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Gordon Laxer: West-to-east pipeline sounds good, but isn’t

For years, I was a voice in the wilderness calling for an oil pipeline to bring western oil to eastern Canada. Now that Trans-Canada and Enbridge each have plans to build one, I should be pleased. But I’m not.

For years, I was a voice in the wilderness calling for an oil pipeline to bring western oil to eastern Canada. Now that Trans-Canada and Enbridge each have plans to build one, I should be pleased. But I’m not.

Canada is in the absurd position of promising the U.S. oil security through the export of oil from Alberta, while Canada itself is the most oil-insecure country in the global north. While Canada exports two-thirds of its oil, 99 per cent of that to the U.S., Quebec and Atlantic Canada rely overwhelmingly on oil imports, half of them from the volatile Middle East. Unlike all other member countries in the International Energy Agency, Canada has no strategic petroleum reserves to use when the next oil-supply crisis strikes.

Despite a short-term surge in U.S. oil output, global oil production has not grown since 2005. It is not likely to in the future, either. Oil pipelines to the east, then, could finally bring Canada the energy security we need. If they were dedicated to serving Canadians first, they could catapult Canada from the most oil-insecure country to the head of the line.

Why, then, am I skeptical about TransCanada’s proposal to partially convert its natural-gas Mainline pipeline to an oil pipeline to Quebec and perhaps New Brunswick, and about Enbridge’s plan to reverse its Montreal-to-Sarnia, Ont., pipeline to bring western oil to Quebec?

Because it’s all about exports and corporate profits, and has nothing to do with energy or environmental security for eastern Canadians. Big (mainly foreign) Oil and the big pipeline corporations seized on sending Alberta oil east after they were blocked from shipping oilsands oil south through TransCanada’s planned Keystone XL line to Texas and west via the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to the B.C. coast. Shipping oil from Alberta 4,400 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean sounds like a slow boat to China, but Big Oil is desperate to get oil to where oil prices are higher.

But whatever the motivation for building them, won’t the west-to-east oil pipelines make eastern Canadians more energy-secure? Not necessarily. That incidental benefit could quickly be dropped if and when Big Oil decides that exports are more lucrative than supplying Canadians with their own oil. The federal government has made it clear that it will not intervene to provide Canadians with energy security the way all other countries in the International Energy Agency do. “We don’t tell the companies to put the pipelines here or there,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared last year.

Instead of supplying domestic conventional oil to eastern Canadians as part of a national eco-energy plan to transition Canada off fossil fuels, this is just another oilsands-exporting ploy. If it succeeds, it will sink Alberta and Canada even deeper into a “hewers of wood” trap — which is also a carbon trap. Do we want to be an innovation-based economy or a resource-based economy?

Canadians are the stewards of 1/14th of the world’s land mass, with only 1/200th of the world’s people. We spew 1/40th of the world’s greenhouse gases into the biosphere that we share with all humanity and other life forms. Do we want Canada to be branded even more deeply as the world’s carbon bad boy?

The only saving grace of the proposed west-to-east lines is that the six refineries east of the Quebec-Ontario border have limited capacity to handle the heavier oil from the oilsands. At least at first, most of the oil in the pipelines would be lighter, less environmentally damaging crude oil. But there is no guarantee this would last.

We shouldn’t expect environmentalists elsewhere to do all the heavy lifting in getting us to cap and then phase out dirty sands oil. Canadians in every region should demand that their governments say no to allowing sands oil to pass through their province.

Former federal international trade minister David Emerson warned about the danger of Alberta failing to diversify its economy. His 2011 report for the Alberta Premier’s Council for Economic Strategy said that “the creation of an affordable, environmentally friendly alternative to oil would be a great thing for the world,” and warned: “It could be economically devastating for Alberta if, when it happens, we are still heavily dependent on oil exports.”

Unfortunately, the Alberta and Canadian governments seem to have no plans to avoid that coming trap. Instead, they deliberately mix up the interests of big, mainly foreign, oil corporations with those of Albertans and Canadians. But it is not in Albertans’ interests to get stuck being a “fossil-fuel belt” that will soon be as much of a dead end as is the auto industry’s rust belt.

Gordon Laxer is a political economist and the founding director and former head of the Parkland Institute for public-policy research at the University of Alberta.

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