Fighting a bad case of pipeline paranoia

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Time was when the Energy East Pipeline proposal was the least controversial and troublesome of all of New Brunswick’s options for fossil-fuel-based industrial development. In fact, it was a no-brainer.

Encourage line builder and operator TransCanada to reverse the flow in one of its existing pipes, build a bunch of extensions, including one into the Saint John refinery and, hey presto: instant construction jobs for at least a few years.

Those, of course, were the good, old days. Times change.

Last spring Maude Barlow, national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, told the North Bay Nugget in an extensive interview, “I want to let communities know not to be pressured to make a decision or risk not getting the benefits of the pipeline. I can tell you there are no benefits. There’s no argument for this pipeline. It’s an export pipeline and we don’t need it. . .We get the risk and (oil companies) get the reward.”

What’s more, she added, “I would like to know what are the big jobs, because this pipeline is for export. It’s about greed. They’re playing with a potential environmental catastrophe that environmentalists have been warning about. . .It’s so much more dangerous (than any other oil) and it’s crossing watersheds and many waterways around the Great Lake Region that are already being threatened. We certainly don’t need to add to that threat.”

To which TransCanada, ever sensitive to bad press, of which it sees a lot these days, replied on its own website:

“Quebec and New Brunswick currently import more than 700,000 barrels of oil every day – or 86 per cent of their refinery needs – from countries such as Algeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. At current oil prices, this is over $75 million drained out of the Canadian economy – every single day. Energy East proposes to connect Western Canada’s resources to Eastern Canada’s needs. Greater supplies of domestic crude would improve the financial viability of eastern Canadian refineries by giving them access to less-expensive, stable domestic supplies.”

That’s not all: “Once this primary purpose is served, Energy East will supply export markets. TransCanada has always been open about this and it is not something we are shying away from. Exports are a good thing for our country. They provide economic growth. They create jobs. They generate tax revenue that helps our provinces build new universities, resurface hundreds of kilometres of highways or provide our seniors with home care.”

None of which has prevented environmentalists from legally delaying the work in sensitive habitats along the St. Lawrence River.

Meanwhile, some major natural gas customers in central Canada want TransCanada to assure them they won’t be ripped off when (if?) the project is completed.

To some extent, this is part of national pattern of pipeline paranoia. Both the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway initiatives, which would send Alberta crude west to the sea and south to the United States, are mired in controversies and concerns about leaks and spills.

But the larger, existential issue is what these pipes represent. As the Green Party of New Brunswick’s election campaign platform explicitly stated: “Discourage increases in the production and use of fossil fuels by denying permits for new fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Energy East pipeline.”

That’s all well and good, but not especially practical. Our essential paradox is that we still need dreaded fossil fuels if only to help power our shift away from them – to drive many of the engines of ingenuity that will generate durable solutions to our sustainability problems.

Premier Brian Gallant should be commended for his sturdy support of Energy East. “I am quite confident we can do (this) in a very sustainable way,” he told a news conference in Saint Andrews, N.B., last week. “I’m also convinced the economic benefits are very exciting for our country and our province. So I am going to go around and speak to other provinces and within our province, to New Brunswickers, as to why this is important.”

Indeed, it’s a no-brainer.

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