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Quebec ‘Non’ looms over west-to-east pipeline gambit

Gordon Laxer

Toronto Star (Also published in the Edmonton Journal Oct 12, 2012 as "OpEd: Shipping Alberta bitumen to China? It's a very slow boat")

October 13, 2012



October always brings shorter days, falling leaves and the bite of frost. This year, frost in Alberta is also coming from politics, as B.C. Premier Christy Clark digs in her heels over the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline to take bitumen from the oilsands to China.


In landlocked Alberta, oilsands operators are desperate to get their bitumen to the coast, any coast, to find the sweet spot of much higher international prices. Blocked by U.S. President Barack Obama from getting to the Texas Gulf coast by a temporary hold on the Keystone XL pipeline, corporate hopes quickly shifted to oil pipelines to the B.C. coast.


As B.C. opposition to oil pipelines rises, eyes turn east. Going east to bring sands oil west across the Pacific may seem like a slow boat to China. But Derek Burney and Eddie Goldenberg trumpet its advantages. The bitumen could flow over existing rights of way and have fewer regulatory hurdles.


Burney and Goldenberg mention the pipeline bringing oil security to eastern Canadians by replacing oil imports, some of which come from the “politically uncertain Middle East.” That’s a side benefit. It’s clear that for them, the west-to-east pipeline is mainly an easier route to export Alberta sands oil. Blocked in the south, blocked in the west, go east.


Some were surprised to see Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair jump on the bandwagon of a west-to-east oil pipeline. The NDP joins the likes of Burney, who was chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and on the board of TransCanada PipeLines, and Eddie Goldenberg, who was chief of staff to Jean Chrétien. Why is Mulcair in bed with them?


Before we wax too lyrically about bipartisan agreement on a big economic project that could bring jobs and national unity, let’s look at political obstacles.


If you think B.C. opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline is fierce, wait until you see Quebecer’s opposition to letting “dirty tarsands oil” into and through their province. Quebec holds the key to such a pipeline. You can’t get through Canada to New Brunswick without passing through Quebec.


The same goes for the U.S. Canada’s consulate in Boston is promoting the arrival of sands oil to New England states. The only way it could get there, without building a wholly new pipeline, is by reversing the direction of the existing Portland, Me., to Montreal line. That pipeline has operated since 1940 and brings oil imports northwest into Quebec. Portland-to-Montreal may be a shortcut to the Atlantic, but still has to go through Quebec. Quebec holds the trump cards.It would be best for corporate advocates of a west-to-east pipeline to brush up on the meaning of “accueil glacial,” French for “frosty reception.”


Last year I was in Montreal speaking to environmentalists. As a long-time advocate of using domestic oil to ensure Canadian rather than American oil security, I asked them if Quebec would take western oil. The answer was yes if it was non-fracked, conventional oil. But if it’s “tarsands” oil, we’re not interested. We’d rather stick with oil imports from Algeria, merci.


The difference now is that Quebec has a sovereigntist government and the environmentalists have been brought in from the cold. As Daniel Breton, a long-time, prominent green activist and Quebec’s new environment minister, declared: “The greens are in power now.”Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver welcomed Mulcair’s endorsement of a west-to-east oil pipeline. But is Mulcair really in their camp?


Mulcair declares, as he consistently has, that although he does not favour shutting down the oilsands, he will bring in and enforce tough environmental regulations on all energy producers. Mulcair frames his support of the west-to-east pipeline more as Canadian energy security than as a sands oil exporting route. For Canada, energy security means energy independence.


If a future NDP government in Ottawa gets tough on all greenhouse gas emitters, will the oilsands pass the test? If not, and the PQ is in office, could we see a west-to-east oil pipeline bring only non-fracked, Canadian conventional oil to Quebecers and Maritimers to prevent them from freezing in the dark, and as a transition fuel to a post-carbon future?


If so, I will welcome that future fall, no matter how frosty.


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