TransCanada held their ‘open house’ for the Energy East project in Stittsville last week. And what a show it was. Around 40 employees, mostly PR professionals (not high-ranking TransCanada execs or engineers) packed a room at a local area. Large glossy posters framed the space, accompanied by tables packed with more glossy leaflets letting us know that everything is under control, that this will benefit the country. 

Gone are the days when companies held actual consultations. There was no presentation. There was no open mike or chance to hear from concerned residents or local councillors. Local media actually learned about it because of our media advisory, not TransCanada’s advertising (practically non-existent) of the open house. Instead, they are opting for a highly controlled, divide-and-conquer style PR event. So controlled was this ‘event’ that a local activist with Decline 9 got escorted out and asked to leave the property by police for simply holding up a sign.

I spent most of my time last night outside of the open house talking to attendees. Many people emerged from the event overwhelmed, describing it as ‘too polished,’ and ‘sugar coated.’

I was there alongside my colleagues Dylan Penner, Jan Malek, six local Ottawa chapter activists to press TransCanada with tough questions and connect with people attending the event. We had a table set up with our pipeline spin talking points, fact sheet, petition (15, 000 signatures and counting) and buttons. We brought two blown up images of tar sands pipeline spills to visually convey the risks Ottawans are being asked to bear. We were joined by Ecology Ottawa, Ottawa, Ottawa Greenpeace, Save Canada and Decline 9. 

People were very receptive to our concerns. In particular, people living close to the pipeline are worried about the impacts of a tar sands diluted bitumen spill on their land as well as the Rideau river and the Oxford aquifer (labeled highly vulnerable, the pipeline crosses on top of this aquifer that feeds private water wells for large stretches). We also heard questions about how the proposed conversion will impact access to natural gas in Ottawa — according to a presentation from Enbridge Natural gas distribution to Ottawa city councillors, Ottawa could be as  much as 25 per cent short of supply in the coldest months. Certainly some people raised questions about how many jobs this could generate and whether it is needed to meet Atlantic energy needs. Questions we were happy to discuss, highlighting TransCanada lousy track record on job promises (look no further then Keystone XL), the jobs put at risk from a pipeline or tanker spill, and reality that this is about profits and getting tar sands crude to international waters to fetch world oil prices.

We distributed over 100 buttons and collected numerous signatures for our petition and made connections with local residents wanting to become more involved. Local media was present and coverage has generally been good.

I also had a chance to participate in the open house. I’ve collected TransCanada’s information and look forward to going through it thoroughly. Until I have the chance, here are two ‘gems’ from their PR machine.

TransCanada: Diluted bitumen is not harder to clean up than conventional crude.

Tell this to the residents of Kalamazoo Michigan where an Enbridge pipeline spilled 3.8 million litres of diluted bitumen in the Kalamazoo river. The bitumen sunk to the bottom of the river. According to local media, “This was the first time the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] or anyone has done a submerged cleanup of this magnitude,” said Ralph Dollhopf, the EPA Incident Commander for the Kalamazoo spill. “I would never have expected… that we would have spent two or three times longer working on the submerged oil than surface oil. I don’t think anyone at the EPA anticipated that, I don’t think anyone at the state level anticipated that, I don’t think anyone in industry anticipated that.” (Source)

TransCanada’s assertions may refer to a highly questionable industry-backed study. Enbridge has already spent over a billion dollars trying to clean up the mess but the river still remains polluted. The focus now is on containing the submerged bitumen. Also relevant to people along the Energy East route, when the Kalamazoo spill happened, the chemicals (including benzene and toluene) used to dilute the thick bitumen began off-gassing impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of the local population with symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, headaches, coughing and fatigue. We are unsure of the long-term health impacts (source).

TransCanada:  Pipelines have a 99.99% safety record

Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? I’ll need to do some additional research to understand where this number is coming from, but here some other ‘facts.’

People living in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario face heightened safety risks. The Mainline, a series of natural pipelines, one of which is to be converted to carry crude under the Energy East project, has a scary past. The pipeline to be converted ruptured 18 years ago near Rapid City, Manitoba. The rupture was large enough that the fire spread to the nearest natural gas pipeline. According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the rupture was caused by, “external stress corrosion cracking.” Shipping diluted bitumen in this pipeline means using fluctuating pressures as well as creating higher friction and temperatures, all of which raise the risk of pipeline corrosion. So does hydrogen sulfide contained in diluted bitumen (source).

TransCanada wants to assure us with their top of the line technology and prevention plans.   TransCanada made the same promises to residents near the first Keystone pipeline, a converted natural gas pipeline now carrying diluted bitumen. Despite their promises, the pipeline spilled no less than 12 times in its first year of operation. 

According to Evan Vokes, a former TransCanada engineer and pro pipeline advocate, now whistleblower:

“TransCanada Pipelines has a culture of non-compliance and deeply entrenched business practices that ignore the legally required regulation and codes. The mix of political and commercial interests allows industry to claim they exceed federal requirements when they are building substandard pipelines with no enforcement or accountability in the process.” (source)

The Council of Canadians is committed to opposing the Energy East pipeline. The export pipeline would pose serious threats to local water supplies, communities and coastal waters. It would promote expansion of the tar sands that have made massive profits for corporations, leave contaminated water, land and air for nearby communities and stand in the way of the alternative energy future we need.