09/23/2011 12:28 EDT | Updated 11/23/2011 05:12 EST

Governments Need to Come Clean on Tar Sands Oil

Flickr: shannonpatrick17

The opposition to TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline seems to have caught the oil industry off guard. It is used to getting its way without much fuss, but now thousands of citizens, unions, legislators and celebrities have come together to fight for the energy future they want.

It has been inspiring, but it also raises an important question: given what we now know about the threat of climate change and the urgent need to move away from fossil fuels to clean energy, shouldn't every decision about a new energy project face this type of scrutiny? Why are new tar sands mines, pipelines and coal plants approved without a fulsome debate about whether they represent the right path or the wrong path for our energy future?

Part of the problem is that the fossil fuel industry and governments rarely come clean on the stakes. Often the new projects and their impacts are broken down into bite-sized pieces that can be swallowed by a public that is increasingly concerned about global warming yet unsure of where to draw the line.

Enbridge's proposal to reverse the direction of one of its existing oil pipelines, before the National Energy Board now, is one such example. Enbridge has asked the NEB for an exemption from a more comprehensive review, arguing that it wants to simply reverse the direction the oil will flow in its Line 9 pipeline in Ontario. Sounds fairly innocuous, right?

What Enbridge isn't being clear on is that this proposal is part of a larger plan that would bring tar sands oil into Quebec for the first time, then send it down to Portland, Maine where is would be shipped by tankers to the Gulf Coast. Enbridge had floated the idea a few years ago with the explicit purpose of getting more tar sands oil to the Gulf, and then shelved the project. Now it's back, but in bite-sized pieces.

Enbridge's plan has significant impacts on the energy future of Ontario, Quebec and New England. The initial reversal of Line 9 in Ontario would cut the province off from lighter conventional crude coming from the east. It would tie Ontario's oil supply to western crude, meaning an increasing amount of tar sands in the province. More dangerous to ship and more polluting to refine, tar sands oil also has more carbon than conventional oil and would undercut Ontario's goal of reducing the global warming impact of transportation fuels.

The next phase of the project would bring tar sands oil into Quebec for the first time, potentially to be refined in Montreal. Again, this would come with increased pollution impacts and threaten Quebec's ability to tackle climate change. Finally, tar sands oil would be transported through New England to Maine, where Portland would see more tankers to take the oil to the Gulf.

Yet Enbridge's request for an exemption for the first phase of the project attempts to skirt these larger issues. The practice of splitting up the project in this way is legally questionable, and it now falls on the NEB to decide whether to accept Enbridge's request or demand a more thorough review. Already, environmental groups in New England, Maine, Quebec and Ontario have weighed in, as have landowners, First Nations and others to urge the NEB to require more of Enbridge.

Citizens of Ontario, Quebec and New England deserve the chance to have a real debate about whether this project fits within the energy future we want. Enbridge shouldn't get to make that decision for us, nor should oil companies get to decide our national energy plan. If we take the lessons from the Keystone XL debate, it's that it's time to start calling the big questions around new energy projects.