Canadian oil flag outside of the NEB hearings. All photos via the author.
It seems illogical to use the most populated stretch of Canada as a transport corridor for toxic and highly volatile fuels, but the National Energy Board of Canada has approved Enbridge’s request to do just that. They have just authorized the company to flow tar sands dilbit and U.S. Bakken crude through their 38 year old Line 9 pipeline. The 830km long pipe runs through the largest cities in Canada and crosses hundreds of waterways throughout Ontario and Quebec, including every single tributary that drains into Lake Ontario.
The NEB has ruled that the project serves Canadians’ public interest, leaving little doubt as to which Canadians they are advocating for. Certainly, it isn’t the first Canadians, as the NEB’s approval arrives in spite of testimonies from First Nations along the line that the federal government has never consulted with them about this project.
The government bureaucrats who made this decision were Lyne Mercier, a former oil and gas sector manager, Mike Richmond, a corporate energy lawyer, and Jacques Gauthier, a former energy sector CEO who has worked closely with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In issuing their approval, the NEB was seemingly unperturbed by Line 9’s thousands of cracks, the expert testimony of Rick Kuprewicz which pegged its risk of rupture at “over 90 percent,” the thirty-five times and more than 3,000,000 litres of the oil pipe has already spilled, Enbridge’s history of not following regulations, their average operating record of about 73 spills per year, and Line 9’s striking similarities to Enbridge’s Line 6B, the pipeline which ruptured millions of litres of bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River because Enbridge ignored a known defect. Almost four years after the Michigan rupture, as Line 9 is being granted a green light, it remains to be seen whether or not the Kalamazoo River will ever be cleaned up.
Protester inside the NEB hearings.
Rick Kuprewicz, an engineer with four decades of experience in pipeline integrity management, is the source of the most widely quoted warnings about Line 9. His report to the NEB argued that there is “a high risk that Line 9 will rupture” due to cracks and corrosion “in the early years following Project implementation.” He believes that Enbridge relies too heavily on experimental pipeline monitoring technology and that their tools often miss cracks or misinterpret them.
While Enbridge has called his report “entirely unfounded and grossly unfair,” Kuprewicz’s record speaks for itself. “I’ve been here before, working on pipelines where if they were to rupture would kill a lot of people,” he said. “When I’ve done a high risk call I’ve never been wrong. I’ve got to live with that. I have checks and balances to make sure that I’m using the science and I’m not letting emotion get into it…I don’t make these calls often, in my forty years, but when I’ve made them they’ve come true.”
As I have reported previously, there are hundreds of waterways along Line 9’s route where spilled bitumen could settle at the bottom of Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River, effectively poisoning the drinking water of millions of people. Vapours evaporating off of a spill could cause serious health problems for those nearby, as both diluted bitumen and Bakken crude contain compounds like hydrogen sulphide which “may cause irritation, breathing failure, coma and death, without necessarily any warning odour being sensed.”
When I spoke to Kuprewicz, I asked him if this was an accurate assessment of Line 9’s risk. He told me that “the worst case scenario would be a very large rupture. It would release many thousands of tonnes of hydrocarbons. Maybe it will be moving dilbit, or the worst case scenario from an impact perspective would be a Bakken crude spill or something that’s really light. And you already know what a Bakken type crude could do.
Lac Mégantic? That’s nowhere near what a pipeline of this diameter could release.”
Line 9 in Toronto.
The risks of this project, industry argues, are mitigated by the pipeline’s economic benefits. These have been evaluated by Enbridge to be about $1 billion annually over a 30-year period, including upwards of 200 jobs per year and a steady supply of fuel for Quebec refineries. Kuprewicz told me that, given the pipeline’s current disuse, it makes sense from a supply perspective to reverse its flow. But a cost-benefit analysis submitted to the NEB warned that Enbridge’s numbers are likely overstated and found that “these benefits are insignificant in the relevant context of the overall Quebec, Ontario, and Canadian economies, and even more insignificant when weighed against the cost of a major accident/spill.”
You may now be asking, “How is this even happening?” or “Isn’t Canada a democracy?” Well, in the sense that we still get to vote in increasingly fraudulent elections, yes, it totally is. But it’s important to note that hundreds of laws in Canada have changed in the last few years and that Line 9 is among the first major energy projects to be assessed in this new legal landscape.
At the request of the oil industry, Harper’s omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 have removed a number protective measures that may have stopped projects like this from coming to fruition in the past. Our waterways are no longer protected, Line 9 requires no environmental impact assessment, and those looking to testify in “public” hearings on energy projects have to provide a CV and fill out a ten-page application to do so – though many who did this for Line 9 were not permitted to speak. Additionally, this public hearings process has basically been degraded into a public relations spectacle: No matter what the NEB ruled, the federal government would be able to overturn this decision.
Regardless, given the NEB’s relatively incestuous relationship with industry, they tend to agree with our vehemently pro-oil government on most matters. Critics call the NEB a rubber-stamp organization and, accordingly, they’ve been stamping like crazy lately. Just a few weeks ago, they quietly approved Enbridge’s request to increase the capacity of their Line 7 pipeline without even bothering to inform the communities and municipal leaders along its route. Similarly, after listening to 1,159 testimonies against the Enbridge Northern Gateway and only two for it, they approved the project and determined that “Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without it." There are a few conditions attached to NEB's rubber-stamp of Line 9, like providing an updated engineering assessment. This does little to build confidence in the proposal. The NEB has refused to adopt the $1 billion insurance requirement that the Ontario Ministry of Energy and others asked for at their hearings. Estimates from The Goodman Group have pegged the clean-up costs of a spill between $1 and $10 billion, while Enbridge is only insured for $685 million.
Another shot of Line 9.
I asked Rick Kuprewicz if he thought $685 million was an adequate insurance quota. “You can’t have one high enough,” he replied. “You can drop a couple billion dollars here without even thinking. I used to think a billion dollars for these releases was a lot of money, but I’m sorry. The sad part would be this: Not trying to sound alarmist, but all that money never brings back the dead." To Kuprewicz, this project's risk could be lessened if Enbrdige was to perform a hydrotest on Line 9, though the NEB hasn't mandated this type of test. Similarly, the company has argued that hydrotesting is unncessary and unsafe. Kuprewicz explained that "from an integrity perspective, whether this would be sound pipe to do the due service, the hydrotest is the 100 percent proof test. There are no assumptions, there's no guess work: Either the pipe is good or it isn't good. He clarified:"It has to be a certain kind of hydrotest—it's not something that the pipeline operator gets to decide." Yet, despite its NEB approval, Line 9 has many hurdles to jump through before it begins flowing again. Resistance to this project, and the regulatory process around it, has been building for some time. Thousands have attended protests against the project in cities like Toronto, Sarnia, Hamilton, and Montreal, and activists have occupied Enbridge facilities and worksites in both Hamilton and Toronto. The NEB hearings were also disrupted in both of the cities that hosted them. When the hearings came to Montreal, three people were arrested and 29 others were detained, while all of them were fined $700 for protesting under the city's draconian anti-protest by-laws. In Toronto, protesters shut down the hearings by erupting into chants, prompting National Energy Board members to flee from the project's opponents. This eruption followed the presentation of Amanda Lickers, a member of Rising Tide Toronto. Along with a coalition of other groups, RTT has organized an emergency rally in Toronto to demand an environmental assessment from Ontario's provincial government. The group is currently enlisting the support for a campaign of direct action and civil disobedience along the pipeline's route to stop construction. "Tar sands expansion poses a threat to fragile ecosystems all across the continent. It is a matter of life or death and we are calling on people to stand on the side of life," Shirley Ceravolo, a member of the group, told me.
An activist chained to a truck at a worksite in Toronto.
There are also a few legal challenges in the works. Clayton Ruby, a lawyer famous for once successfully having Rob Ford booted from office, is suing the NEB to have the Line 9 hearings re-opened on the basis that the application process was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, citizens in Toronto have told me that they are in the early phases of lobbying for a municipal ban of dilbit and Bakken, and that a few city councillors in Toronto have endorsed a recent community report on the risks of Line 9.
Running through communities like Sarnia, London, Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Kingston, Laval, and Montreal, Line 9 passes within metres of our hospitals, schools, agricultural lands, parks, cemeteries, houses, high-rises, businesses, places of worship, highways, mass transit systems, airports, and more. It represents the new face of tar sands development in Canada, with sacrifice zones spreading outward from Fort Chipewyan and Peace River to any and all communities. With no environmental safeguards left, our populations are now expendable.
And while the future of Line 9 is uncertain, the NEB’s ruling makes one thing very clear: Nobody is looking out for the public interest, except for the public themselves. @M_Tol