The oil industry is promoting the Energy East pipeline for the $billions it will contribute to the gross domestic product. Opponents say funding oil spills and the expansion of the tar sands is a bad investment.
Diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands would be pumped across Canada through the Energy East pipeline. Image: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository
What is the Energy East pipeline?
TransCanada, a multinational energy corporation based in Calgary, is actively promoting plans for a 4,600 km pipeline, known as Energy East, which would carry 1.1 million barrels of crude per day, including diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, to the east coast. The proposal would convert TransCanada’s 40 year-old natural gas pipeline to an oil conduit from Saskatchewan to Ontario, connecting it with new pipeline through Quebec and on to Saint John, New Brunswick.
The 40 year-old natural gas pipeline from Saskatchewan to Quebec would be converted to oil. Image: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository
How has Energy East been promoted?
TransCanada has said Energy East’s economic benefits would be massive, and has described it as a nation builder on par with the Canadian Pacific Railway. It hired the U.S. public relations firm Edelman, the largest in the world, to develop a promotional strategy.
When internal Edelman documents were leaked in November, it brought TransCanada under fire for using dirty public relations tricks to manipulate public opinion and divide communities. The strategy included tactics for undermining opponents of the Energy
East pipeline, and for manufacturing fake grassroots groups, a.k.a. astroturf groups, that would give the public the impression of genuine community support for the pipeline. Edelman made reference to other major oil companies, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and Halliburton that employ similar PR tricks.
Those revelations followed closely on the heels of another industry leak earlier that month. A secret audio recording of a PR veteran was leaked which outlined aggressive, high-pressure tactics for manipulating public opinion surrounding environmental and conservation groups. The strategy to “win ugly or lose pretty” targeted opponents of fracking as well as other climate and anti-pipeline activists. Executives were told to think of the anti-environment battle “as an endless war” that industry must be prepared to pay for.
Why does TransCanada want to pump crude oil right across the continent?
Faced with strong opposition to tar sands pipelines in B.C. and the U.S., the oil industry is looking at Energy East to get its Alberta crude to profitable markets as plans gear up for significant increases in production.
Won’t this be a boon for Canadian refineries?
The three refineries along the Energy East route (Suncor Energy in Montreal, Valero near Quebec City, and Irving in Saint John, N.B.) have a combined capacity of 672,000 barrels per day. Most of this capacity can come from elsewhere, according to a report last year by the Council of Canadians, Ecology Action Centre, Environmental Defence and Equiterre. Included in the calculations was offshore crude in Atlantic Canada, booming U.S. shale resources and, eventually, via Enbridge Inc.’s recently approved reversed Line 9 pipeline between southwestern Ontario and Montreal. That leaves just 122,000 barrels per day of refining capacity that can be served by Energy East, the report said.
What’s this really all about?
The primary plan, say pipeline critics, is filling tankers with vast quantities of crude oil and sending it out of the country. The project is expected to result in massive tanker exports from the Atlantic coast for the much larger and more profitable markets of Europe, India, China and the U.S.
The Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, would be the end point of the Energy East pipeline. Photo: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository
How will the Energy East pipeline affect our collective efforts in Canada to reduce greenhouse gases?
The Pembina Institute reported that 1.1 million more barrels a day of tar sands oil would be produced if the pipeline is brought into operation. This would represent a 40 % increase in tar sands production Getting that oil out of the ground would add up to 32 million tonnes of carbon pollution to the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of adding more than 7 million cars to Canada’s roads. It would unleash enough pollution to undo the progress made here in Ontario to phase out the use of coal for generating electricity.
According to the Pembina Institute, oil sands are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Photo: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository
What do we know about the 40 year-old natural gas pipeline that’s to be converted for carrying crude oil?
Last year, TransCanada gas lines ruptured in Manitoba and Alberta. There were 8 other incidents on the mainline system between 1991 and 2013. These were found to be largely the result of stress corrosion cracking, external corrosion, and coating and welding failures. Following a massive gas pipeline explosion in Alberta during 2009, the draft report of the National Energy Board criticized TransCanada-owned subsidiary NOVA Gas Transmission for “inadequate” field inspections and “ineffective” management. The report further revealed that “the section of the pipeline that burst in 2009 was 95 per cent corroded.” Interestingly, the report wasn’t publically posted due to what the NEB later referred to as an “administrative error”.
What about leak detection technology?
Only one of the eight ruptures on TransCanada’s mainline gas system, which includes the pipeline slated for conversion, was discovered by a detection system. In 2010, before some 3.8 million litres of diluted bitumen leaked from the Enbridge pipeline near Marshall, Michigan, the system’s operator claimed it would remotely detect a spill in 8 minutes. It was 17 hours before the massive spill was confirmed. More than $1 billion has been spent on that leak. TransCanada is aiming for a 10 minute response time for a spill on the Energy East pipeline.
What’s special about a pipeline leak of diluted bitumen, or ‘dilbit?
An oil pipeline leak requires an emergency response. The bitumen that’s extracted from the tar sands must be diluted with toxic and explosive chemicals to make it thin enough
to flow through a pipeline under pressure. The exact composition of these diluents is considered a trade secret.
Despite leak detection technology, it was 17 hours before the massive Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River of Michigan was confirmed. Photo: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository
At the Michigan pipeline break, close to 60 km of the Kalamazoo River was contaminated. Unlike conventional crude which floats on top of the water, much of the dilbit sank to the bottom of the river. Although it initially floated, the dilbit soon started separating into different components. Most of the diluents evaporated into the atmosphere, leaving behind the heavy bitumen which sank. According to U.S. federal documents, it took nine days for most of the diluents to evaporate or dissolve into the water. About 20% of the leaked dilbit remains on the bottom of the Kalamazoo River after years of clean up.
Cleanup experts at the Kalamazoo site were unprepared for the challenge of submerged oil because it was the first major spill of dilbit in U.S. waters. Conventional recovery technology and procedures have been designed to capture floating oil.
As a footnote on the U.S. experience of handling a major dilbit spill, the oil industry paid an 8-cent-per-barrel tax on crude oil produced and imported to the U.S. The tax was paid to the ‘Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund’ which provided emergency funds for oil spill cleanup and claims. Both cleanup efforts for the Kalamazoo and BP Gulf Coast spills made use of the Fund. In early 2011, five months after the Kalamazoo spill, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service ruled to exempt dilbit and synthetic crude from this tax. The energy and environment news service E&E Publishing reported that the exemption was made “at the request off a company whose identity was kept secret.”
What’s at risk in Canada?
If approved, TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline, from Hardisty, Alberta, to export ports in Cacouna, Quebec and Saint John, New Brunswick, would be the largest oil pipeline in North America. It will cross at least 90 watersheds and 961 waterways.
A dilbit spill from a pipleline rupture would be a disaster anywhere along the length of the proposed route. Crude that leaks on land will create a contaminated site. The significance of the assault on our landscape will be a reflection of the amount of crude that leaked, and the toxic chemistry of that particular batch of dilbit. The composition of dilbit varies and is, of course, a trade secret even as it soaks into the ground, seeps into groundwater, contaminates aquifers, and pollutes the streams, rivers, and lakes that it flows into. There’s no way the genie could be put back in the patched-up pipe and sent along its way.
With a capacity of 1.1 million barrels of crude per day, Energy East would transport 1,893 litres of dilbit every second. If TransCanada is aiming for a 10 minute response time to a spill, more than 1 million litres would have flowed out of a ruptured pipe before any valves could be closed. The huge amount of oil remaining in the breached pipeline between valves could soon follow. As an example, there are 11.8 km between valve stations at the Nipigon River crossing of the current natural gas pipeline in Ontario. If the line was carrying dilbit during a rupture, as much as 11 million litres of additional crude could leak between the valve stations.
The volume of crude to flow through the proposed Energy East pipeline is massive. Would any response team in Canada have the necessary training, equipment, and capacity to effectively deal with a terrestrial, freshwater, or marine dilbit spill?
Image: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository
What federal laws will protect us?
The Harper government’s omnibus legislation, Bill C-38 and Bill C-45, gutted important environmental protections. Waterways were left vulnerable. Bill C-45 removed protections from 99 per cent of lakes and rivers under the former Navigable Waters Protections Act. Bill C-38 exempted pipelines from the Act and the protection of navigable waters was transferred to the National Energy Board. A shiny dime is the prize for the first person who can correctly name a pipeline project that the NEB has actually rejected.
Bill C-38 replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act with new legislation that no longer automatically requires an environmental assessment for projects under federal jurisdiction, unless the Environment Minister calls for an assessment. Of the thousands of assessments that were cancelled as a result of Bill C-38, several were reviews of pipeline projects where communities raised concerns about drinking water. The NEB is on record for approving projects without proper environmental assessment.
The Fisheries Act, once heralded as one of the strongest pieces of federal environmental legislation, was mauled by Bill C-38. It used to provide broad protection for all fish habit, but is now reduced to only preventing “serious harm” to commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fisheries. New regulations passed in 2014 allow the Minister of the Environment to authorize “deposits of deleterious substances” if the “whole of the deposit is not acutely lethal to fish.” This means that stuff can now be legally dumped in Canadian waters as long as it kills only less than 50% of fish at 100 % concentration over a 96 hour period. Of note too is that this doesn’t take into account the cumulative contamination of fish, or of waterways.
The Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa contains the chambers of the House of Commons and the Senate. A bill becomes law through the process of First Reading – Second Reading – Committee Stage – Report Stage – Third Reading – Senate – Royal Assent. It was no oversight or accident that Canada’s environmental protections were gutted by Bill C-38 and Bill C-45 through omnibus legislation of the Harper government. Photo: Wikipedia Commons, the free media repository.
It seems all that stands in the way of letting corporations have their way with Canadian waterways is (i) our right to water and sanitation that’s enshrined in international law, and (ii) an international covenant. Thanks to the United Nations General Assembly, a resolution was passed in July 2010 that recognizes the human right to water and sanitation. The UN Human Rights Council also passed resolutions outlining the obligations of governments in this regard. Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the human right to water is integral to the right to an adequate standard of living.
Our government, you see, is obligated to protect, respect, and fulfill these rights. At her presentation in Almonte on November 12, 2014, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, pointed out that the obligation to protect means that a government is obliged to prevent third parties from interfering with the enjoyment of this human right. This would mean, she said, protecting local communities from pollution and inequitable extraction of water by corporations or governments.
Why is there opposition to the proposed Energy East pipeline?
Many people in Canada oppose the plans of TransCanada because the pipeline:
- poses serious threats to local water supplies, communities and coastal waters;
- would result in a huge increase in tar sands production, releasing tens of millions of additional tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere each year;
- would stand in the way of the alternative energy future that’s needed.
In December, over 60 environmental and community groups across the country sent a letter to the National Energy Board demanding that climate change be included in its review of the Energy East project. The letter was in addition to 60,000 messages sent from people all across Canada to the NEB calling for a climate review.
Before the end of the year, public opposition to Energy East escalated after author Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois donated his $25,000 Governor General’s Literary Award to an on-line anti-pipeline fundraiser. The crowdfunding site for ‘Coule pas chez nous’ raised $385,330 to fight Energy East.