Sunday, December 21, 2014

Quebec’s anti-tar sands campaign, newly fortified, building rapidly

By Richard Fidler

Its coffers swelled with more than $400,000 raised by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ crowd-funding initiative, Quebec’s anti-tar sands coalition Coule Pas Chez Nous![1] met December 6 in Montréal to debate the next phase of its campaign.

While keeping their focus on fighting pipeline projects such as TransCanada’s Energy East, Enbridge’s Line 9B and the Montréal-Portland line, the representatives of ecology groups from throughout Quebec decided to include as well opposition to the transportation of oil by trains and tanker ships.

Many proposals were advanced on how to step up the campaign in 2015 through publicizing and promoting activities by the many citizens’ organizations that are mobilizing across the province in opposition to Canada’s “petrofederalist” fixation with extracting, transporting and exporting environmentally harmful oil and gas.

In a message to the meeting, Nadeau-Dubois noted that the amount raised, while impressive, remains very modest when compared with the huge budgets being spent by the oil interests in promoting their projects.


The Energy East project — which would convey diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) from Alberta to east coast ports through the existing gas pipeline to Quebec, with the addition of a further line stretching 700 km across Quebec — will boost tar-sands production. The Pembina Institute estimates it could generate an additional 32 million tons of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per year, an amount greater than what is emitted by all industries in Quebec combined. This would also be double the reductions of GHGs that Quebec must make to achieve its objectives for 2020.

The Harper government and other Energy East proponents present the project as “a true representation of nation-building at its very best,”[2] comparable with the building of the Canadian railway system 100 years or more ago. But in fact, as TransCanada executives themselves admit, the real goal is to provide a new route for export to foreign refiners. It is designed in part to circumvent the widespread opposition in British Columbia and the United States to projects to pipe tar-sands oil to the Pacific and the southern United States.

Energy East “is actually about putting unrefined oil on massive super-tankers in the St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy,” according to a report by Environmental Defence and Greenpeace, released October 29. “The pipeline would put communities across Canada at risk from major oil spills,” says the report. “A spill from the tankers would threaten ecological and economic disaster for coastal and riverside communities in Quebec, P.E.I., Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.”

Opposition to Energy East is growing rapidly in Quebec. In mid-October, thousands marched in Cacouna in opposition to the proposed tar sands export terminal. Cacouna is a nursery for the beluga whales, already endangered by industrial pollution in the St. Lawrence River. TransCanada had earlier commenced drilling for the terminal until stopped temporarily by a court order sought by environmental groups.

A federal government advisory committee released a report December 2 including the belugas in a list of endangered wildlife species. The report appeared the same day as a press conference Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard had scheduled with Alberta Premier Jim Prentice to confirm Quebec government support of Energy East. On the defensive, Couillard had to urge the company to abandon its plans for the Cacouna terminal. TransCanada then announced it was “standing down” on work in Cacouna while analyzing the environmental report.

A public opinion survey released in mid-November by a University of Montréal research team found that only 33 percent of Québécois supported Energy East.[3] The Quebec government then announced that the province’s environmental assessment board (the BAPE, its French acronym[4]) would hold a public review of the Quebec section of the project. The Harper government has always insisted that the pipeline, because it crosses provincial boundaries, is constitutionally immune from provincial control.[5]

Couillard said the review would be subject to seven “conditions” that would allow a more complete assessment than the one to be conducted by the federal government’s National Energy Board. However, Couillard has since announced that these conditions do not include consideration of the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, although they do include an assessment of “the economic and fiscal spin-offs for Quebec.” In fact, the “seven conditions” are virtually a carbon copy of those formulated by British Columbia in reviewing the Northern Gateway project and the five formulated by Ontario in its review of Energy East.

No to fracking

Yet another blow to Quebec’s petroleum exploitation hopes was dealt December 15, when the BAPE issued a report on shale gas exploration and development commissioned by the Parti Québécois government prior to its defeat in last April’s election. The report found that exploration and production in the St. Lawrence Lowlands “would not be advantageous for Quebec because of the magnitude of the potential costs and externalities, compared to royalties that would be collected by Quebec.”

And it pointed to “other concerns,” including a lack of “plans of social acceptability” and appropriate legislation, as well as “a lack of knowledge, particularly with respect to water resources.” Fracking entails injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at very high pressure to break up shale rock formations and free natural gas.

The St. Lawrence Lowlands, where Quebec’s fracking projects are concentrated, lie between Montréal and Quebec City, an area with 2.1 million people and the province’s best arable land. Widespread anti-fracking protests by local residents led the minority PQ government to ban further shale exploration as one of its first acts in office in September 2012. However, 31 shale gas wells had already been dug in Quebec and 19 are on record as “accidentally” leaking dangerous methane.

In early November the left-wing party Québec solidaire tabled an anti-fracking petition with 34,000 names in the National Assembly, bringing to 60,000 the number of Québécois who have petitioned for a complete ban on fracking.

Premier Couillard was quick to react this time to the BAPE fracking report. Fracking, he admitted to a December 18 news conference, lacked both sufficient evidence of economic benefit and popular support — “at this time.” However, he refused to follow the example of Nova Scotia and neighboring New York State, which have imposed a moratorium on fracking: “Once you establish a moratorium, it’s a hell of a job to lift it if you need to do so some day.”

The Liberal government plans to enact a law next year to regulate oil and gas operations in Quebec, the first time the province will have specifically legislated in this field.

Energy East and fiscal federalism

Couillard has fueled Québécois scepticism about the merits of tar sands pipelines by motivating his government’s promotion of these projects as a necessary quid pro quo for the equalization payments the province receives from the federal government as a result of the disproportionately larger revenues a wealthy province like oil-rich Alberta receives from its oil and gas.

“The federal government spends $16 billion more than it collects in Quebec and … a large share of this wealth comes from exploitation of hydrocarbons in Western Canada,” he told the National Assembly in September. The Québécois “are Canadians and we must participate in the Canadian economy.”

An editorial in the nationalist daily Le Devoir called the premier to order. Alberta is radically stepping up its production of oil and it must export it, the editor noted. Frustrated in its plans to pipe the oil west and south, it has only one way out, to the east. “This puts Quebec in a strategically advantageous situation,” said the influential newspaper.

“But until recently, what has our government been doing? Has it profited from this? No, it lectures the Québécois, portraying them as equalization beggars who should be showing gratitude! As a reading of Quebec’s interests, we have seen better in the past….”

Some broader implications were noted in a December editorial in the popular Quebec monthly magazine L’Action nationale. The response to Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois’ fundraising appeal is encouraging, it said. Now we have to raise the stakes:

“Not only must the opposition’s funding resources be increased, it is necessary to expand the reasons for the protests. What is at stake in these projects is not only protection of the environment and the belugas. What’s at stake is Quebec’s self-determination. It is our capacity to orient our development and to use our strategic advantages in building a sustainable, clean economy. The alliance of Big Business with the Canadian state aims to impose on us a petrol-based federalism. It is an imposed servitude. Our territory, our way of inhabiting it, our energy and environmental choices are a log in the road of nation-building of the petro-state and Ottawa will stoop to anything to nullify any desire to oppose it in the name of our national interest.…

“Almost half of the energy consumed in Quebec is of renewable origin. We are one of the best-placed societies in the world to free ourselves from oil and conduct a policy of energy independence based on renewable energies. We could have a leading position globally in such matters. Would we renounce that by letting Ottawa and Calgary make us a satellite?”

The tar-sands exploiters seem more aware than the Quebec government of the power of these arguments. A “strategic plan” prepared for TransCanada by a public relations firm and leaked by Greenpeace to Le Devoir outlines the key elements of a projected “new communications approach” that it hopes “gives Québécois reason to affirmatively support the [Energy East] project in the face of organized opposition.” Emphasizing the need for a Quebec-centered approach, it concludes: “Québec is, after all, a distinct nation.”

Climate change and austerity, ‘même combat’

Quebec’s anti-tar sands movement is well positioned to link ecology and climate change issues with another growing citizens’ mobilization aimed at a slew of unpopular austerity measures being imposed by the new Liberal government. A November 29 demonstration of 125,000 — 25,000 in Quebec City, 100,000 in Montréal — sponsored by a broad anti-austerity coalition was an initial indication of its mobilizing potential.

“We reject the dismantling of the social state in Quebec,” said a statement by the coalition. “We reject policies that aim only at short-term profit to the detriment of the environment and development.”

Jacques Létourneau, president of the CSN, a major trade-union central participating in the coalition, put it even more bluntly in an article written shortly after the demonstration.

“[T]o see Harper and Couillard’s efforts to have dirty oil shipped from Western Canada’s oil sands through Quebec, we have to wonder if we aren’t returning to Canada’s origins, with the building of the railroad to connect the British colonies for the benefit of English capitalists.

“It’s not only the train that is central to this current capitalist strategy to unite Canada. There’s also the pipeline, at the end of which is the Saint Lawrence River. But for Quebec, it’s more like a wall. What will Quebec society gain if they succeed? Nothing, considering the hazards to the environment and how little it will do for job creation and the economy.

“Premier Couillard, who came across as a great promoter of job creation during the election campaign that brought him to power, should have taken a look at some of the many studies showing that Stephen Harper’s mania for Alberta oil has been catastrophic for eastern Canada’s economy, especially in Quebec.”

The challenge to anti-climate change advocates is to find ways to link their concerns with demands for building alternative environmentally friendly and job-intensive industries. Even now, with very limited investment in such industries, more people are employed in “green energy sector jobs” in Canada than in total tar sands employment.

Not all the social movements are on board, however. The FTQ, Quebec’s largest trade-union central, is still ambivalent about some major oil-related developments. It clings to hopes that more jobs will be created in reactivated and expanded refineries.

And other social sectors are being wooed by Energy East promotors. For instance, the massive Union des producteurs agricoles, an agribusiness-dominated monopoly that all of Quebec’s farmers are required by law to join, was recently revealed to be negotiating with TransCanada a royalties agreement for allowing its pipeline to cross Quebec’s farm lands.

Not in our name,” says the Union paysanne, a Quebec affiliate of the Via Campesina network representing small and organic farmers.[6]

NDP discomfort

Petro-politics promises to be a major issue in federal politics in 2015, an election year. Although the Parti Québécois is not opposed to the pipelines, its federal counterpart the Bloc Québécois apparently sees the issue as a wedge to win back many Quebec voters who deserted it for the NDP in 2011. BQ leader Mario Beaulieu delegated Michel Filion as his “personal representative” at the December COP20 climate talks in Lima, Peru. Filion addressed the alternative “people’s summit” in a speech highlighting the environmental risks of “transporting petroleum products by train, boat or pipeline.”

At the people’s summit, he told L’aut’journal, “I spoke of the alliance between civil society and the Bloc Québécois, which hopes to be an effective rampart against the Energy East project.”

The NDP, on the other hand, is hamstrung by leader Tom Mulcair’s enthusiastic support of Energy East and other plans to export Alberta tar-sands oil to eastern Canada. Will his Quebec caucus — a majority of the party’s MPs — crack under the pressure of mass opposition in their province? A communiqué by Montréal MP Alexandre Boulerice on November 25 indicated the discomfort of some. “I feel it is hard to lend support to such a project,” he wrote.

However, Boulerice did not directly oppose it, and instead went on at length painting NDP policy as favouring renewable sources of energy — while ignoring the party leadership’s support of the tar sands operations. And on his parliamentary web site, the quotation above is altered to read “I feel it is hard to show that this project is respectful of the principle of sustainable development.”

[1] Variously translated as “Don’t Flow Here!” or “Not in Our Yard!” The coalition comprises a number of groups including Stop Oléoduc and Alerte Pétrole, and is supported by Équiterre, Nature Québec and Greenpeace.

[2] Frank McKenna, former New Brunswick premier and now bank and oil company board member, quoted by Joyce Nelson in “Hardball tactics, powerful friends help move Energy East,” CCPA Monitor, December 2014-January 2015, pp. 35-36.

[3] The survey also found that 80% of Canadians think there is solid evidence that average temperatures on Earth have increased over the last 40 years, and of these 61% (71% in Quebec) attribute it to human causes.

[4] Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement.

[5] However, environment is a shared jurisdiction of both federal and provincial governments.

[6] Union paysanne, Des agriculteurs disent non au pipeline de TransCanada.

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