Pipeline protests less about moving oil and more about climate change, activist says

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Demonstrators protest on the streets following the federal government's approval of the Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline in Vancouver, British Columbia June 17, 2014. The Canadian government approved the construction of Enbridge Inc's Northern Gateway pipeline on Tuesday, setting the stage for a barrage of lawsuits and demonstrations by environmental and aboriginal groups opposed to the project. REUTERS/Ben Nelms (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST BUSINESS)

A web of pipelines runs under Canada, moving water, sewage, oil, natural gas and other substances. We take them pretty much for granted unless one of them breaks, then we repair it and move on.

At least we used to take them for granted, until a growing chorus of protest put oil pipelines especially into public consciousness.

Now environmentalists are fingering pipelines as dangerous agents of climate change, not to mention potential sources of ecological disaster.

There are three major pipeline projects on the drawing board in Canada and all are meeting stiff resistance, not to mention widespread opposition to the U.S. Keystone XL pipeline that would take Alberta oilsands crude to the Gulf Coast.

Protesters in Ontario are attempting to slow down work on Enbridge Inc.'s Line 9 project, which would reverse the east-west flow of a 40-year-old oil pipeline so crude from western sources, including Alberta's oilsands, could reach refineries and export terminals in the east.

A group called the Community Response Unit for Decontaminating our Environment set up a blockade in Toronto, and several aboriginal protesters were arrested Sunday for trying to block work at a site near Woodstock, Ont., The Canadian Press reported.

Opponents of the project worry the aging line between Sarnia, Ont., and Montreal would not be able to handle the higher volumes of oil (up 25 per cent to 300,000 barrels a day), especially oilsands crude that must be diluted with chemicals to flow properly.

[ Related: Northern Gateway decision divides Canadians ]

Enbridge's $8-billion Northern Gateway project, which would pipe 525,000 barrels of oilsands crude daily to an export terminal on the northern B.C. coast, is also staunchly opposed despite winning federal government approval in June.

And plans for the twinning of Trans Mountain's pipeline into Metro Vancouver, which would increase its capacity to 890,000 barrels a day from 300,000 barrels a day, is triggering alarm bells among those worried about a potential rupture and increased tanker traffic into Vancouver's Burrard Inlet.

The heightened sensitivity to the risk of pipelines has two sources. Worries about a spill spiked when an old U.S. pipeline owned by Enbridge ruptured in 2010, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oilsands crude into a creek flowing the Kalamazoo River, which flows into Lake Michigan.

Four years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still overseeing cleanup work by the company, which was chastised for its slow response to the pipeline break. CBC News reported last fall the effort had cost more than $1 billion.

Line 9 project opponents pointed to the Kalamazoo spill as the kind of potential threat posed by Enbridge's project. And critics of Northern Gateway argued that if the company botched its initial handling of that spill in a relatively built-up region like Michigan, what would happen if there's a break along the remote, mountainous northern B.C. route proposed for that line?

But the larger goal of pipeline opponents is strategic. They see pipelines as a weak link in the development of oilsands, environmentalists' public enemy No. 1 in the battle over climate change.

“I don’t think the goal is to strangle the oilsands just for the sake of strangling the oilsands," Ben West, tarsands campaign director with ForestEthics Advocacy, said in an interview Monday with Yahoo Canada News.

"It’s really a larger strategic push trying to do something about climate change in light of the lack of action from our federal government and from other governments around the world.”

The focus on pipelines was partly the result of failure by countries to extend the Kyoto Protocol on climate change at a 2009 meeting in Copenhagen, West said.

[ Related: Protesters stop Enbridge Line 9 dig in North Dumfries ]

“Many environmental groups started looking at infrastructure projects in their own countries that would move us in the wrong direction in terms of greenhouse gases," he said.

The strategy has the benefit of getting people to connect the complex issue of climate change to a potential environmental issue in their area, such as the threat of an oil spill from a ruptured pipeline, West added.

West said he believes the strategy has worked. Line 9 and Northern Gateway have federal approval, though West said it's hard to imagine the latter ever being built, given staunch opposition from First Nations and municipalities along the route and the B.C. government's insistence that five conditions must be met before it signs on.

"I think they’re going to have a very hard time actually getting the project built in British Columbia," he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to balk at approving Keystone XL, which has now been delayed more than five years.

The Trans Mountain project has yet to be approved, which may not happen until after the next federal election, scheduled for October 2015.

Both NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have said they oppose Northern Gateway. West said the hope is that if either opposition party defeats the Conservatives, they would reform the environmental assessment process. Critics have challenged it in court, arguing changes made by the government violate Canadians' Charter rights by restricting public participation.

The ultimate goal, said West, is to move the conversation to the bigger question of how to replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources in the long term and, meanwhile, conserve their use to decrease the volume of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere.

“Until we get there we’re really going to be playing a game of whack-a-mole with different projects and proposals as they continue to pop up," he said.