04/03/2013 05:37 EDT | Updated 06/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Why the Pipeline Is an Environmental Disaster Waiting to Happen

We do not need 850,000 barrels of oil per day being pumped through our communities, our country side, our cities, or our drinking water. We need to talk honestly talk about what markets the pipeline is serving, who exactly is benefiting economically, and what environmental risks we are overlooking.

Getty Images
A picture taken on March 29, 2013 shows ingoing and outgoing gaz pipelines at a GRTgaz compressor station, in Morelmaison,eastern France. A compressor station is a facility which helps the transportation process of natural gas from one location to another. Natural gas, while being transported through a gas pipeline, needs to be constantly pressurized in certain distance intervals (around 200km). GRTgaz owns and operates the longest high-pressure natural gas transmission network in Europe AFP PHOTO / JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN (Photo credit should read JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

TransCanada Corp announced their "Energy East Pipeline" proposal this week, which would involve converting their existing 50-year-old natural gas mainline that runs across Northern Ontario into an oil pipeline that pumps an astronomical volume -- 850,000 barrels per day -- of tar sands oil East.

Of course, this pipeline traverses many rivers and runs adjacent to many lakes across Northern Ontario -- it even runs through the drinking water supply for major cities. In North Bay for example, the pipeline runs right through the Trout Lake watershed (and actually crosses on the east-end of the lake), which is the source for the municipal drinking water that services 54,000 people.

The environmental regulations -- as well as the municipal and land owner approvals that were required in the 1950s to build this natural gas pipeline -- should not be transferable to allow TransCanada to switch services and having this potentially become the largest oil pipeline in North America.


The greatest concern with this pipeline conversion is it's threat to the environment. In the 55-year history of this natural gas mainline there have already been five significant incidents here in Northern Ontario. We can expect these numbers to increase as a pipeline built in the 1950s begins use for something other than what it was intended. Oil is much more dangerous than natural gas when it leaks into the environment.

TransCanada made this announcement three days after 10,000 barrels tar sands oil leaked from a pipeline in Arkansas. The rhetoric coming out of Alberta in response to that disaster positioned that this was a 40-year-old pipeline and old pipelines leak (they are of course trying to drum up support for building shiny new pipelines). It is hard to have any faith that a half-a-century old natural gas mainline across the Canada Shield and through our Boreal forest is suitable for converting to an oil pipeline.

Northern Ontario is known and loved for its clean water, healthy forests, wildlife, fish, tourism, agriculture, and outdoor recreational activities -- they would all be in danger if this project goes ahead.

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The destination refineries on the East Coast would process this heavy oil to then be put on tankers for foreign markets. The 850,000 barrels a day sent across the country for world export would be risking catastrophe in our own environmental every inch of the way -- and Canada would continue to import oil for domestic use. Of course, the additional export tankers would pose a huge threat to the ecology of the St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy.

Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, did attempt to suggest this oil is for domestic use. But often it is more helpful to follow the economics of the situation rather than listen to soundbites from politicians.

Tar sands oil producers are seeking access to foreign markets because they will get more dollars per barrel than the Canadian market pays. That is why they are pushing for a pipeline that reaches the coast -- any coast. Before announcing this project to the public, TransCanada has been positioning this pipeline to the industry as the eastward alternative to the Northern Gateway to reach the export market. Even immediately after Minister Joe Oliver's soundbite about this project servicing domestic oil consumption, he went on to extensively talk about how it opening up the market in India. If there is any left for our own domestic market, it will be a token amount for posterity and public acceptance.


With TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline project having the potential of being rightly rejected by the US government, Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline meeting a wall of opposition in British Columbia, and Enbridge's Line 9 reversal in Southern Ontario getting strong opposition from those municipalities, new pipelines that would allow tar sands to reach the East Coast are being proposed.

It is encouraging that at the end of March, Canada's National Energy Board denied TransCanada's request to pass costs of this "under-used" mainline to gas producers -- this was seen as TransCanada's attempt at getting even more producers to divert their gas to different markets and get off of this line so they could then ease the public acceptance of converting this pipeline to pump tar sands bitumen East.

The National Energy Board called TransCanada's request "inappropriate cost shifting" and noted that the tolls on the mainline have "increased substantially over a short period of time." Despite lower commodity prices, TransCanada had until that ruling been allowed to continuously raise the toll to transport natural gas along the mainline, ultimately contributing to the "under-used" scenario they label the pipeline as today.

Less that a week after that strong ruling by the National Energy Board, TransCanada announces its intentions to now convert this mainline to oil service so they will have to submit this new project for review. Unfortunately we cannot rely on National Energy Board from being able to prevent this project from happening. An effect of last year's federal budget bill, as our national energy regulator they no longer be able to say no to oil pipeline projects as politicians in Cabinet are now able to overrule their decisions.


As a country, we need to demand a pause on the plethora of pipelines being proposed to deliver Canada's tar sands oil to a coast until we honestly talk about what markets we are serving, who exactly is benefiting economically, and what environmental risks we are overlooking. We do not need 850,000 barrels of oil per day being pumped through our communities, our country side, our cities, or our drinking water. We need to foster clean and sustainable energy solutions.

We have some really good politicians in Northern Ontario from all three levels of government, so there is faith they will assemble and make a declaration that they oppose this pipeline conversion.

But that doesn't mean we should be complacent and wait for them to act on our behalf. People need to educate themselves to the point of positive and peaceful action. The atrocity of this is heavy, it can really get you down -- so be creative and have fun in getting your message out there!