Activists and protests shook up the usually staid proceedings of the National Energy Board in Montreal and Toronto this month when the regulatory body and the battery of oil industry lawyers that follow it met to deal with Enbridge’s proposal to reverse “Line 9B.”

The trade union representatives connected to the hearing, myself included, had very mixed feelings about the protests. I could not help but be pleased that the NEB was forced to deal with an engaged public response, because there could not be a more remote regulatory body, hand picked by a government that is little more than a shill for the oil industry. The protests, of course, are in part the result of the Conservative government’s new rules that exclude the democratic participation of many groups and individuals from the NEB process because they are seen as radicals delaying energy development.

I wished that there was this kind of activist response to the many NEB pipeline hearings in the past where Unifor’s predecessor, CEP, and the Alberta Federation of Labour largely stood alone connecting giant bitumen export pipelines to an unsustainable model of development that does not meet Canada’s public interest.

But the irony in Montreal and Toronto is that in this particular instance, I gave evidence to the NEB in support of the reversal of 9B, which will take crude oil from Westover, Ontario to Montreal. Line 9A from Sarnia to Westover was approved last summer. The evidence I gave on behalf of my union was based on the same analysis and argument as for our strong opposition to five previous pipeline projects: Keystone 1, Alberta Clipper, Southern Lights, Keystone XL and Northern Gateway.

For many activists in Toronto and Montreal, Line 9 represents “tar sands oil” coming through local communities and opposing Line 9 is their way of campaigning against the climate change and environmental impacts of the tar sands.

After seven years of fighting the unsustainable development model in the “bitumen sands,” Unifor and the Alberta Federation of Labour came to a different conclusion about this project. Our conclusion is different because this project connects to a different model and is different in several ways.

Unlike Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and the others, Line 9 is not an export pipeline and it ends in Montreal. It could be converted to an export line in the future, but there is no current proposal for that. Moreover, it is not the size of a typical export pipe, less than a third of the volume of KXL, and less than half the volume of Gateway. Line 9 is instead import substitution and will displace imported crude oil at Quebec’s refineries. It will provide about 75 per cent of the current capacity of those two refineries.

That is why energy workers see Line 9 not as part of the export model but as part of an east-west, Canadian energy security model where we process our resources to meet our own needs.

Line 9 does not by itself represent a sustainable Canadian energy strategy. But it connects to this strategy and secures enhanced job security for thousands of refinery and energy workers who are an essential part of meeting our energy needs.

We also see Line 9 differently in terms of environmental sustainability and climate change. The Line 9 reversal is not one of the giant export pipes that is driving the unsustainable pace of development taking bitumen sands production from less than 2 million barrels per day to over 5 million barrels per day over the next 25 years. There is no doubt that such a trajectory would make any meaningful climate policy impossible and would result in the near complete moonscaping of northern Alberta and much of Saskatchewan.

But how to reverse that unsustainable path, which is already well on course with approved projects and massive capital investment committed? There is no way to change the model without a national energy strategy that makes development serve the public interest and reduces GHGs.

Through its counsel, Steven Shrybman, the union told the NEB last week that this strategy has three pillars:

– Canadian energy security to meet our own needs and to take responsibility for our total GHG emissions.

– Jobs and value added production instead of a policy of exporting ever greater volumes of raw bitumen.

– Sustainability to make all production meet mandatory GHG reduction targets.

Sustainability also includes addressing the legitimate concerns of First Nations before proceeding with energy and pipeline development, and it means tough regulatory measures to force pipeline companies like Enbridge to better protect workers and communities from spills and accidents. This is particularly important for Line 9 which is a 40-year-old infrastructure already existing near sensitive rural and urban environments and which must be upgraded to meet the highest standards of process safety. On this score, the City of Toronto, the Ontario Conservation Authority, community groups and the union spoke with one voice at the Toronto hearings.

One key part of building a Canadian energy strategy to accomplish these goals involves bringing our own resources to Eastern Canada which presently imports 60 per cent to 80 per cent of its crude oil needs — brought by oil tankers and now transported by rail car from the U.S. At the same time we must transition to a more sustainable energy path, substituting less carbon intensive fuels and renewables and putting in place just transition measures for affected workers and communities.

In an economy as dependent on fossil fuels as ours, achieving these goals is complex and the struggle is full of contradictions. For example, Line 9 provides a route for Canadian crude oil to get to Montreal, but now we learn that a significant part of the crude, at least in the short term, will come from the American Bakken shale oil deposits in North Dakota and Montana. Bakken oil is continentalism turned on its head and undermining Canadian energy security.

It is also the oil version of the new natural gas trend of replacing our own Canadian gas with cheap fracked gas from the U.S. The dramatic stand off over fracking at Elsipogtog, New Brunswick, has focused a new and perhaps larger energy policy challenge that will also be key to a sustainable energy path for Canada and justice for First Nations.

The Line 9 hearings last week could not but bring back memories of past fights before the NEB where we were told repeatedly that jobs and environmental issues were “irrelevant” to NEB decisions. We have yet to score a win with the NEB or the federal government for a sustainable Canadian energy policy, and I would not argue that approval of 9B should be taken as that victory.

But neither will fighting every barrel of oil, wherever its is from or wherever it is going, and by every dangerous mode of transport from pipelines to rail cars to oil tankers, bring us towards sustainability. Simply opposing energy projects, from pipelines to wind farms, has not addressed our insatiable demand for energy nor the over-arching crisis of climate change. The latest report of the IPCC on global climate change, and the knowledge that Canada is nowhere near meeting even Harper’s non-credible climate targets should underscore the need for workers and environmentalists to be focused on an energy plan that will make a difference. 


Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson is the assistant to the President of Unifor.