02/02/2015 03:34 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT

Energy East looks to mitigate beluga concerns but Cacouna still in pipeline plan

OTTAWA - An oil export terminal on the Saint Lawrence at Cacouna, Que., remains part of the official Energy East pipeline plan as TransCanada seeks a way to mitigate the impact on beluga whales, the project president said Monday.

The proposed $12-billion, 4,600-kilometre pipeline from Hardisty, Alta., to the Atlantic Ocean will include marine terminals in Cacouna and Saint John, N.B., Francois Poirier said in a speech to the Canadian Club.

A large map showing the pipeline route, including the contested Quebec port, was projected on screens as Poirier made the economic case for the west-to-east oil pipeline that could carry up to 1.1 million barrels a day.

"Energy East is far and away a better alternative than the status quo," he told the business-oriented audience.

TransCanada (TSX:TRP) suspended preparatory work on the Cacouna port last fall after a Quebec Superior Court judge issued an injunction against seismic work in the St. Lawrence estuary to protect threatened beluga calving grounds.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard waded into the debate in December, suggesting TransCanada might want to consider a new port location given the beluga whale is a candidate to become an endangered species.

A federal advisory committee has recommended the beluga's status be downgraded to endangered from threatened, and Poirier told reporters after the speech the shifting status is influencing TransCanada's project design.

"Obviously that raises the bar in terms of the importance of mitigation strategies — if, in fact, it's appropriate to continue with our plans at Cacouna," said Poirier.

He said the port will not proceed "unless we can satisfy ourselves that we can develop mitigation strategies that result in no impact to the beluga population."

Poirier suggested the company is still looking for an alternate Quebec terminal on the Saint Lawrence, although the project remains viable with only the Saint John port.

The sudden collapse of global oil prices also won't endanger Energy East, he said. Low margins for producers make the cost efficiencies of pipeline transport all the more attractive, said Poirier.

His speech was interrupted by four women carrying protest banners, who attracted groans and jeers from the audience, then a smattering of applause when they quietly left the hotel ballroom after several minutes.

"They've done very little about saying how they're going to protect the waterways," said protester Jo Wood of Ottawa, who carried a banner stating "We can't drink oil."

Ria Heynen, another of the soft-spoken quartet, said the elderly protesters had done their homework on the pipeline.

"We are an older generation," said Ria Heynen.

"We are thinking of our children and grandchildren and just can't let this happen."

Follow @bcheadle on Twitter