TransCanada, frustrated in its attempt to build the U.S. Keystone pipeline, now wants to build a tar sands super highway across the Canadian shield to the Atlantic. It’s expensive, risky, and likely to get the go ahead.
Is this a good thing? Money will flow to Alberta and to Big Oil for sure. Energy prices won’t drop but some Canadians might feel a little cozier believing their country is enhancing its energy security. And oil pipelines are safer than shipping crude by rail, right?
In reality, Canada’s oil sands are more burden than bounty. This quagmire of oily gunk is perverting Canadian democracy, befouling the air, and surging the loonie out of all global proportions.
First off, tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest ways to produce fuel, as Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization,” argued in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times:
“It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production. It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles.”
But this kind of criticism often gets drowned out in this emerging petro-state called Canada with its petro premier and its largely petro-’pliant press. The cheer leading has been evident for the past several weeks. Even Canadian opposition parties are cowed into not speaking up against the oil sands hegemony.
The Canadian government and Alberta are desperate for a winning plan to unlock the massive reserves in the tar sands. TransCanada would really, really like to build the Keystone XL line down the spine of the U.S. to feed Gulf Coast refineries, the most cost-effective way to get millions of barrels of crude to export markets. U.S. President Obama is not keen, in fact he’s begun to mock the project. Then there is Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project which involves building a pipeline across the Canadian Rockies. Both those projects face big hurdles.
So now we have Plan C, the west-east pipeline. TransCanada aims to send 1.1 million barrels a day of tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries and export terminals in Eastern Canada. Price tag: a cool $12 billion.
“This is an historic opportunity to connect the oil resources of Western Canada to the consumers of Eastern Canada, creating jobs, tax revenue and energy security for all Canadians for decades to come,” said company president Russ Girling in a statement.
Others beg to gag …. ‘er differ.
“You can’t build a nation around a project that will poison water, violate treaty rights and further accelerate a global climate crisis that is already resulting in weather disasters around the world,” Greenpeace energy climate campaigner Mike Hudema told Copy Carbon. “Given the industry’s poor spill record, every community along this proposed route has reason to worry.”
TransCanada plans to use an old natural gas pipeline and convert it to transport oil, while building new sections in eastern Canada so it can feed refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick. Some or even most of the crude could be exported, although there is not a clear picture now of where the crude will ultimately end up.
Using an existing natgas line could prove unnerving for many. After catastrophic accidents in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Mayflower, Arkansas, we know pipeline companies are accident prone.
“While using an existing pipeline may reduce TransCanada’s costs, it increases spill risks for the many rivers, lakes and communities along the route,” said Andrea Harden-Donahue, Energy Campaigner with the Council of Canadians, in a emailed statement.
Keystone may prove hard to build. It’s also hard to see more green-minded British Columbians ever agreeing to the Northern Gateway project. But this west-east pipeline is effectively underway as of this week if Quebec can be brought onside, which seems likely.
We can argue until the oil runs dry about how long we will remain dependent on oil to fuel our existence. But smart people, companies, and countries are scrambling to find a path away from fossil fuel dependency. Canada, with its oil sands obsession, is not among them.