Two pipeline megaprojects that would support Alberta oilsands production are at the moment stalled and seem unlikely to proceed. A third one, TransCanada Pipelines' Energy East project, is entering the technical design and political consent stages. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government should look carefully at the reasons why Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline and TransCanada's Keystone XL fared badly. They should smooth the way more adroitly for Energy East.
The great thing about Energy East is that most of the heavy lifting was done half a century ago. The Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent persuaded natural gas companies to form a consortium and build a gas pipeline across the Prairies and Northwest Ontario to bring Alberta gas to Central Canada. The companies might have preferred a cheaper route through the U.S. Great Lakes states. The Liberals lost the 1957 election on account of their arrogant demands for prompt parliamentary endorsement of their plan. But meanwhile the all-Canadian pipeline route was cleared, filled, drilled and blasted from Central Alberta to the Ottawa Valley. It has been carrying Alberta natural gas to Central Canadian customers from that day to this and is available now to carry bitumen from the oilsands.
A great deal of new construction is still required. A line through Eastern Quebec and New Brunswick is proposed to bring bitumen to Saint John. New sections of pipeline will have to be built in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Eastern Ontario. New terminal facilities will have to be built at the eastern and western ends of the system. The advantage is that Alberta bitumen producers will have a new way of bringing their material to market. Oil customers in Quebec and the Maritimes -- who now rely on crude oil shipped from North Africa -- will have a new source of supply.
Enbridge's Northern Gateway project awaits approval from a federal inquiry panel. The panel has not turned the project down but it has issued an extremely long list of difficult questions Enbridge would have to answer to win approval. The project is inherently difficult; its proposed route runs through high mountains, across salmon streams and through the territory of First Nations who have little to gain from it and much to lose. In July 2010, Enbridge had the misfortune to spill a large volume of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It was severely criticized by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board for sloppy management. All political parties in B.C. are opposed to the Northern Gateway project as it stands, though the governing Liberals are willing to negotiate.
TransCanada's Keystone XL is a hostage of U.S. party politics. It cannot be built without the consent of Democratic President Barack Obama, who counts on environmental movements to keep his party strong. Environmentalists in the U.S. reason that blocking the pipeline will prevent development of the Alberta oilsands and thereby slow the growth of U.S. energy consumption and the production of greenhouse gases. The outcome of the U.S. domestic debate about the merits of the pipeline is out of Canada's hands.
In light of these experiences, the government should offer a large role to First Nations and provincial governments along the route of the Energy East line. It should not leave all the community consultation to TransCanada but should create its own forum though which communities and provinces can express their objections and shape the project in its early stages. Once the regulatory hearings start, the battle lines will already be drawn.
Mr. Harper was in Saint John last week saying that Energy East was a very, very exciting project that would create jobs for the benefit of the whole country. This sounded a little too much as though he was already listening to TransCanada. He should show that he is also attentive to communities along the line and to their provincial governments. He should not let his excitement get the better of him.