COLUMN: From the Hill; Pipelines are a Hot Topic. An analysis.

By Contributor
February 1st, 2016

Pipelines are a hot topic in Ottawa and across the country these days.  Last Wednesday the Liberals outlined their plans for a revised environmental assessment process for pipelines, and on Thursday the Conservatives put forward a motion asking the House to support the Energy East pipeline.

Here is the overall picture: the oil industry wants to expand oil sands production in Alberta, but to do so they need to expand pipeline capacity to tidewater to access Asian markets.  We already have bitumen and other petroleum products flowing to Vancouver through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline and many pipelines going to markets in the United States, so the industry does have the capacity to export our oil—it’s a question of increasing that capacity and reaching more markets.

The Conservative government tried for 10 years to get four major pipeline projects going—Northern Gateway, Trans Mountain, Keystone XL, and Energy East.  But, despite gutting environmental laws and drastically changing the environmental assessment process to favour the pipeline industry, the Conservatives were unable to get any of these projects to the building phase.  In large part, they failed because of those changes to the process—many Canadians feel the present process lacks credibility.

This led to the Liberals’  announcement about a new interim assessment process for projects under review, namely the Trans Mountain expansion and Energy East.   The new process adds four months to the evaluation period and allows more consultation with First Nations, but leaves many of the flaws in the National Energy Board (NEB) assessment system unchanged—there is nothing to address questions that companies refuse to answer, nothing to restore cross-examination of evidence. All this is on top of the fact that the Conservatives appointed several new members to the NEB in the dying days of their government, including an active pipeline consultant. 

Adding to the lack of government credibility on pipeline safety was a recent report from the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development, which looked at how well the NEB tracks compliance with the conditions it sets, and unfortunately found that compliance was tracked for only half of the pipeline projects examined.

We all know that the Canadian oil industry is in trouble with the fall of oil prices to around $30 per barrel.  The loss of jobs in Alberta and across the country is hurting the Canadian economy.  It will be many months or years before Canadian petroleum companies are profitable again, whether pipelines are approved tomorrow or not.  We should take this opportunity to create a robust, open and fair assessment process that Canadians can trust, and then promote safe, sensible projects that include a component of refining raw bitumen or crude oil so that we can get the best price for these non-renewable resources, and leave a legacy that will benefit not only ourselves but our grandchildren as well.

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