Veteran activist Tzeporah Berman refers to Energy East as “Energy Beast” and for good reason.

“The Energy East pipeline poses unacceptable risk to Canadian communities,” says Berman. “We don’t need this dangerous pipeline unless we’re making a decision to dramatically expand the tar sands. We need a conversation in Canada about whether or not we’re going to expand the tar sands, how quickly and how we’re going to address climate change.” 

At 4,400km in length, projected to carry 1.1 million barrels a day across Canada from west-to-east, TransCanada Corp’s Energy East pipeline proposal is the largest and longest of all the pipeline proposals being considered by the National Energy Board (NEB) — the same people that recently rubber-stamped the Line 9 pipeline project.

A recent Pembina Institute study indicates that, if approved, Energy East could lead to the production of more than 30 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each and every year. The Council of Canadians reports that, in New Brunswick alone, the pipeline would cross 195 waterways and run through an estimated 180 Indigenous communities on traditional lands. 

There is 3,000km of existing pipeline for natural gas transport and 1,400km will be added to extend it to the east coast where its product will be refined and shipped across the Atlantic by tanker. The product that will be moved in this new plan, however, is not natural gas. The 55+ year old pipeline is being repurposed to carry tar sands crude in the form of highly corrosive and toxic diluted bitumen or dilbit.

The pipeline is one of Canada’s oldest, was never built to carry dilbit and already has a history of leaks. A dilbit spill isn’t only likely, it’s inevitable, and the consequences will be disastrous. 

Bitumen is a kind of crude oil found in sand deposits and it’s the heaviest crude oil used today. The Alberta tar sands contain a mixture of sand, water and oily bitumen. It is the third largest petroleum reserve in the world. Because bitumen is so viscous, it needs to be diluted in order to flow through pipelines to refineries. The diluents vary depending on the particular type of dilbit being produced, but frequently include benzene, a known human carcinogen. 

Bitumen is also much heavier than light crude, so if it spills into a waterway it won’t float, but will sink. In 2010, over one million gallons of dilbit spilled into the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan. Most of the spill is still in the riverbed, despite ongoing efforts to clean it up.

However, toxification of the environment and risk to human and animal health aren’t the only concerns. There is ample evidence that increasing the production of fossil fuels will lead to catastrophic climate change. 

According to Council of Canadians Political Director Brent Patterson, the Energy East could prove to be an environmental disaster. “We are facing the prospect of catastrophic climate change if we don’t change course quickly.” Environmentalists and climatologists are no longer the only people expressing concern and alarm. 

Last June, the relatively conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) issued the report World Energy Outlook. In it, the IEA’s chief economist estimated that two-thirds of oil, gas and coal reserves need to stay in the ground if the global temperature is to stay within the two-degrees-Celsius increase that scientists say is the absolute limit to how much the global climate can warm before we begin to experience extreme climate change. It is estimated that we’ll reach this threshold in as little as three years.

If two-thirds of fossil fuels do not stay in the ground, climatologists estimate that the planet has perhaps eight to ten years until catastrophic irreversible global climate change. 

At a recent talk, Berman related a conversation she had with an executive. “I mentioned to this executive what the International Energy Agency said about keeping two-thirds of fossil fuel in the ground, and he said, ‘Are you nuts? Do you know how much money that is?'” Money, for the 1%, trumps the planet. 

The fossil fuel industry has vast resources, a powerful PR machine and wall-to-wall television ads telling people how much prosperity the tar sands bring and how they’ll return the land and waters to their former pristine glory. Even if this were possible, the ponds containing millions of litres of toxic tailings remain an issue, as containment ponds have been known to leak. 

Even so, both Berman and Patterson are optimistic. “We can and will, stop this pipeline,” says Patterson. 

Patterson says that researchers at the Brisbane-based Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining looked at 50 significant extractive project proposals. They found that in 25 of them, local people launched a ‘project blockade,’ and that 15 of those 25 projects were either suspended or abandoned. “So it is possible with determination, popular support and community resistance to stop multi-million dollar companies like TransCanada from pursuing destructive projects.” 

The problem is, how do we respond to the fossil fuel PR machine and build popular resistance to projects like Energy East? 

There is a consultation process the NEB is obliged to follow, but the NEB has had all of its teeth removed and is considered little more than a mouthpiece for the Harper government.

During the Line 9 hearings, the NEB imposed a difficult and restrictive process whereby communities could submit objections within a very tight time frame. As a result the consultation process was effectively strangled and few people were given a voice. Those who did manage to make submissions found that their recommendations were left out of the final decision.

Some of the communities most affected by pipelines are First Nations, and they are sometimes the communities with the fewest resources to allow them to effectively participate in the legislated consultation process. Even when they submit, they are dealing with a government that rarely respects or even acknowledges treaty rights. 

During the Line 9 hearings several First Nations took part in public hearings as interveners, while others submitted letters of comment to the NEB, arguing that a spill from the aging pipeline could adversely affect their rights.

Chippewas of the Thames Chief Joe Miskokomon said the federal government did not consult meaningfully with First Nations. “We feel that this raises the possibility of new impacts beyond the [pipeline] right-of-way and we are concerned about our water resources and the environment,” says Miskokomon. “The federal government has to consider our treaty and Aboriginal rights enshrined in the Constitution.”

On the west coast, B.C. First Nations have seen more success. They have expressed opposition by forming pipeline blockades, a non-violent direct action that blocks right-of-way. They and their supporters have caused several pipeline proposals to stall, or halt altogether. 

If the Harper government, via the NEB, is shutting down the voices of Indigenous peoples and others during the consultation process, then perhaps the voice of reason alone is not enough. If the Harper government refuses to acknowledge people’s voices, perhaps they’ll sit up and take notice of their actions.

Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer and moderator for rabble’s discussion forum, babble.

Meg Borthwick

Meg Borthwick (aka Rebecca West) is a babble moderator and has been a member of rabble.ca since 2001. She has a decorative liberal arts degree in Quoting Chaucer at Dinner Parties (English/Drama double...