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A car drives past signage displayed outside of the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, on Monday, Aug. 4, 2014. Irving Oil Ltd., the Saint John, New Brunswick-based company owned by billionaire Arthur Irving and his family, produces more than 300,000 barrels a day of petroleum products including gasoline and diesel at its Saint John refinery on Canada's Atlantic Coast and distributes more than half of the fuels into the U.S. Northeast, according to its website. Photographer: Aaron McKenzie Fraser/BloombergAaron McKenzie Fraser/Bloomberg

If there were ever a major energy project that Canada's economy needed, and needed to work well, it is the Energy East pipeline proposal from TransCanada Corp. If it is approved and lives up to its billing, the pipeline would demonstrate to skeptics the viability of transporting bitumen from Alberta's oil sands via pipeline, lessen the oil industry's growing dependence on rail, open up new markets for Canadian crude overseas, and give landlocked oil something it currently lacks: a deep-water terminal.

Conversely, if TransCanada makes major missteps – and it has already made one minor one – it could jeopardize the industry's ability to add more delivery capacity and throttle the growth potential of the oil sands. No pressure.

TransCanada submitted its 30,000-page application for the project to the National Energy Board last week. The company wants to repurpose an underutilized natural-gas pipeline running from Alberta to eastern Ontario, add new pipeline in Quebec and New Brunswick, and build two marine facilities, one near Quebec City and one in Saint John, where the diluted bitumen could be loaded onto tankers destined for new markets in Europe and the U.S. The $12-billion pipeline would move 1.1 million barrels a day, some for export but much of it to east coast refineries. Those refineries currently depend on imported oil.

The project has the support of the leaders of the three main federal parties, which is more than can be said of most other pipeline proposals. But it is also facing fierce resistance from environmental groups that want oil-sands carbon to stay in the ground forever, and which are also concerned about the risk of tanker spills in the Bay of Fundy and the St. Lawrence River. TransCanada has already had its wrist slapped in a Quebec court for beginning work on the St. Lawrence River port without taking proper precautions to protect a nearby beluga whale calving ground.

That's a big mistake. TransCanada, which is also behind the contentious Keystone pipeline proposal through the U.S., is to a fair degree carrying a the future of the oil sands on its shoulders. Alberta's oil industry is one of this country's major economic drivers; the capacity to extract oil is there, more is being built, and that oil has to move somehow. Moving it by pipe is the least dangerous, most logical way. If it wins approval, TransCanada must deliver on its promises in a responsible and conscientious fashion.

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