Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Tar Sands come to Ottawa

The report in the June 24 Ottawa Citizen was alarming:

“TransCanada Corp.’s proposal for its massive $5-billion Energy East pipeline project could send as many as 850,000 barrels of crude oil a day through rural areas in the south end of Ottawa and across the Rideau River.”

The Citizen outlined the proposed route, which would transport diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) from Alberta’s Tar Sands “through environmentally sensitive lands around the Rideau River before passing through the waterway” and on to neighbouring communities.

“TransCanada plans to retrofit the underused 3,000-kilometre Canadian Mainline natural gas pipeline, which already runs through the region,” wrote reporter Vito Pilieci. “A 1,400-kilometre extension has also been proposed to carry oil as far as Saint John, N.B., where Irving Oil has a refinery.

“The project is intended to help reduce Eastern Canada’s dependence on imported oil, while offering Alberta oil companies better access to shipping ports where crude can be loaded onto oil tankers and sent overseas. TransCanada has said it would like to see the crude oil flowing east as early as 2017.”

TransCanada is already secretly lobbying senior officials at Ottawa’s City Hall and in nearby municipalities to bring them onside, the newspaper reported.

As a resident of Ottawa, I felt an immediate threat. I live along the bank of the Rideau River in the downtown area, just 1.5 kilometres from the scenic Rideau Falls where the river empties into the much larger Ottawa River, navigable for small vessels through Quebec and the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean. The Rideau is relatively healthy as urban waterways go,[1] and like many others in my neighbourhood I have long treasured the adjoining parklands and pathways, and the variety of local wildlife — big snapping turtles, great blue herons, bullfrogs, and fish, including some very impressive muskellunge (“muskies”) occasionally landed by recreational fishers.

I also recalled that one of my first political activities, as an adolescent in the 1950s, was in relation to the construction of this very pipeline, which was a matter of great controversy in its day. The story is vividly told by one of my then schoolmates, John Riddell, who also relates our involvement in the issue: see “Canada’s pipeline wars of the 1950s: a memoir.”

So I was pleased that Ecology Ottawa, the major environmental group in this city, was quick to take up the challenge. It moved quickly to set up an on-line petition and hired a full-time organizer, well-known indigenous activist Ben Powless, to head up a public campaign against the “Tar Sands pipeline.” Powless was an initiator of Occupy Ottawa in 2011.

The campaign held its first public meeting last night, at the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library. I joined the well over 100 people who attended. It was a diverse and predominantly youthful audience. I recognized a few people known to me as activists in the antiwar and other political and social movements. But most seemed to be concerned citizens without an activist profile. A few attended from Gatineau, our Quebec sister city across the river, although the meeting was conducted entirely in English (Ecology Ottawa’s website is bilingual). And there were a few militants who attended from a Montréal group already campaigning against another tar sands pipeline project, the Enbridge Line 9 reversal project.

Among those who introduced themselves from the floor was a group of young people who have recently organized in Ottawa as “Decline9” to fight the Enbridge project. Some of them had participated in the recent occupation of the Enbridge pumping station in Westover, near Hamilton, Ont., they reported.

The meeting was addressed by Powless and Ecology Ottawa’s executive director, Graham Saul. They outlined the hazards of the TransCanada plans and explained the relation between Tar Sands development and the climate crisis. A two-page Fact Sheet on the “Tar Sands Pipeline,” distributed at the meeting, made the case that “the pipeline is all risk and no reward for the residents of Ottawa.” It noted that “the risks of shipping oil near people’s houses and sensitive ecosystems has become a central issue for many” in the wake of the recent disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a runaway train with more than 70 tanker cars filled with shale oil products from North Dakota crashed, exploded and burned, killing 50 people and destroying the entire centre of the town.[2]

“While many argue pipelines are safer than trains,” said the Fact Sheet, “that doesn’t mean they are safe. In the US alone, there were an average of 250 pipeline spills per year over the last 20 years. Canada counts over 100 spills on average per year, some of them major spills…. And when they spill, because of the extra chemicals required to dilute and ship the heavy Tar Sands crude, the spills are harder to clean up, and also cause more damage, as this kind of oil is known to sink and not float.”

The ensuing discussion from the floor ranged far and wide. An issue raised by several speakers was how to engage with the numerous indigenous and farming communities in the surrounding area whose lands are crossed by the pipeline. Notorious incidents were cited, such as the Enbridge spill of 3.8 million litres of Tar Sands oil in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River that cost nearly $800 million to partially clean up, although the river still lies polluted years later. There were references to the growing protests across North America against pipeline expansion, such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project in the United States. 

Some asked whether it was technically possible to ensure the safety of pipelines. But the overwhelming consensus of the meeting was that this pipeline was a threat to our health and environment, and that action to stop it was urgently needed. At the end of this initial information meeting, more than half the participants stayed behind for a brief discussion of the next steps to take.

Ecology Ottawa had already produced 10,000 copies of a bilingual “door-knocker” leaflet for distribution at neighbourhood households. “Are you prepared for an oil spill in Ottawa?,” it asks, citing the risks and asking readers to “Learn more and sign the petition to call on our elected leaders to oppose the pipeline,” with a link to the campaign web site.

It was agreed to distribute these (many more will be printed) in the coming weeks, in three priority areas of the city: the Ottawa South provincial constituency, where a by-election is scheduled for August 1 to replace retiring Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty; communities in the direct path of the TransCanada pipeline; and communities like mine along the Rideau River.

Other projected actions include:

  • A Day of Action on July 27, the anniversary of the Kalamazoo spill;
  • An August 24 action in solidarity with an indigenous peoples’ march on the Alberta Tar Sands, where it is hoped to block Highway 63, the main road used by the oil companies;
  • Attendance on October 10 at a TransCanada public briefing on its plans in Stittsville, an Ottawa suburb.

Participants at the meeting noted that the pipeline projects are now arousing opposition in hundreds of communities across Canada. And this is only the beginning. We face a huge challenge, as none of the major political parties — not even the Greens — oppose the Tar Sands. Federal Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party does not oppose the Harper government’s support for piping Alberta oil eastwards. And almost without exception organized labour is on record in support of continued Tar Sands exploitation.

I was reminded of these obstacles as I left the Library. While unlocking my bicycle to return home, I noticed someone pasting up stickers on lampposts: “STOP Harper’s Crimes,” listing “climate, militarism, mining, Palestine.” I recognized him as a friend who is employed by what is now the biggest union in the country, one that represents many oil workers. I told him about the meeting we had just held, which he had not known about. He was sympathetic (and a little contrite about his absence), and then he told me that his union’s official position on the pipelines, which are favoured by their refinery locals, is to support the pipelines — but not to make representations at the public hearings of the National Energy Board, the federal regulatory agency.

It will fall to others to make that case, not only with the Board (if we can), but more importantly with the mass of our fellow Canadians and Québécois. Graham Saul made the point well, in his concluding remarks to our meeting (I paraphrase):

“We represent the majority. But you here are abnormal, because you are already attending a meeting like this. Our task is to reach out to all those who want an ecological environment, and to get them active.”

[1] This is partly because most industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries was located along the Rideau Canal, a related but separate waterway built by the British in the 1820s to create an alternative navigable route between Montréal and York, now Toronto. The cities were connected by Lake Ontario and its outlet, the St. Lawrence River, access to which the Americans had threatened to close during the war of 1812.

[2] For an excellent discussion of the causes of this disaster, see “Why are Canada's Trains Vulnerable?

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