Empty promises, false choices of Energy East

Forget Keystone XL for the moment. With U.S. approval growing ever more unlikely, TransCanada Pipelines has resuscitated Energy East, its proposed $12-billion pipeline to ship Alberta crude to refineries and export terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick. But long before Energy East delivers a drop of oil, it has already spilled a torrent of empty promises and false choices.

Some background: Keystone XL is TransCanada’s proposed $7-billion pipeline extension stretching from Hardisty, Alta., to Steele City, Neb., where it would connect to a pipeline running to refineries and export terminals on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Originally proposed in 2005, Keystone XL has faced opposition from environmental groups, American politicians, and citizens on both sides of the border concerned about the pipeline’s potential environmental effects.

What are those effects? First, there’s the safety issues. Keystone’s opponents worry that pipeline spills will contaminate drinking water, harm wildlife and pollute the air.

Second, and more fundamentally, they argue that further investing in infrastructure to transport Alberta’s carbon-intensive crude will lock us into extracting harmful fossil fuels to meet our energy needs for the foreseeable future. That would all but guarantee the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide to a concentration of 450 parts per million and precipitate a two-degree Celsius (or greater) rise in global temperature.

But Keystone XL’s future is now in serious doubt. President Barack Obama recently panned Keystone’s promise of 2,000 new jobs, citing 50-100 as a more realistic estimate. And he reiterated that Keystone’s approval hinges on whether it will “significantly contribute to carbon in our atmosphere,” adding that “there is no doubt that Canada at the source in those tar sands could potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release.”

Enter Energy East.

With a daily capacity of 1.1 million barrels of oil, Energy East promises economic prosperity, energy security and environmental safety. Let’s look at each of these claims.

“Local hotels will house our construction crews, local restaurants will feed them. Our crews will buy supply and equipment from local lumber yards and local machine shops,” says TransCanada’s president of energy and oil pipelines.

And Irving Oil promises to build a new marine terminal in New Brunswick, generating 50 new jobs.

Now if that seems a bit thin, given the pipeline’s price tag, consider the promise of energy security, defined by the International Energy Agency as the uninterrupted availability of energy at an affordable price in line with environmental needs. Energy East promises to relieve eastern Canada of expensive crude imports from Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Libya, all of whom lack “Canada’s environmental regulations.”


Except that Irving won’t promise lower fuel prices in eastern Canada. Why not? Economics 101: demand and prices for oil are higher in China, India, Europe and the U.S. eastern seaboard.

How about environmental regulations and safety?

Pipeline proponents, including the prime minister, promise that pipelines are safer than railways. But there’s something disingenuous and, frankly, appalling about the federal government running down rail safety in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe and the 91,000-litre oil spill from a CP Rail car in Saskatchewan back in May. Transport Canada, after all, left rail regulation to the railways — with predictable results.

And transporting oil by rail is not going away anytime soon. If Energy East is ultimately approved, the earliest it will be operational is 2017.

Nor is it clear that pipelines are actually safer. Pipeline spills tend to be much larger than rail spills, and they occur with alarming regularity. Alberta has averaged about two oil pipeline spills per day since 1976! That’s 28,666 spills to date. And those are just the spills we know about — Alberta’s data collection is spotty, and its database excludes spills from pipelines crossing provincial borders, which fall under the jurisdiction of the National Energy Board, whose oversight is hardly better.

In fact, both Alberta and the federal government depend entirely on oil companies to report their own spills. And the federal government has yet to issue its long-promised regulations for the oil and gas industry, leaving the fox in charge of the henhouse.

In any event, the choice between pipelines and railways is a false choice, a red herring obscuring the real choice between doubling-down on our ill-fated investment in carbon-intensive fossil fuels and beginning the transition to clean energy, a transition akin to engineering a second industrial revolution, but on a global scale and in a fraction of the time.

That’s the real choice posed by Energy East.

Jason MacLean

Published in the bi-weekly column, Sustainability Matters, The Chronicle-Journal, Thunder Bay, Monday, August 12, 2013