Why Ontario must take action on the Energy East pipeline

OPINION: The proposed project puts North Bay’s water supply — and future — at risk
By David Tabachnick - Published on September 13, 2017
The pipeline would run under Trout Lake, North Bay’s source of drinking water. (Twitter)

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NORTH BAY — Many residents of North Bay are breathing a sigh of relief now that TransCanada has decided to reassess the viability of its Energy East pipeline project — but some feel the province should be doing more to protect their community.

The project would involve converting a natural gas pipeline so that it could carry bitumen from western Canada to refineries in the East. What has locals concerned is that it would travel under the Trout Lake watershed, North Bay’s sole source of drinking water.

The company put its plans on hold in the wake of the National Energy Board’s decision to evaluate the project’s projected greenhouse-gas emissions, which the Pembina Institute calculates would amount to 32 million tonnes. But opponents remain anxious — and the province remains unwilling to consider the very real threats the pipeline poses to the area.

While regulating interprovincial pipelines may be a federal responsibility, provinces still play an important role in protecting citizens from their negative impacts.

In British Columbia, the NDP campaigned on its opposition to the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, calling it “not in B.C.’s interest.” After a close election result in May, which saw the Liberals with 43 MLAs and the NDP with 41, the party formed a coalition government with the Green Party. Newly minted premier John Horgan took a hard line with the federal government, which had approved the project late last year, saying, “We also have abilities with respect to permits on stream crossings and other issues that require provincial responsibility, and we’re going to exercise those.” The attorney general warned, “It is government’s desire to seek intervenor status in legal challenges to federal approval of the pipeline expansion and increased oil tanker traffic off B.C.’s coast,” which environmental groups claim will threaten endangered killer whale populations.

The proposed route of the Energy East pipeline was reviewed and altered after environmentalists warned it would also compromise endangered beluga whale populations in Quebec. But its planned course still takes it directly under the Trout Lake watershed. If there were a line rupture, thousands of litres of oil sands bitumen would pour into the lake. Unlike natural gas, which bubbles up and is released into the atmosphere, a heavy oil spill would eventually sink to the bottom of the lake, making clean up extremely difficult, if not impossible. In its submission to the Ontario Energy Board, the North Bay­­­–Mattawa Conservation Authority warns that “the environmental impact of a spill or leak of crude oil could potentially have a catastrophic impact on our watershed — resulting in destruction of water quality, natural heritage, and health of the ecosystem.”

In this instance, it would not be whales that would be threatened, but the 54,000 residents of North Bay and the future viability of the city itself. Understandably, local municipal leaders have strongly opposed the route and have demanded protection of the watershed. Even the local federal MP, Anthony Rota, has come out against putting the pipeline under Trout Lake. 

But, unlike British Columbia's government, Ontario’s Liberals seem uninterested in the potential dangers of the pipeline in their province. While advancing a rather implausible argument that the project is part of the province’s climate change strategy, Premier Kathleen Wynne endorsed it early last year. “We appreciate that there is a need for a way to get Canadian oil, which is allowed under Alberta's new emission cap, to overseas markets,” she explained. “And the people of Ontario care a great deal about the national economy and the potential jobs this proposed pipeline project could create in our province and across the country.”

The premier is by no means alone in the province in her support of the project. TransCanada argues that thousands of jobs are at stake in Ontario, and it has won broad support from such groups as the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association. Despite concerns over recent derailments of tanker cars near Gogama, a town roughly 200 kilometres north of Sudbury, the pipeline secured the tentative support of Thunder Bay city council.

After the defeat of the Conservatives in the last federal election, Trudeau’s government demanded new assessments through the National Energy Board, which prompted TransCanada to put the project on pause, and may still kill it altogether. Now is the time for Premier Wynne to recognize the devastating consequences this pipeline could have on North Bay. It is time for the province to demand a rerouting of the pipeline or to demand, not just a pause, but a complete cancellation of the Energy East. 

David Tabachnick is a professor of political science at Nipissing University in North Bay.

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