Energy East Concern: Canadian Oil for Canadians

The Energy East issue raises serious questions about local democratic processes and transparency, and what those who govern us understand about the risks this major pipeline project poses. It also brings to the forefront a big question about how and from whom these decision-makers get their information and just how reliable it is, especially when it is coming from TransCanada itself.

Today we’re going to put TransCanada’s credibility to the test by examining just one of the many highly questionable “benefits” it has shared with our largely receptive elected officials. From slide decks they used at County and North Grenville Councils there is a selling point: Canadian Oil for Canadians. It suggests two things: energy independence and the ethical superiority of Canadian bitumen.

Their slides show how Quebec and the Maritime Provinces are reliant on imported oil; it could be up to 80% of their needs. They mention how Canada takes in 736,000 foreign barrels per day and imply that some of the 3.7 million barrels of daily bitumen production could be used to satisfy Canadian demand. An interesting suggestion that even Elizabeth May has made.

So why isn’t it already being done? It’s certainly not for a lack of transportation infrastructure; we’ve seen rail already being used to move bitumen across Canada. One reason is because there’s no capacity in Eastern Canada to refine such heavy crude.

But TransCanada is appealing to our sense of patriotism with their “nation-building project” by implying the opportunity to make ourselves energy independent. So why aren’t fossil fuel companies already stepping up to satisfy this supposed demand to “buy Canadian” at the pumps? You can bet that if these companies thought money could be made doing it, they would. But they don’t see a return on the multi-billion dollars of investment needed to build heavy oil refining capacity, so they continue to buy the oil their refineries need from offshore.

Ultimately, with Energy East there is no plan to refine heavy oil in Eastern Canada. What we do know about their plan is that partner company Irving Oil intends to build big tanks and big loading terminals in St John NB so that big tankers can take it to where those heavy oil refineries already exist, and that’s not in Canada.

One last note: making the country energy-independent was essentially the core concept of the National Energy Program (NEP) in the 80’s. It is strangely paradoxical that opposition politicians have invoked the lingering anger from the NEP and Pierre Trudeau against Justin Trudeau, yet advocate for this project claiming the same benefits as the NEP which, nonetheless, will not be delivered: hardly ethical.

Which brings us to the second part: there’s more to this proposal than a hint about making Canada energy independent. There is also the “ethical oil” theme: where oil from so many foreign sources is compromised by the ethics of their governments, unlike the purity of the Canadian product, or so the argument goes. It sounds good until one actually examines the claim.

We blatantly saw this in a widely used image: foreign flags on gas pump handles, and a question asking you where you would like your fuel to come from. It had flags of countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Angola, Venezuela and Canada. It figured prominently in Energy East web-based advertising, with images like these on the “Energy East Action Network” website for “grassroots support”; a website paid for by TransCanada.

The image has since been scrubbed, probably because the overt use of the “ethical oil” argument has since become a source of embarrassment for the cause. It hasn’t however, stopped the use of such flag imagery: it is still being used to this day by TransCanada as a “dog whistle” to those who want to believe the “ethical oil” argument has merit, and are in presentations TransCanada has recently given to County Council.

So, how “ethical” is bitumen when compared to other oils? First the others: there’s Saudi Arabia’s record of women’s rights and human rights in the Yemen; there’s separatist conflict in Angola, an unstable economy in Venezuela, and sectarian violence in Iraq. And then there are the companies that are operating in such places, many of which are also mining bitumen in Alberta: companies like NEXEN, SUNCOR and the Chinese company CNOOC (a communist State Owned Enterprise). Doesn’t operating in less “ethical” countries tarnish them and by extension their global product, including Canadian bitumen?

And then there is dilbit. When shipped by pipeline it is 30% diluent, possibly from Saudi Arabia. Presumably, it is then 70% ethical, at best.

But is Canada or its bitumen beyond ethical reproach? Consider the tar sands ecosphere: 170 square miles of land in Alberta dug down 40 meters, massive tailings ponds and a mountain of sulfur. And the industry has put aside 1% of the money necessary to remediate it when it winds down. Don’t be fooled: despite the rhetoric, it is impossible to believe there will be funds available to replace the boreal forest when the carbon bubble bursts (the story is the same for Alberta’s oil wells). It is hard to imagine that until the sands of time cover it up again, it will be anything other than a health and environmental risk as well as a public liability. Where are the ethics of that?

And what of the health concerns from environmental toxicity for peoples and First Nations in the region? Governments past have deliberately neglected environmental measurement to avoid knowing the impact. Not so ethical.

All we see are knowingly misleading claims that leverage patriotic emotions for an offering that is not included in the plan, and far outside any reasonable expectations for industry to deliver. But it sounds good if you want to believe it, if you don’t think twice, and if you don’t ask questions.

If Mayor Gordon knows better, I would like to see the evidence. I don’t buy “gag orders” or the excuse that he can’t share because the source of his information doesn’t want its identity revealed.