Thursday, March 26, 2015

Political & Economic Leaders Who Support Energy East are Acting Against Your Best Interests

TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline project will transport diluted bitumen from Saskatchewan to Ontario through a 40-year old converted natural gas pipeline, and then from Quebec to New Brunswick through a new pipeline.  With a capacity to transport 1.1 million barrels of oil per day (almost twice that of Northern Gateway), it will be the largest oil pipeline in North America, as well as one of the longest.

Energy East’s proposed route through Northern Ontario will take it through or near the communities of Kenora, Dryden, Hearst, Kapuskasing, North Bay and Mattawa. Some of these communities have sought intervenor status at Ontario Energy Board (OEB) and National Energy Board hearings (NEB). The OEB has been holding meetings now for several months, attracting both those in favour of and opposed to the pipeline. National Energy Board hearings are likely be restricted only to those individuals and organizations “directly impacted” by the pipeline, and will assess a much narrower scope of issues as a result.

"Public" Consultations?

The City of North Bay has been in the forefront of opposition to Energy East, primarily because the existing TransCanada pipeline is located in very close proximity to Trout Lake, from which North Bay derives its drinking water. At this time, it's unclear whether the National Energy Board will entertain hearing the City's submission, and that of the North Bay-Mattawa Conservation Authority, although I think it will be difficult for the NEB to make the case that the City isn't “directly impacted” by the project (see: "City, conservation authority file to NEB", the North Bay Nugget, February 26, 2015).

North Bay's private citizens, however, may not be able to participate in the NEB's public hearings. Changes made by the government of Canada to the way in which the National Energy Board operates now mean that only a very narrow segment of the public will be able to participate in the hearings. These changes were implemented after the Northern Gateway hearing was forced to entertain submissions from members of the public and First Nations, many of whom did not reside along the route but who had an interest in protecting the environment, and in mitigating climate change.

The Climate Change Impacts of New Pipelines

Of course, unlike the environmental assessment process – the sort of process just about every other western nation uses to evaluate this kind of massive infrastructure proposal – the NEB's process is scoped so that it can't assess climate change impacts from the material in the pipeline itself. The NEB insists that it has no authority to assess upstream or downstream activities associated with the development of the tar sands, but as we found out with Northern Gateway, the NEB used the transport of the material as an economic justification for the project – it just didn't want to acknowledge the climate change impacts (see: “Rethink Energy East pipeline”, Sudbury Steve May, the Sudbury Star, October 18, 2014).

And make no mistake, there will be climate change impacts. The only reason Energy East, Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain and TransCanada's international Keystone XL, are now being proposed is to facilitate the expansion of the Alberta tar sands. At current production levels, there would be no need for additional pipeline capacity. But that's not the plan. The governments of Canada and Alberta want to more than double tar sands from the present 2 million barrels per day to 5.2 million barrels per day by 2030. Former federal Minister of Natural Resources is on record insisting that new pipeline capacity is essential in order to expand the tar sands (see: “Joe Oliver on Keystone: Pipeline Expansion Still Needed Despite Price-Gap narrowing, Oliver Says”, the Canadian Press, March 18, 2013).

Some argue that since the bitumen is going to be mined and find its way to market anyway, that there's really no point in assessing the climate change impacts from an expanded tar sands. While this argument is pervasive (even the U.S. State Department used it in its assessment of Keystone XL), it is limited and fails to take into account Canada's international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other economic factors such as the decarbonizing of the economy which is already underway.

Canada Leads the Way Forward Into the 19th Century

Of course, those who favour mining bitumen over the health of the planet will continue to believe that any international commitment to decrease greenhouse gas emissions either doesn't apply to them, or isn't worth the paper its printed on. And with good reason. Canada's historic indifference to international climate agreements, coupled with rising emissions, has done little to dampen the spirits of those whose bottom line depends on the extraction of some of the most emissions-intensive oil on Earth. When Canada unilaterally pulled out of the Kyoto agreement, the signal was a clear one that we would not be bound by these sorts of agreements. Our subsequent behaviour at the United Nations has done everything to reinforce our lack of interest in curtailing tar sands production (see: “Green leader accuses Tories of sabotaging climate talks”, CBC News, November 29, 2012).

Of course, pulling out of Kyoto, throwing monkey wrenches into international climate talks, eliminating a real environmental assessment process for infrastructure projects and moving full steam ahead with new pipelines has all happened on the watch of Stephen Harper's Conservative government. That's the same government which promised to regulate the oil and gas industry's emissions back in 2007, and after failing to take action for 8 years, finally came clean in 2014, insisting that there would be no regulations (see: “New oil and gas regulations would be 'crazy' Harper says”, the Toronto Star, December 9, 2014).

Some have suggested that the current Conservative government has a bit of a pro-oil bent, and will do whatever it can to make sure that Alberta bitumen is mined and shipped offshore for refining. Some have drawn a connection to the fact that the Conservatives hold 85 of 87 seats in Alberta as a reason for their pro-Alberta policy shift, which has seen environmental regulations eviscerated and economic development opportunities in anything other than fossil fuels and infrastructure shunted aside in preference to oil.

The Economics of 2 Degrees C

Yet, we know that if we are to hold the line of warming at 2 degrees Celsius, which is the threshold beyond which the best available science tells us we should not go, we know that the majority of the world's known fossil resources will have to be left in the ground. We know this. Stephen Harper's Conservatives know this. But they don't seem to care – really, there's not much more than can be said beyond the notion that this Conservative government of Canada has continued to put the interests of fossil fuel companies ahead of the interests of citizens. Except maybe to say that they have successfully managed to convince a plurality of Canadians to vote against their own interests at the ballot box in the past several federal elections. And that they may be able to pull it off again later this year.

The evidence that Harper's Conservatives are acting counter to the interests of Canadians – and humanity – is starting to add up. A recent report by Christopher Glade, University College London, concluded that up to 85% of the tar sands' known reserves will need to stay safely sequestered in the ground if we are to hold the line of warming at 2 degrees Celsius (see: “Most of Canada's oil sands must stay in the ground if world to limit global warming: Report”, the Canadian Press, January 7, 2015). This builds upon earlier studies, along with comments made by former Bank of Canada governor (now Bank of England governer) Mark Carney about the need to sequester fossil resources if we the world is going to meet its international obligations to keep emissions in line. Despite the assertions from Conservative climate-change deniers, Carney refers to resources like the Alberta tar sands as “stranded assets”, meaning that the reserves which we all thought would be money-makers, will in fact prove to be essentially worthless in the coming green economy (see: "Mark Carney defends climate change economic study”, CBC News, March 11, 2015).

Carney and others have gone further. They are concerned about a looming “carbon bubble” of suddenly devalued fossil assets – assets like those the Governments of Canada and Alberta are actively planning to exploit by expanding tar sands production to more than twice its current capacity by 2030. Assets like new pipelines designed to ship bitumen to coastal ports to be loaded on tankers to be refined overseas. In the coming economy, these assets may very well prove to be worthless (see “Mark Carney: most fossil fuel reserves can't be burned”, the Guardian, October 13, 2014).

What's clear is that continuing to make investments in fossil fuel infrastructure (like the Energy East pipeline) to facilitate the expansion of the Alberta tar sands not only makes zero sense from a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, it makes no sense at all from an economic standpoint either. Yet, the Harper government continues to plan for the expansion of the tar sands enterprise – and to subsidize some of the world's most profitable oil companies to the tune of $26 billion a year (see: “IMF pegs Canada's fossil fuel subsidies at $34 billion”, Mitchell Anderson, The Tyee, May 15, 2014).

Canadian Governments and Climate Change

With all of this in mind, it seems completely out of step with reality that the National Energy Board isn't taking into consideration the climate change impacts of what's going to travel through the pipe. It's like building a new Highway 401 and forgetting to assess what sort of impacts all of the cars and trucks will have on the asset. And of course, the NEB isn't even looking at the long-term economic impacts of tar sands expansion either – except in the most positive light.

It's almost as if Canada never made any commitment at all back in 2009 in Copenhagen to reduce emissions by 17% of 2005 levels by 2020. Of course, given Canada's track record so far, it's questionable whether the government ever had any intention of being serious about reducing emissions (see: “Even with proposed emissions regulations Canada won't meet ghg targets: commissioner” Global News, October 12, 2014). Given Canada's desire to pursue the expansion of the tar sands and to start a new liquified natural gas (LNG) industry in Northern British Columbia, it's pretty clear that our economic policy has been completely at odds with our international commitment.

Of course, when it comes to ignoring climate change impacts, the Conservatives are in good company. Recently, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard announced that their provinces would assess the climate change impacts the Energy East pipeline. This commitment was extremely short-lived, for after a whirlwind visit from Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, Wynne and Couillard backed off – and had the audacity to claim that they never actually said what they had said. Clearly, something got to these two eastern Premiers (see: “Ontario Liberals 'Blowing Smoke' on Climate Change”, Sudbury Steve May, December 12, 2014).

Follow the Money

One of the biggest contributors to the Liberal Party of Ontario has been the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA). Between 2004 and 2011, LIUNA gave the Ontario Liberals more than three quarters of a million dollars in donations. LIUNA has been sending out its reps to stack OEB hearings in Northern Ontario communities. LIUNA believes that building Energy East makes sense – and seems to be prepared to grease whatever wheels it takes to make it happen (see: “Energy East Footsies: LIUNA, the Liberals and the NDP”, Sudbury Steve May, November 11, 2014).

Of course, LIUNA is a pretty small player when compared to multinationals like TransCanada, Kinder Morgan and Enbridge. It's not always easy to connect the dots about how some of these massive corporations operate, but every now and again their dealings come to light.

We know that TransCanada was considering engaging in a campaign to build artificial support through social media for Energy East (see: “Edelman's TransCanada Astroturf Documents Expose Broad Attack on Public Interests”, DeSmogCanada, November 24, 2014). Concerns were also raised about TransCanada's donation of $30,000 for a new rescue truck for the Town of Mattawa in Northern Ontario – a community which the Energy East pipeline will traverse. TransCanada's donation came with a gag order attached which required the municipality to remain silent on the pipeline proposal. After all of this came to light, both TransCanada and municipal officials engaged in damage control, telling the public that the gag order was nothing of the sort (see: “TransCanada donation to Ontario town comes with 'no comment' condition”, the Toronto Star, July 5, 2014).

Corporate Lobbying of Municipal Officials

What we can definitively take away from the Mattawa episode is that corporations like TransCanada are clearly engaging with municipal officials in communities along the pipeline's route. Exactly what is going on behind closed doors at our municipal offices remains to be seen, for unlike Ontario and Canada, corporate lobbyists have a free hand to do whatever they please in all but 3 of Ontario's 444 municipalities (see: "Registering Lobbyists Will Shine a Light on Back Room Deals”, Sudbury Steve May, March 10, 2015).

Indeed, both the Northern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) and the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) passed resolutions in 2014 supporting TransCanada's Energy East pipeline. It's not at all clear why these organizations for reps from northwestern (NOMA) and northeastern (FONOM) Ontario have taken the extraordinary steps to endorse the pipeline – a pipeline which will lead to the expansion of the Alberta tar sands and act against the interests of Northern Ontarians.

In FONOM's submission to the Ontario Energy Board, the organization cites a good working relationship with TransCanada and the number of jobs the pipeline corporation has created in northern communities as one of the reasons for supporting the pipeline. FONOM's submission, however, fails to even mention the reality of climate change or how a changing climate is already negatively impacting northern communities.

Connecting the Dots

Of course, elsewhere FONOM has been vocal with their characterizations of those who are concerned about the environment, referring to environmental organizations as benefiting financially from attacking the resource sector and Northern Ontario's economy, and showing a disregard for facts (see: “Northern Ontario gets a “SLAPP” in the Face from FONOM”, Sudbury Steve May,, March 2, 2015). This is the sort of extremist rhetoric which Stephen Harper's Conservative government has used in the past to describe what the RCMP now grossly mischaracterizes for the purpose of instilling fear in the populace as an “anti-petroleum movement” (see: “Anti-petroleum movement a growing security threat to Canada, RCMP say”, the Globe and Mail, February 17, 2015).

Although we can't know what's happening behind the closed doors of our municipalities, and which of our elected municipal officials are actively being lobbied by fossil corporations to take actions which will further imperil Canada's ability to achieve our international climate change commitments, it is possible in some circumstances to connect the dots. For example, Kapuskasing Mayor Al Spacek is also the Chair of FONOM. In 2011, Spacek ran unsuccessfully for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party in the Northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, losing out to the NDP's Gilles Bisson. Other members of FONOM have affiliations with the Conservative and Liberal parties, and still a few others are associated with the NDP.

The Conservatives, Liberals, NDP & Energy East: 3 Peas in a Pod

That would seem to cover the entire political spectrum, except for the fact that it doesn't. To be clear, the federal Conservatives and provincial Liberals both support the Energy East pipeline, although each respective government will insist that they will rely on the advice offered to them from the NEB and OEB decisions – decisions which will fail to assess the climate change impacts of the infrastructure proposal.

The federal NDP has long been on record for supporting the Energy East pipeline as well. However, their position has recently become somewhat more nuanced. The NDP now appears to support the pipeline, but not the regulatory approach to allow it to be built. The NDP has recently come on board with concerns over the climate change impacts of the pipeline – impacts which the NEB insists it has no mandate to assess. What is clear, however, is that NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada, laid out how the expansion of the Alberta tar sands would be a priority for his government, and how it would be facilitated by a new east-west pipeline (see: “A new vision for a new century. Our plan for a prosperous and sustainable energy future”, New Democratic Party release, December 4, 2013).

It's certainly not clear to me how a political party can be both seriously concerned about climate change on the one hand, and eager to expand the tar sands by building new pipelines on the other, but that appears to be the state of affairs with today's NDP.

The only national political party which has publicly opposed the Energy East pipeline is the Green Party of Canada. In Quebec, the new Forces et Democratie party has also come out in opposition to Energy East.

Why Your Opposition Matters

With major corporations, unions and Canada's three largest political parties, the federal and key provincial governments all on the same side when it comes to Energy East, one has to wonder whether there's any point in opposing the project. Clearly, there is. Clearly, when it comes to climate change, Canada's international commitments and holding the line of warming at the scientifically recognized threshold of 2 degrees Celsius, so many of our political and economic institutions just aren't taking things seriously. They continue to hold fast to a rapidly disintegrating economic paradigm based on non-renewable fossil energy.

The tide of history is shifting, however, and the green economy is emerging. It will take some time, and along the way we will continue to foolishly waste our scarce fiscal resources on planet-destroying fossil energy solutions. Every action in opposition, however, will slow down the rate of these bad decisions, and help build a truly sustainable economy based on renewable energy. Slowly, the paradigm will change, and the political and economic institutions which resist will either be transformed or cast aside. Change is inevitable, because it must be. Some of our political and economic leaders have already received that memo and are acting on it. Others will follow.

In the meantime, doing what we can to prevent the wasteful and dangerous Energy East pipeline will go a long way to help.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)  

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