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Energy East to ignite pan-Canadian battle over Alberta’s oil sands

Oil analysts predict a smoother approval for the Energy East versus Northern Gateway or Keystone XL, even as protests over the $12-billion project heat up in Eastern Canada

Aerial of Syncrude oil sands facilities near Fort McMurray -  Andrew S. Wright
Photo by Mario Pelletier - Infodimanche
Energy East Map - Alberta Saskatchewan Manitoba - Council of Canadians
Energy East Map - Alberta Saskatchewan Manitoba - Council of Canadians
Aerial of Syncrude oil sands facilities near Fort McMurray - Andrew S. Wright

So far, conflicts over the expansion of the Alberta tar sands have centered on giant pipeline projects into B.C. and the U.S., where fierce opposition from environmentalists, Aboriginals, citizens and farmers have effectively stymied the Northern Gateway and Keystone XL projects.

Now, Eastern Canada will soon get a taste of these oil sands dramas.

TransCanada said Tuesday it is “within weeks” of submitting its federal application for the Energy East proposal – a gargantuan $12-billion pipeline to pump Alberta crude to Quebec and New Brunswick export terminals and refineries. 

Trans Canada route map - Environmental Defence

Energy East route map by Environmental Defence

The pipeline would cross hundreds of communities, while also approaching major cities – Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

“Now all of a sudden, the entire country is under threat of tar sands pipeline expansion with these pipelines coming through their communities,” said Ben Powless, with Ecology Ottawa on Tuesday.

Already on the weekend, one of the pipeline's proposed refineries in the small Quebec community of Cacouna (population 2,002) saw some 2,000 people rally against the TransCanada project, reported the Montreal Gazette.

Cacouna Energy East protest October 2014 - Infodimanche

Energy East protest in Cacouna, Quebec on Saturday - Infodimanche

Nation-building, or climate ruining?

If built, the massive Energy East pipeline would cross six provinces to become the longest in North America, and the third largest in the world. 

The Prime Minister sees the 4,600km pipeline as a grand, nation-building enterprise.

“This is an extremely exciting project,” said Stephen Harper last year while at the Irving oil plant in St. John New Brunswick which also hopes to receive the Alberta bitumen.

“It’s a project that will assure all of Canada will benefit from our energy industry,” he told the Globe and Mail at the time. 

Environmental and citizens’ groups are already ramping up in response to the pipeline. 

The Council of Canadians says the 1.1 million barrels per day pipeline would enable a 40 per cent expansion of the oil sands, and a dramatic increase of climate worsening greenhouse gases.  The pipeline would also transport the bitumen across 961 waterways, the council calculated.

Energy East will likely get built: oil analyst

Yet, oil industry insiders see the project as having a good shot at getting built compared to the beleaguered Keystone XL and Northern Gateway proposals.  Dirk Lever analyzes the oil pipeline industry for AltaCorp Capital in Calgary:

“Nothing is a slam dunk – but this one, compared to the other two has a lot less issues,” said Lever on Tuesday.

A huge advantage for Energy East, said the investment analyst, is that the pipeline does not break a lot of new wilderness.

“It is an existing pipeline.  It has been carrying natural gas for years.  It will now carry oil instead.”

TransCanada pipeline construction - TransCanada photo

TransCanada pipeline construction - TransCanada photo

Using a railway analogy, Lever said while other pipelines propose to build a “brand new railway” across new territories – Energy East is like replacing the rails on an existing national railway that the company already owns.

“Politically, it’s a lot more palatable than building a new pipeline,” said Lever.

A huge economic plus, he said, is the eastern tanker ports also allows Canadian oil sands producers to sell their growing supply of bitumen at a premium world market price, rather than the much-complained about price Americans currently provide.

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Athabasca tar sands, photographed by Andrew S. Wright

Tar Sands Reporting Project

Our award-winning team's crowd-funded series on the people, places and conflicts associated with Canada's tar sands.