Canada doesn't need the Energy East pipeline to replace oil imports

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With three proposed oil pipelines seemingly down for the count, Jeffrey Simpson made the case last week for the last one standing -- TransCanada's Energy East pipeline to New Brunswick. Its main benefit? It would replace imported oil with 1.1 million barrels from Alberta and Saskatchewan and keep $8 billion in Canada.

Or would it? Is a pipeline from distant Alberta needed to replace oil imports?

Obama killed the Keystone XL oil pipeline; Trudeau killed the Northern Gateway line by banning oil tankers in the treacherous waters off B.C.'s northern coast; and Christy Clark's B.C. government opposes the expansion of Kinder Morgan's existing oil pipeline to the Vancouver area.

In contrast to those purely exporting pipelines, Energy East could replace most of Canada's oil imports.

Ending oil imports matters a lot. Eastern Canadians could finally get energy security. That's something Ottawa has continually promised Americans by offering them more Canadian oil, but it has never offered Quebeckers and Atlantic Canadians. Ending oil imports is the surest way to their energy security.

But, although TransCanada dresses up Energy East as a nation-building project like the Canadian Pacific Railway and the TransCanada Highway, its main purpose is to export oil from Alberta's Sands.

The Irving oil refinery in Saint John New Brunswick is the eastern terminus for TransCanada's line. Energy East's proposed volume is so great, that it far exceeds Irving's capacity. According to Mark Sherman, plant manager at the Irving Oil refinery, "It's way more than we would ever use at this refinery, so the bulk of it would all be exported."

Irving imports and exports lots of oil. It has no track record of displacing oil imports with domestic oil although it easily could. Big Oil produces enough Newfoundland oil to supply all Atlantic Canadians. Yet Newfoundlanders don't even get access to their own oil. They'll be very vulnerable in an international oil shortage. 

Would Energy East supply Quebec's two refineries? Perhaps, but not with much at the moment. Last month Enbridge reversed the flow of its Line 9 oil pipeline from Sarnia to Montreal, so Suncor in Montreal and Valero in Quebec City now get Alberta bitumen and Western Canadian conventional oil. They also get a growing amount of shale oil from North Dakota. 

Lest anyone thinks U.S. oil is more secure than Middle East oil, Matt Simmons, a former energy advisor to George W. Bush warned that the U.S. would shut Canada off in an oil supply emergency.

It could make commercial sense for Big Oil to offload domestic oil in Canada before exporting the rest, but this incidental security would end if exports become more profitable.

Oil on the Energy East line would go to the highest bidder unless Canada adopts an eco-energy security plan. 

U.S. oil imports should be replaced by non-fracked, non-Tar-Sands oil from western Canada carried on a much scaled down Energy East line that ends in Quebec.

Atlantic Canadians are particularly exposed, depending on imports for more than 80 per cent of their oil to heat their homes and fuel their cars through long icy winters.

But why run a pipeline 4,000 kilometres from Alberta when Ottawa could direct that Newfoundland oil to supply all Atlantic Canadians.

Most Atlantic Canadians live on or near a coast. There is no need to pipe it when it can be shipped. That would avoid incursions on First Nations lands. To meet Canada's ambitious Paris climate commitments, oil tankers could be phased out as East Coasters' oil use falls, whereas a pipeline would need three decades of shipping Tar Sands oil at full volume to amortize its building costs. 

Alberta's Tar Sands are the fastest growing source of Canada's greenhouse gas pollution. Canada cannot cut its GHG emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050, its G8 commitment, if Tar Sands emissions grow by 43 per cent, as Alberta's latest climate action plan permits. Alberta's Tar Sands can't be greened. They must be phased out.

Canada doesn't need the Energy East pipeline to replace oil imports. As Canadians steadily reduce colossal energy waste, they can live on a diminishing supply of domestic, non-fracked oil and natural gas liquids as they transition to a socially just, low-carbon future.

Gordon Laxer is author of After the Sands. Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians and is the founding director of Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta.

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