Parkland Institute
Op-eds | October 15, 2012

Shipping Alberta bitumen to China? It’s a very slow boat

Parkland Institute

October always brings shorter days, falling leaves and the bite of frost. This year, frost in Alberta is also coming from politics, as British Columbia Premier Christy Clark digs in her heels over the proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline to take sands oil to China.

In landlocked Alberta, oilsands operators are desperate to get their bitumen to ocean side, any ocean side, to find the sweet spot of much higher international prices. Blocked by U.S. President Barack Obama from getting to the Texas Gulf coast by a temporary hold on the Keystone XL pipeline, corporate hopes quickly shifted to pipelines to the B.C. coast.

As B.C. opposition to oil pipelines rises, eyes turn east. Going east to bring Alberta oil west across the Pacific may seem like a slow boat to China. But certain advantages have been trumpeted by the likes of Derek Burney, who was chief of staff to Brian Mulroney and sits on the board of TransCanada Pipelines, and Eddie Goldenberg, who was chief of staff to Jean Chrétien. One example: the bitumen could flow over existing rights of way and have fewer regulatory hurdles.

Burney and Goldenberg mention the pipeline bringing oil security to eastern Canadians by replacing oil imports, some of which comes from the “politically uncertain Middle East.” That’s a side benefit. It’s clear that for them, the west-to-east pipeline is mainly an easier route to export Alberta oilsands oil. Blocked in the south, blocked in the west, go east.

Some were surprised to see Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair jump on the bandwagon of a west-to-east oil pipeline. Why is Mulcair in bed with the likes of Burney and Goldenberg?

Before we wax too lyrically about bipartisan agreement on a big economic project that could bring jobs and national unity, let’s look at political obstacles.

If you think B.C. opposition to the Northern Gateway pipeline is fierce, wait until you see Quebec’s opposition to letting “dirty oilsands oil” into and through their province. Quebec holds the key to such a pipeline. You can’t get through Canada to New Brunswick without passing through Quebec.

The same goes for the United States. Canada’s consulate in Boston is promoting the arrival of oilsands oil to New England states. The only way it could get there without building a wholly new pipeline is by reversing the direction of the existing line from Portland, Maine, to Montreal. That pipeline has operated since 1940 and brings oil imports northwest into Quebec. Portland to Montreal might be a short cut to the Atlantic, but still has to go through Quebec. Quebec holds the trump cards.

It would be best for corporate advocates of a west-to-east pipeline to brush up on the meaning of “accueil glacial” — French for frosty reception.

Last year I was in Montreal speaking to environmentalists. As a long time advocate of using domestic oil to ensure Canadian rather than American oil security, I asked them if Quebec would take western oil. The answer seemed to be yes if it was non-fracked, conventional oil.

But if it’s “oilsands” oil, they’re not interested. They’d rather stick with oil imports from Algeria, merci.

The difference now is that Quebec has a sovereignist government and the environmentalists have been brought in from the cold. Daniel Breton, a longtime, prominent green activist and Quebec’s new environment minister, went so far as to declare that “the greens are in power now.”

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has welcomed Mulcair’s endorsement of a west-to-east oil pipeline. But is Mulcair really in their camp?

Mulcair declares, as he consistently has, that although he does not favour shutting down the oilsands, he does favour enforcing tough environmental regulations on all energy producers. Mulcair frames his support of the west-to-east pipeline more as Canadian energy security than as an export route for the oilsands. For Canada, energy security means energy independence.

If a future NDP government in Ottawa gets tough on all greenhouse gas emitters, will the oilsands pass the test? If not, and the PQ is in office, could we see a west-to-east oil pipeline bring only non-fracked, Canadian conventional oil to Quebecers and Maritimers to prevent them from freezing in the dark, and as a transition fuel to a post-carbon future?

If so, I will welcome that future fall, no matter how frosty.

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