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Pipe dreams: a book review

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Anyone with an interest in the Trans-Mountain pipeline project would do well to read Jacques Poitras’ recent Pipe Dreams: the fight for Canada’s energy future.  It’s a clear, balanced narrative, province by province, from Alberta to New Brunswick, of the story behind the now-defunct Energy East pipeline project.

I was well aware that there was popular support in Alberta for the project, a pipeline that would have crossed much of the country from Hardisty, Alberta to the deep water port of Saint-John, New Brunswick.  And of course I knew about the opposition in Quebec, opposition that got a lot of exposure in the national media.

What surprised me – because it never seems to be reported – what the opposition in Ontario.  Poitras interviews many an activist such as Cuyler Cotton or Teika Newton, as different as can be: he’s Ojibway, she’s white and a daughter of a pipeline welder, but they are both adamant that no job is worth the risk to drinking water of a spill of dilbit.  The opposition, throughout the book, usually centers on that particular theme, the need to protect drinking water.  Much of that stance is held by First Nations people, and the book provides a fine insight into the very legitimate reasons for that.

Meanwhile, the recurring motif of the pro side is that a pipeline is safer that shipping oil by train, citing the horrid Lac Mégantic derailment that leveled part of the town and killed 47 people.  This is a position that I never quite understood, when it comes to the bitumen from the tar sands.  Bitumen has to be diluted into dilbit in order to be able to flow and be pumped as a liquid in a pipeline.  But there is no reason to dilute it to transport it by train (any spill of pure bitumen would be relatively benign).  The technology to do so exists (see here, here, and here) and it seems to have been an enormous strategic error on the part of Alberta to insist on pipelines and nothing else.  Spills of dilbit are just as scary in BC, and this is the fear of spills that motivates much of the opposition to the Trans-Mountain pipe.

Be that as it may – what ultimately did in Energy East was not environmental concerns, it was the simple fact that the oil market is depressed and the prices for crude have remained low, destroying the business case for the pipe.

The same may well be said for Trans-Mountain.  One of the key Quebec activists in the Energy East dispute was Steven Guilbeault of Equiterre.  He told the author that “time is our friend” – that is based on many economists’ expectations that the days of high price for crude are over.  This is the same Steven Guilbeault who is now a Liberal MP, likely to play a role in any future decision by the Trudeau government about the future of Trans-Mountain – a pipeline that we, Canadians, now own, and which will require some face-saving strategy that will be interesting to watch.

But I’m left with a strong impression: if Trans-Mountain is merely delayed by opposition, it will never happen.  The business case is just not there.  Sorry, Alberta.

Poitras, Jacques 2018. Pipe Dreams: the fight for Canada’s energy future. Toronto: Viking.


Written by enviropaul

November 3, 2019 at 5:00 pm

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