Ontario and Quebec have decided to mostly ignore climate-change concerns when deciding whether to support Energy East, clearing one the of largest single obstacles out of the way of TransCanada Corp.'s $12-billion pipeline proposal.
The move marks a major victory for Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, who visited his Ontario and Quebec counterparts this week to promote the project. But it drew swift condemnation from environmental groups that warned Energy East would erase much of the recent progress this country has made fighting global warming.
Kathleen Wynne said Wednesday morning she will not consider "upstream" greenhouse-gas emissions – the extra carbon released when Alberta jacks up oil sands production to supply the crude for Energy East – when deciding whether Ontario will back the pipeline.
"No, we're not talking about upstream emissions," the Ontario Premier said at Queen's Park after emerging from a meeting with Mr. Prentice.
Quebec's Philippe Couillard had the same message a day earlier, contending "it doesn't add anything to the debate" to consider those emissions.
This decision appears to contradict the two provinces' previous position. Last month, Ms. Wynne and Mr. Couillard issued a list of seven principles they would use to judge Energy East; one was that the project's emissions be taken into account. And a motion passed by Quebec's National Assembly specified the government look at the "global contribution" of Energy East to climate change. These conditions were understood by many politicians and environmentalists to mean Ontario and Quebec would consider upstream emissions.
But Ms. Wynne and Mr. Couillard now say they will look only at the relatively small emissions from work that has to be done on Energy East in Ontario or Quebec, such as exhaust fumes from construction vehicles.
The Ontario Premier said she would save larger climate change matters for a national energy strategy the provinces and territories will negotiate next year. "The Energy East project is not the whole discussion," she said.
Mr. Prentice sounded optimistic the pipeline would move ahead. "I believe that we can work together, that we can collaborate … this is a good project for the country, and it is nation-building."
If completed, Energy East would be the largest pipeline in North America, delivering 1.1 million barrels of crude every day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, one of the project's most vocal champions, cheered Ms. Wynne's and Mr. Couillard's decision. He said his impression last month was that they were planning to scrutinize the greenhouse-gas emissions from Western Canadian oil. During a telephone conversation with Ms. Wynne on Monday, she did nothing to disabuse him of this notion, he said.
"It's a very important clarification to make. The understanding was, and the concern from industry and certainly from our perspective, was that there was going to be some kind of [upstream] measure," he said in an interview Wednesday. "This is very welcome."
Mr. Wall contends that calculating emissions from Canadian crude is unfair, because Ontario and Quebec do not do the same for imported oil from such places as Venezuela or Algeria.
The Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental think-tank, estimates Energy East would cause 32 million tonnes of added greenhouse-gas emissions every year, which would cancel out the emissions reductions Ontario achieved by closing all of its coal-fired power plants.
Environmentalists argue it makes no sense for Ms. Wynne and Mr. Couillard to put off talk on climate change until the national energy strategy, when the subject could be discussed immediately on Energy East.
"If Ontario and Quebec want to be climate leaders, like they say they want to be, that means saying no to projects like this," said Adam Scott of Environmental Defence. "It's absolutely essential that the provinces review all of the potential impacts to the environment, because no one else is going to do it."
With a report from Nicolas Van Praet and Les Perreaux in Montreal