Quebec has as much right to oppose Energy East as western provinces have to support it


There has been lots of talk in 2015 of TransCanada’s proposed East Energy Pipeline Project, a  4,600 km pipeline that would see Canada transport about 1.1 million barrels of oil per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan across the Prairies, Northern Ontario and Quebec on its way to be refined in New Brunswick. And it doesn’t look like 2016 will be any different.

While New Brunswick’s premier Brian Gallant supports the project, as does the Mayor of Saint John, 82 Montreal-area municipalities, led by Montreal mayor Denis Coderre came out in public opposition to it, prompting many from the rest of Canada to threaten taking their ball and going home, since Quebec didn’t seem eager to play by (their) rules.

A step-by-step look at the Energy East Pipeline Project

Here’s a quick timeline for those not really following the development of events.

Last year, TransCanada commissioned the Conference Board of Canada to provide an updated economic impact study of the proposed Energy East Pipeline Project. According to these projections, the nine-year development and construction phase of the project will generate an average estimated 14,007 full-time equivalent direct and indirect jobs annually. During the first 20 years of operations, Energy East is expected to sustain 3,338 full-time direct and indirect jobs across Canada every year. Quebec would stand to gain more jobs than almost any other province (Ontario would gain the most) from the Energy East Pipeline Project.

According to a poll conducted in November, 2015, however, close to 60 percent of Quebecers oppose the Energy East Pipeline Project and 58 percent of those polled want the new Liberal government to suspend the review process until the federal government makes reforms to the environmental assessment process.

A Quebec government study commissioned by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources was finally released on December 24, 2015 outlining the serious risks posed by the Energy East pipeline. The Ministry report acknowledged that the extent of any pollution resulting from any break or leakage of diluted tar sands and fracked oil “would be difficult to quantify [not only to qualify] on the atmosphere, the [drinking] water, the soil, biodiversity and human health.”  The Report also noted that any pipeline crossing of the St. Lawrence could result in a catastrophic spill impossible to contain or clean-up. The same would apply to Ontario’s smaller rivers.

On Jan. 21, the Montreal Metropolitan Community, a grouping of 82 Montreal-area municipalities led by Montreal mayor Denis Coderre came out against the Energy East plan. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre announced his opposition to TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline at a news conference broadcast live in Montreal. He was flanked by other Quebec civic leaders including the mayors of Laval, Longueuil, Repentigny Candiac, Lachine and Saint-Laurent.

In a news conference broadcast live, Coderre described the project as posing too many risks for the environment and too few benefits for the economy.

“I think that we’ve done our homework. Individually, every municipality took a look at that, the ones who were touched by it, but at the end of the day, it’s all about our character and we (need to) find out a way to build up an inclusive process where citizens have the opportunity to give their point of view,” he said.

“We want to have … some benchmark regarding public safety, regarding the true economic impact, regarding the way where it will pass. It’s also about (being) consistent in our own plan … It’s not just economy yes, environment no, it’s no at every level.”

In a subsequent interview he added: “The economic reality is that it’s only 33 jobs and at most $2-million per year of municipal revenue,” elaborating on the “far too few benefits” scenario of his opposition.

Pouting and threats: Western Canada responds

Quebec’s refusal to go along with the project unleashed a predictable and angry tirade from western Canada, including rebukes from federal Conservative Party interim leader Rona Ambrose, Alberta’s finance minister Joe Ceci and Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

Wildrose leader Brian Jean declared on Twitter that “You can’t dump raw sewage, accept foreign tankers, benefit from equalization and then reject our pipelines.”

[Quick observation: Not to be overly picky with the pesky details here, but I’m preeeetty sure we can, Brian.]

“I trust Montreal area mayors will politely return their share of $10 billion in equalization supported by west,” Brad Wall wrote on Twitter.

He later elaborated on his Facebook wall. “This is a sad day for our country when leaders from a province that benefits from being part of Canada can be this parochial about a project that would benefit all of Canada, including these Quebec municipalities.

Pipelines are a safe and environmentally-friendly way to transport oil – certainly safer and more environmentally-friendly than rail.

The constituents of Quebec municipalities will benefit to the tune of $10 billion in equalization payments this year. For the better part of the last decade the western Canadian energy sector and western Canadian taxpayers have supported a great portion of these transfer payments as well as the Canadian economy.

Is it too much to expect that these Quebec municipal leaders would respond to this reality with generous support for a pipeline that supports the very sector that has supported them?”

The Saskatchewan premier went even further by questioning whether it was time to stop viewing the “have” provinces as such when oil prices were so low and they were suffering, and whether they should still contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to Ottawa’s equalization payments pot.

Conservative leader Rona Ambrose called Coderre’s remarks about the Energy East pipeline “insulting” and said they threatened national unity.

Immediately the pipeline debate was framed by many as Quebec callously and selfishly killing jobs and all the suffering people in Alberta, while it willingly takes handouts from the west via transfer payments. The tired old clichés and below-the-belt stereotypes of self-serving, ignorant, lazy, and selfish Quebecers living off the avails of others were dusted off and came out in the comments section of every national newspaper reporting on the issue.

On Jan. 24, the Globe & Mail published an editorial calling Montreal mayors’ opposition to the pipeline “petty provincialism” and “myopic”.

Mr. Coderre came across as a greedy toll collector, blocking the route for an important project because not enough of the proceeds will land in the pockets of his city,” said the editorial.

Predictably, accusations of small-minded parochialism, provincialism, and blatant opportunism did not sit well with Quebecers, with many immediately and justifiably accusing those in the ROC of Quebec bashing.

A day later, Rick Mercer jumped in with his own criticism of Coderre’s “selfish” ways.

In a rant set to air tonight on the Rick Mercer Report, he says: “This has nothing to do with Montreal. This has nothing to do with Quebec. This is about one part of Canada trying to get their natural resources to the world market.”

Mercer also points out that as a “have-not” province Quebec received $9.5 billion in transfer payments last year, a fund that Alberta pays into as a “have” province, in large part because of its oil.

In other words, “Do your part, Quebec!” If you’re part of this country, you should think about what’s good for all of us, not just you.”

Should have let them separate, now we wouldn’t have to deal with them now,” came the helpful and predictable anti-Quebec bashing from commentators on social media, who never miss an opportunity to point fingers at the province they least understand and can identify with.

Coderre also became an easy target, as many questioned the environmental stance of a man who had – just a few months ago – given the go-ahead to the dumping of eight billion litres of raw sewage in the St. Lawrence River.

Many pundits across the country also wondered why Quebec mayors would be so dead set against a pipeline that would significantly reduce – if not eliminate – the possibility of another Lac Megantic train disaster that practically wiped an entire town off the map.

Reasons to support the project

There are legitimate and sound financial arguments to be made in defense of the Energy East Pipeline Project.

Quebec’s top import at the moment is oil. According to some estimates, it could save up to $3 billion a year (money it could desperately use elsewhere) by importing it from Alberta through a pipeline. As it currently stands, 48 percent of Quebec’s oil is imported from the U.S. (hello, U.S. dollar!) and Norway. A full 1/3 of its oil comes from 5 corrupt countries: Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan ( a country I know so little about, I had to check its spelling three times). It also imports oil from countries like Saudi Arabia, notorious for its human rights abuses. There is a solid argument to be made about increasing financial self-reliance and decreasing it from countries we should not associate with on moral grounds.

It is for these reasons that the Quebec Employers Council has come out in favour of the project, and they are not the only ones.

This morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Montreal mayor Denis Coderre to discuss an array of topics, among them the controversial Energy East pipeline. Predictably, the Conservative Party (with traditionally close ties to Alberta’s oil industry) has been demanding that Trudeau convince Coderre to straighten up and fly right. Also predictably, that is something the Liberals were not about to do.

In a statement made this morning, the Prime Minister made it very clear that he had no intention of “championing pipelines”, as Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose demanded he do, and that the federal government’s job is to bring people together.

“The responsibility of the federal government is to establish a clear process whereby people can evaluate the projects in a rigorous and open manner,” Trudeau added, also explaining that his government intends to create a review process whereby energy companies get a chance to prove to cities and towns across the country that a project is in their best interests.

When Vancouver and Burnaby mayors, as well as countless of Aboriginal communities rejected the Kinder Morgan project, we didn’t hear any grumbling or finger pointing from the Conservatives. Or maybe we did, but we here in Quebec weren’t really paying attention because the slight didn’t target us.

Is it Quebec bashing?

Yes and no. There is no question that Canada’s western regions are reeling right now from the collapse of oil prices and looking for solutions. There is an undeniable mixture of opportunistic Quebec bashing in some of the comments uttered, but the vast majority of them are simply sour grapes. Anger, frustration, and bitterness targeted at those seen as delaying or administering a deathly blow to a deal that many out west desperately want and need to see go through.

There is also an argument to be made about much of Quebec’s navel-gazing and a tendency (partly because of language, culture, and concerns of autonomy and preservation of both) to look inwards too often and often-by-default act the contrarian.

The fact that Quebec is a “have-not” province that openly snubs its nose at the ROC and gleefully enjoys reminding everyone how different it is to the rest of Canada in both policies and political priorities isn’t helping matters much either.

But so what? I don’t have to be like you for you to respect me. And while I understand many of the points Rick Mercer is making in his rant, the notion that Quebec somehow owes Alberta its support because it’s received billions of dollars in transfer payments over the years, or because “national unity” is threatened is positively absurd. That money isn’t there to buy political allegiance, it’s not “hush” money meant to squelch the legitimate concerns of Quebecers against a pipeline that numerous studies point out has the ability to damage the environment – particularly with the Harper administration’s watered-down environmental legislation in the past decade.

Transfer payments are a system put in place to help guarantee “reasonably comparable levels” of health care, education, and welfare in all the provinces. That doesn’t mean that the “have” provinces get to dictate the decisions made by the “have-not’s” or have their decisions or priorities mocked, snubbed as provincial, or bitterly derided because they don’t fall in line with the “have” provinces.

If you look back in history, you can clearly see that some of the “have” provinces (hello, Saskatchewan) were unequivocally “have-not” provinces not too long ago. Should Ontario have threatened stopping payments to them every time they expressed an opinion contrary to what the federal government desired? Of course not! That’s not how countries or equal partnership work.

How countries work is that the concerns and wishes of ALL concerned parties are taken into consideration and respected. Not just the concerns of the ones who agree with you.

The Bloc Québécois’s interim leader, MP Rhéal Fortin, jumped on the debate to add his two cents. ‘They’ve given themselves the right to act like the owners of Quebec in the name of Canadian unity,’ he said.” And he’s absolutely right.

Someone expressing concerns or opposition to a project that may indeed have merit for the majority of the country doesn’t automatically mean they’re not a “team player” or hell-bent on being contrarian because we like to push the ROC’s buttons. It might just mean that we’re expressing concerns and opposition to a project for reasons just as valid as those expressing support for it.

Where do we go from here?

At the end of the day, a lot of what is currently going on in grandstanding on all fronts. Canada’s western provinces aren’t getting their way right now and they’re upset. The politicians who have to address the concerns of their constituents are annoyed and angry at a mayor from the other side of the country butting in and perhaps scoring political points on his opposition. And yes, there’s a whole lot of politics being played here, and don’t forget it. The vast majority of Quebecers oppose the Energy East pipeline, so it stands that all those mayors aren’t acting parochial or being narrow-minded in their thinking. They are expressing and representing the wishes of their citizens – you know… the people who voted them into power.

Also worth remembering: Mayor Coderre can say what he wants, but he really has little say in the matter. And I’m sure he knows this. It’s not Montreal or Quebec’s regions that get to decide the final outcome for Energy East. That decision ultimately rests with the federal government, which will only act after getting a recommendation from the National Energy Board. In the meantime, lobbyists are hard at work in Quebec trying to convince them otherwise, and politicians everywhere are busy setting the tone or feeling the mood of their respective populations.

Trudeau made it very clear when he took no sides and said that “only communities can grant permission”. There may be a war of words between Canada’s west and La Belle Province at the moment, and I can see both sides of the coin clearly, but Quebec has as much right to question the risks and benefits of a pipeline running through its territory, as Alberta and Saskatchewan have in pushing it.

Having Conservative MP Candice Bergen telling Trudeau in the Commons on Monday to “call Mr. Coderre and tell him to smarten up,” is arrogant and aggressive and won’t make Quebecers any more open to the pipeline project, but it will certainly increase a national divide that has historically always been a few badly chosen words away from turning into a full-blown crisis. Last I checked arrogant finger wagging and chastising doesn’t promote national unity, and it certainly doesn’t fast-track any cross-country pipelines.

So before Quebec gets vilified as the bad guy once again, those in support would be smart to take a collective step back and acknowledge that there is a very strong and motivated opposition to the project (in and outside of this province) and considering how many benefits they seem to be touting it  has, perhaps they should consider why that is.  And then do something (if they can) to change that perception. Other than whining, of course…