Last week was manic for pipeline politics in Canada. Alberta was smarting from a smack-down by Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre after all the mayors of metro Montreal came out against the Energy East pipeline. On Tuesday comedian Rick Mercer ranted in favour of Energy East. The same day PM Trudeau hastily tried to smooth things over with Coderre. The next day the entire Iroquois Caucus declared their opposition to the project. On Friday, all the provincial and territorial environment ministers came together—for the first time in a decade—to meet with Federal Environment Minister McKenna to discuss climate policy.
The nattering class had plenty to talk about! Some were even calling this a national unity crisis. Could these bitumen pipelines create the perfect storm to create a unity crisis? Brian Lee Crowley is not shy to name call. For him any opponents to bitumen pipelines are “… notoriously resistant to reason and evidence.” Supposing he is correct, and supposing the same is also true for supporters of pipelines, what can we do? How to shift the interests here in Canada to resolve this impasse?
I’ve been reading Canadian political economist Gordon Laxer’s new book, After the Sands, which lays out an ambitious plan for energy and ecological security for Canada. I don’t know what to make of it all yet, but it is worth intellectually engaging his argument. In fact, his plan could provide the secret sauce necessary to build the Energy East pipeline.
Here’s a select list of his proposed actions: a) phase out oil sands over a few decades, b) end energy exports to the US, which would require, c) a renegotiation of NAFTA, d) only allow the Energy East pipeline to carry conventional oil (not bitumen or fracked oil) in order to supply all oil-related needs in Ontario and Quebec, e) redirect Newfoundland oil to meet all the needs of Atlantic Canada, f) negotiate with indigenous people as a sovereign nation, g) retrain workers in the fossil fuel industry. This list goes on but this should be plenty to tackle for now!
Could Laxer’s plan ever happen? Likely not, given the caustic politics I described above; we would need a perfect storm to do so. Perhaps the election of NAFTA-opposing Bernie Sanders and a Democrat-controlled Congress, a Liberal federal government in Canada, an NDP government in Alberta, a global energy crisis, and a breakthrough in renewable energy technology. Maybe that perfect confluence isn’t so far away?
Allow me a brief diversion for a history lesson. Most Canadians don’t realize the political and economic conditions under which previous major interprovincial pipelines were built. KinderMorgan’s TransMountain pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver was built in 1953, in response to a North American energy crisis caused by the Korean War. It required a special act of Parliament by the Louis St. Laurent Liberals to construct the pipeline. A few years later in 1956 and in response to the Suez Crisis, TransCanada’s existing gas pipeline from Alberta to Montreal was built, amidst extreme controversy, and ended up contributing to the downfall of the St. Laurent government in 1957. Enbridge’s Line 9 from Sarnia to Montreal was approved and largely paid for by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government amidst the energy crisis of the 1970s and Ottawa’s push for energy self-sufficiency. Every single major interprovincial pipeline that has been built in Canada was in the context of a major energy crisis. They all had their respective perfect storm conditions that shifted interests sufficiently to get the pipelines built. Now back to Laxer’s plan.
Would greens agree to Laxer’s plan? Concerns around the problems of bitumen spills would be lessened. But conventional oil—as was seen with the BP Gulf of Mexico spill—is not without problems. If forced to choose between bitumen or conventional oil, any environmentalist worth their salt would pick conventional oil. Nevertheless, without a major program to push forward renewable energy and sustainable transportation, this plan would be decried as a false choice or a bait and switch. The Laxer plan would also end oil sands growth, which would be heralded by environmental groups and be much stronger than the 30% allowable increase under the new Notley climate plan.
I’m skeptical that many First Nations would agree to Laxer’s proposal without a major overhaul in how the government negotiates with them. The Trudeau government is well aware of the work needed to repair their relationship with indigenous peoples. To the Liberals’ credit, the Prime Minister has been moving forward, at least with respect to dialogue, with First Nations. Free, prior, and informed consent would be critical. Health care, education, economic development, and environmental protection are all priorities that need to be addressed before you would see the Iroquois Caucus or the Union of BC Indian Chiefs agreeing to any additional pipelines.
Let’s now assume that anti-pipeliners turn down Laxer’s plan and are successful at preventing any new additional export pipelines—an increasingly realistic scenario. There is still sufficient pipeline capacity for a few more years. After then, rail may become a better option. Oil sands emissions would still increase (up to Notley’s emission cap). Canada also assumes it will have access to affordable energy (i.e., at non-economy-crippling prices) during the next oil supply shock. Canada is still forced to see the majority of its oil to only one market, as required under NAFTA. With the Laxer plan, there is a chance to substantially reduce emissions and assert more control over energy supplies.
In the end, this debate over a bitumen export pipeline may evolve into something more than a national unity crisis. It could coincide—like it has for Liberal governments of yore—with a global energy or financial crisis. The election of Bernie Sanders and a democratic sweep of Congress, increasingly plausible if Trump wins the Republican nomination, would push Laxer’s plan into the realm of the possible. Seeing this pipeline debate under the narrow gaze of national unity actually limits the potential solutions available to politicians. Instead, and not without an acute sense of irony, imagine seeing the pipeline as an opportunity to be in right relation with indigenous peoples, to address climate change and energy insecurity.
In my next blog post I’ll write about how the Laxer plan could, or could not, shift the interests of the oil industry and the investment community.