In July 2010, a ruptured pipeline spewed 840,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River, forcing an evacuation and coating birds and plants with an oily slick. One of the worst onshore spills to ever happen in the United States, the leak caused $800 million in damages and resulted in a $3.7-million fine against pipeline owner Enbridge Inc., which was severely criticized for its handling of the disaster.
Given this recent history, it is hardly surprising that some environmentalists are now sounding alarms about Enbridge's plans for the Line 9 pipeline that runs through southern Ontario, including the Waterloo region. What happened in the U.S. could happen here, they reason, noting a spill into the Grand River would pollute water many communities depend upon and cause environmental shock waves down into Lake Erie.
The scrutiny from these critics is certainly raising public awareness that Line 9 is here and that Enbridge has new plans for it. That public attention is desirable. At the same time, it seems entirely reasonable that the federal government regulator has given Enbridge the go-ahead for at least part of its latest proposal, the section that runs from Sarnia to east of Cambridge.
Line 9 has been transporting oil for almost 40 years and we cannot recall it causing a significant problem in this area during that time. Since the 1990s, Line 9 has carried crude oil, originating in the Middle East, West Africa and the North Sea, from Montreal to Sarnia. What Enbridge now proposes is to reverse this flow of oil, carrying a light crude that originates in Western Canada from Sarnia to Montreal. Same kind of oil, but it would flow in the opposite direction.
By all means, Enbridge should be held to the highest standards for environmental safety. But there are strong arguments for approving Enbridge's proposal. Today Eastern Canada, the most populous part of the nation, relies mainly on oil supplies from other countries. It has no access to the rich oilfields of Canada's own West.
Why not change this situation? Supplying eastern Canadians with Canadian oil would make this country more energy self-sufficient. Consumers buying domestic oil would boost Canada's economy, not the economy of some country on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Because the cost of North American oil is lower than that of foreign crude, Canadians might save money at the gas pumps and on home heating bills. And while there are, admittedly, risks with this proposal, no one should forget all the environmental calamities that have happened after oil tankers ran aground -- or that a similar crisis could occur off Canada's East Coast. Beyond all this, there is the potential for this pipeline to take Canadian oil to new export markets, lessening our dependence on the increasingly uncertain American market.
So, yes, we think the National Energy Board should approve Enbridge's request to reverse the flow of light crude on all of Line 9. However, if, as seems likely, Enbridge later seeks the go-ahead to send Alberta oilsands diluted bitumen -- a heavier, more corrosive substance -- through this pipeline, permission should come only after the most thorough and rigorous of reviews.
In 2012, public suspicion of big oil corporations (BP was just fined $4.5 billion over the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster), pipeline companies and government regulators must be expected. History has taught us the folly of complacency.
And yet the advanced, technological society that is home to most Canadians in 2012 cannot exist in its current form without oil. We use it to get around, to stay warm, to grow our food, to get our food to us and for all the plastic products we rely on. It drives our economy, too. So yes, we need strong environmental regulations controlling oil pipelines. But we need what these pipelines carry.