The proponents of TransCanada's Energy East pipeline, the latest long-shot proposal to get Alberta's landlocked oil to market, never fail to tout the project as a "nation-building" exercise.
This was always bound to generate blowback in Quebec, where the first response to such an assertion is: Just which nation do you mean?
If British Columbia has taken what one might call a provincial attitude toward Enbridge's Northern Gateway proposal, drowning the national interest in an ocean of local politics, it's not surprising that Energy East would come up against a similar attitude in the distinct society.
Now that TransCanada has officially filed a 30,000-page application with the National Energy Board to proceed with the $12-billion pipeline, which would carry 1.1 million barrels a day of oil sands crude eastward to refineries and ports in Quebec and New Brunswick, it's showtime for opponents. They've found a perfect mascot in the loveable beluga whale.
Whale-watching brings boatloads of tourists to lower St. Lawrence River communities and the playful beluga is considered a threatened species. TransCanada has already had to suspend preliminary work at a terminal site in Cacouna, where the port would be expanded to accommodate supertankers, out of fear the noise would disturb belugas calving in the area.
"Professional opponents suddenly think they have a monopoly on the well-being of the belugas, when we've got a department full of environmental engineers," a TransCanada spokesman told Radio-Canada after the company was forced to halt plans to drill boreholes at the site last month.
You can't fault local residents for being concerned about the risks for their tourism industry and pristine environment, even though TransCanada has produced thousands of pages arguing the risks are manageable and the NEB has the expertise and mandate to determine whether the company is right.
Politicians have the most critical role in this process. It's up to them to consider the national interest, regardless of whether their nation is Canada, Quebec or both. Unfortunately, one politician in particular prefers to play crass politics.
Pierre Karl Péladeau, the presumed future leader of the Parti Québécois, accuses Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard (who has not taken a stand for or against the project) of caving under pressure from Ottawa. Allowing Energy East is, in Mr. Couillard's eyes, "a tribute we have to pay" to be part of Canada. The Premier "prefers we collect equalization so he can continue to repeat that we're not rich enough to become sovereign," Mr. Péladeau wrote last week on his Facebook page.
That was after he concluded that the "main beneficiaries" of Energy East would be the Desmarais family, Mr. Péladeau's long-time rivals in business, since the family is the largest shareholder (quite indirectly, mind you) in French oil giant Total SA, an oil-sands investor. That was rich coming from the controlling shareholder of Quebecor, which is arguably the biggest beneficiary of Ottawa's attempt to foster a fourth national wireless provider.
"There's nothing for Quebec in [Energy East] except environmental risks and possible tragedies like Lac Mégantic," Mr. Péladeau charged, despite the fact that the pipeline would largely eliminate the need to ship oil by rail through Quebec.
Quebec currently depends entirely on foreign oil, which is the main reason it has such a huge trade deficit. Until recently, most of its oil came from Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Nigeria. Lately, it's been importing more by rail from the United States, a more politically palatable supplier, but with all the risks that mode of transportation entails. The pending reversal of an east-west Enbridge pipeline would partially reduce Quebec's dependence on foreign oil, but without Energy East, Quebec would continue to send billions of dollars outside the country every year instead of virtuously circulating the money domestically.
Quebec-based suppliers already sell everything from fabricated metal products to sophisticated plastics to companies active in the oil sands. Montreal-based CGI does big business as an IT services provider to oil-sands players, creating wealth and jobs in Quebec. Energy East would only deepen this interprovincial business relationship.
Quebeckers have a bigger stake in the oil sands than they realize. But by focusing primarily on Energy East's direct benefits – about 3,000 short-term construction jobs and $3-billion in tax revenues in Quebec – the project's proponents are giving short shrift to that bigger picture.
And, with politicians like PKP on their case, that could just make Energy East the longest shot of them all.