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Alberta Premier Jim Prentice speaks to reporters during a press conference after meeting with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne at Queen's Park in Toronto on Wednesday, December 3, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren CalabreseDarren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

The conversation around the proposed Energy East pipeline seems to be taking place in a vacuum. In Ontario and Quebec, there's widespread concern about the environmental damage that could be caused by a pipe rupture, or a spill on the St. Lawrence. These are reasonable things to worry about, and obviously no pipelines or oil shipping terminals should be built unless they meet the highest safety and environmental standards. But it's important to consider what's being proposed – an Alberta to New Brunswick pipeline, with export terminals in Quebec and at St. John, N.B. – and put it in context. Huge volumes of oil are already moving on and around the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes. The novelty in Energy East will be the direction of the oil flow, not the oil itself. The St. Lawrence basin is not currently some kind of oil-free zone.

For example, across the river from Quebec City sits a large, 265,000 barrel per day oil refinery. It's been there for decades. Upstream in Montreal is another refinery, able to process up to 137,000 barrels a day. It's been around for decades, too. These refineries traditionally import oil from overseas. Valero, owner of the Quebec City refinery proudly notes on its website that its location and deep-water dock allow it to "receive year-round shipments of crude oil from large crude oil tankers" including "single cargoes of up to 1 million barrels."

In other words, the status quo is far from a no-oil scenario. Today, oil is imported; in future it could be exported. Ships carry it upstream on the St. Lawrence; in future they could move it downstream and across the ocean. Today, a lot of oil is moving by rail instead of by safer pipelines. Even if Alberta's oil sands were shut down, Quebec oil refineries would still be bringing in foreign oil and turning it into gasoline, jet fuel and other refined products. Energy East won't be introducing oil into virgin territory.

And even without Energy East, the oil flow is already reversing. This fall, Suncor for the first time shipped Canadian oil to Europe, from its facility at Sorel-Tracy, east of Montreal. No pipeline? No problem: The oil arrived from the West by train. And once the reversal of Enbridge's Line 9 pipeline is completed and given regulatory go-ahead, likely in the coming months, Montreal will be the terminus for a 300,000 a day pipe from Western Canada. That means domestic oil can replace oil that is currently imported. Instead of tankers bringing in foreign oil to Canada, some of the same ships could soon by exporting it overseas.

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice was in Ontario and Quebec this week, trying to move opinion on the movement of oil. But public discussion keeps returning to first principles, as if "no oil" were an option. It isn't. Oil is already moving. The debate should be over moving it in the safest, most environmentally sensible way.

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