among the poorest provinces for many years and now, thanks to offshore oil discoveries, is among the wealthiest. In the Canadian family, equalization payments are intended to ensure that all of the provinces — regardless of their current economic ups and downs — can afford to provide the basic services that we hold as universal rights, i.e. health, social services and education.

Fifteen years from now, Quebec  could well be among the wealthiest provinces because the value of renewable hydro-electric energy will have skyrocketed as the fossil fuel industry collapsed. Alberta and Saskatchewan could easily find themselves on the have-not side of the ledger, and that’s where the real payback would take place.

Anyway, we’re not doing anyone any favours by agreeing to allow the construction of a risky pipeline across 688 kilometres of the province, crossing 828 rivers, stream, creeks and ponds. (Waterways most at risk of accidents because of unstable banks, according to a study by researchers at École Polytechnique, include the Ottawa, Mille-Îles, St. Maurice, Ste. Anne and Jacques-Cartier rivers.)

In many ways, the Energy East pipeline project is reminiscent of federal efforts to build the “airport of the future” out in Mirabel. After enormous expenses to expropriate huge swaths of farmland and build infrastructure like Highway 13, traffic never reached a fraction of the projected flow. Thirty years later, the airport was closed for good and now, 40 years later, we’re tearing down the last of its terminal buildings.

That will be the fate of the Energy East pipeline. It’s a highway to nowhere, designed to carry traffic that will never — and should never — arrive.

The engine of progress isn’t a carbon-fueled bitumen railroad. It is an electric motor fed by hydroelectric, solar and wind energy. The only ones standing in the way of progress are those who can’t see past the smoke. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.

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