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Pipeline Politics: Canada's Conflict Over Oil Spills Into Election

The issue of whether pipelines should be built and expanded to pump Canadian oil to tidewater has roared back onto the federal campaign trail this week.
A Kinder Morgan protest in BC in 2014. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

"Now listen up to our demands: no pipelines, no tar sands," climate protesters chanted outside a federal leaders debate in Montreal Thursday night while under the studio lights inside, one political veteran grilled another about his position on Canada's proposed Energy East pipeline.

"[Thomas] Mulcair said in the English debate that Energy East is a win-win-win, and in Quebec they want to make us believe they're not quite in favor of that," Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, shot at the leader of the official opposition.


"I would never approve Energy East with the type of system of environmental evaluation [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has," Mulcair, at the helm of the left wing New Democratic Party, responded.

The issue of whether pipelines should be built and expanded to pump Canadian oil to tidewater has roared back onto the campaign trail this week in Canada. Hillary Clinton's surprise announcement in opposition of the cross-border Keystone XL made headlines across the country, just as political parties sharpened their knives in an attempt to create a wedge issue out of the abundant resource.

Duceppe's attack followed a press release from the Liberal Party that unearthed a 2013 video they said showed Mulcair touting the benefits of a west-to-east pipeline.

The Liberals themselves have been grilled on their reluctance to say yes or no to certain projects, at a time when Canada's economy — so inextricably linked to the price of oil — has been floundering.

Though his remarks on the project have left him open to attack, the NDP leader has been clear on one thing: He's not a fan of how the ruling Conservatives approve pipelines in Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has positioned the government as an ally to the oil sector, although his changes to the National Energy Board (NEB) process has not resulted in any tangible construction so far.

From coast to coast, both courtroom and physical blockades of NEB pipeline approvals have become routine. At the thrust of the opposition are major concerns about respect for First Nations treaties, and environmental groups' calls for an immediate shift to a renewable energy economy — while leaving fossil fuels in the ground.


But oil and gas companies say production is going to increase despite slumping prices, making pipeline construction key to accessing global markets.

Earlier this month, the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) called on whichever party forms the next government to make pipeline construction a major priority.

"After the election [pipelines] will continue to be one of the biggest impediments to the Canadian economy — and affect our ability to access markets," Tim McMillan, incoming president of the CAPP, told the National Post editorial board.

If the country's petroleum industry can't compete, "we are out of the game," McMillan said.

On both sides of the issue, industry and opposition groups agree on one thing: Pipelines need to be front-of-mind this election, because one way or another, Canada's energy future is at stake.

Whether pipelines are an issue for you as a voter likely depends on where you live.

With huge signs and megaphones, about 50 protesters gathered outside a courthouse in downtown Toronto earlier this summer, as inside members of a Southern Ontario First Nation asked Canada's national energy regulator to reverse a decision granting Enbridge's Line 9 expansion right of way through their territory.

A decision by three judges could take as long as a year, according to Chippewa of the Thames band councillor Myeengun Henry. In the meantime, crude oil could begin flowing through the pipeline without their consent within one month, he told VICE News, depending on the company's adherence to conditions placed on the project.


The tension around projects like Line 9 has led Henry to watch the election closely, although he is undecided on whether to even cast a ballot.

The issue "absolutely" warrants more attention, he says, because the cost of leaks and spills, as well as First Nations treaty rights, is at stake.

Related: This Pipeline Project Will Transport More Oil From Canada's Tar Sands Than Keystone XL

Some areas of British Columbia, with swaths of unceded indigenous territory, have also become flashpoints for the issue, as Alberta oil companies try to get their landlocked product to saltwater.

Pipelines could be a deciding issue in certain ridings, like Burnaby North-Seymour, where opposition cuts across socio-economic lines.

"You [NEB] clowns have dicked us around for so long, and we've spent so much friggin' money on this, and you have such a rigged system at play that we'd like our [taxpayer] money back," Burnaby city councillor Nick Volkow said earlier this month.

The councillor, hardly alone in his sentiments, was responding to an apparent conflict of interest when the Conservative government appointed Steven Kelly to the board. Kelly's firm was previously hired by Kinder Morgan, but he was allowed to give evidence in favor of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. Following a strongly worded letter from the City of Burnaby, the NEB removed Kelly from the board and struck his evidence from the record.


On Thursday the NEB officially kicked back the Trans Mountain hearings until after the federal election on Oct. 19, leading Burnaby councillors to question the timing.

Last October, the dispute over Trans Mountain boiled over when Kinder Morgan hit vocal opponents with a lawsuit its targets said was designed to shut them up.

Though the suit was eventually dropped, it left a strong impression on one of the respondents, Simon Fraser University professor Stephen Collis.

He has paid attention to party promises, and Mulcair's NEB commitments in particular. He was optimistic about the potential for change to the NEB, and said if the NDP leader is elected, the public will be able to hold him to his promises.

"We will not approve any project, be it Kinder Morgan or any other, under Stephen Harper's flawed process," Mulcair said this month. "Energy East is the same as Kinder Morgan. You can't trust Stephen Harper's flawed process, because there's nothing that you can trust about it. It's incomplete, it's not thorough, it's not credible."

While Mulcair has arguably shifted his position, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has said he is in favor of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline if it is executed in the "right way that is sustainable, that has community support and buy-in, and that fits into a long-term strategy of not just a sustainable environment but a sustainable economy."

Harper has been clear in his support for oil infrastructure. During Thursday night's debate, the prime minister again said pipelines are "very safe and secure," adding the NEB process is "independent" and "scientific."


Related: Tensions Ramp Up Over Proposed Energy East Pipeline in Canada

That's a welcome position for Canada's oil industry.

In the next 16 years, oil production is projected to grow from 3.7 million to 5.3 million barrels per day, according to June estimates from CAPP, a non-partisan association.

Though that projection is a decrease of 1.1 million barrels from June 2014 due to the sector's slowdown, it is still an overall increase, leading oil producers to push for more pipeline construction.

Pipeline capacity is adequate for the short term, CAPP vice president of communications Jeff Gaulin told VICE News, but as production increases, oil has to move to the coast where it can be exported.

Pipelines, like any major infrastructure in Canada, create jobs and boost the economy, he said. "They're good for all Canadians."

Referring to pipeline construction, Gaulin said he wants Canada to "move to a conversation about how we do this well, not whether or not we should do this."

Both sides of the debate have been advocating their positions to the parties vying to form the next government. CAPP met with the party leaders ahead of the election, as did band councillor Myeengun Henry, though not with Stephen Harper.

To CAPP's argument that pipelines boost the economy, Henry told VICE his First Nation wants to talk about resource sharing, but they aren't getting one cent from the Line 9 project, let alone a consultation.

Overall, whether he votes or not, Henry wants to see more talk this election of balancing the risk of pipelines to the environment with their economic perks.

"We had the climate march in Toronto in July with 10,000 people. We talked about the cost of economy over the cost of environment. So that's what I was hoping to hear from those [election] debates — that we have to balance and not take one over the other.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont