After years of pipeline politics across North America, the future for a conduit to carry Alberta oil to tidewater might just rest on the local politics around a river crossing in Quebec.
The campaigns to block the proposed Energy East pipeline to Saint John have been organized primarily by climate-change campaigners, but the real political pressure point is local. It centres on the fear that a spill could contaminate the drinking water in the Montreal area.
That's why those wondering about the future routes for exporting Alberta oil should cast an eye to the politics around a river crossing somewhere near Pointe-Fortune, Que.
Though National Energy Board hearings on Energy East open Monday in Saint John and move into Quebec by the end of the month, we still don't know exactly where that crossing, the likely political choke point for the proposed pipeline, will be. TransCanada Corp.'s dispute with a regional administration has stalled permits for testing, so the company hasn't yet pinpointed the spot where it would lay the pipe across the Ottawa River.
The lesson here is a twist on the adage that all politics is local. Many Quebeckers are concerned about climate change, but voters react more intensely to the backyard issue – the fear of a spill.
That's similar to the politics around the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline to Burnaby, B.C. There's opposition based on climate change, but the big potential vote-driver appears to be the fear that tanker traffic in Vancouver's harbour would expand dramatically. For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals, that's a political predicament. He wants to approve at least one pipeline, but doesn't want to anger voters in the many Lower Mainland ridings his party now holds.
The political stakes of Energy East are high for Mr. Trudeau, too. The Liberals won a surprising 40 seats in Quebec, largely in the Montreal area, and can't afford to lose them. The question is how intense public opposition will be.
In Montreal, there won't be more tanker traffic. There are already both oil and gas pipelines that cross the Ottawa River not far from where Energy East would have to go. Tankers carry oil along the Saint Lawrence. If the Energy East pipeline ever gets buried, it will probably be quickly forgotten by most, unless there's a spill. And there is fear of a spill, despite TransCanada's insistence it will be safe – fears stoked by incidents such as July's Husky Energy pipeline spill into the North Saskatchewan River.
Some Quebec Liberal MPs privately support the pipeline, but worry about the politics; some blame TransCanada for botching the PR. Mayors voiced many qualms. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, briefly the poster boy for opposition, has quietened since Mr. Trudeau asked him to tone it down. But many mayors still echo local concerns.
One study commissioned by the regional municipal county of Vaudreuil-Soulanges, the region where Energy East would have to cross the Ottawa River, included a graphic that illustrates the fear: It shows the plume of a potential spill reaching downstream along the Ottawa River, into the Lac des Deux Montagnes, the Rivière des Prairies and the stretch of the Saint Lawrence that laps up to downtown Montreal. That raises the spectre of an oil spill touching Montreal-area bedroom communities where perhaps two million people live. Many are also Liberal-held ridings. That will weigh in the political balance.
So that crossing point is critical. Right now, TransCanada can't say precisely where it will be. Their original location wasn't suitable, and they want to conduct tests for another. But Vaudreuil-Soulanges officials insist TransCanada has not provided enough specifics, so they won't green-light permits for the testing. TransCanada argues they can't provide the specifics until they do the tests. It's hard to address questions about spills without knowing where and how the pipeline will cross. Instead, as the Energy East hearings open, the spot that could well be the political choke point for piping Alberta oil to tidewater hasn't yet been drawn on the map.