Common wisdom has it that Quebec's favourite sport is hockey. But scratch the surface and you might find that Quebeckers spend more time arguing with each other through summits and public hearings, in the hopes of reaching an elusive consensus, than actual time on an ice rink.
The consultations that Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet wants to hold on Enbridge's plans to reverse the flow of a pipeline to bring western oil to Montreal are just the latest hearings in an ever-expanding list. Quebec is suffering from a severe case of hearingitis.
The government wants to ensure there is social acceptance before it green-lights the project, even if it is unclear Quebec has any legal say in the matter. The National Energy Board is already carrying its own public examination. But no one will say a word on this – certainly not Enbridge or Quebec's oil refiners, Suncor Energy Inc. and Valero Energy Corp., which would profit from access to cheaper Alberta oil.
Social acceptance is the new religion, and to oppose this would be like declaring war on apple pie. But the fact is many hearings and summits such as the one on mining royalties are a waste of time. More often than not, they are an entirely predictable showdown between well-organized industry and green interests whose positions are irreconcilable.
Most people are left confused after listening to this dialogue of the deaf. On such divisive issue as pipelines, reaching social acceptance is close to impossible.
This is a case where the Parti Québécois government should do what all governments have been elected to do: Put their pants on, make an informed decision and live with it.
Enbridge wants to reverse the flow of the pipeline, Line 9, that runs between Sarnia, Ont., and Montreal so that it goes eastward, and increase its capacity to 300,000 barrels per day from 240,000. Ironically, this was the line's original flow until the end of the 1990s, when imported oil became cheaper than western oil.
Environmentalists have been criticizing Enbridge's project as a way of condemning Alberta's "dirty" oil sands, even if the light crude that would be flowing East could also come from the United States or Saskatchewan. However, the problem really lies with Quebec's demand for oil.
The PQ government hopes to position the province as a green tech hub and plans to electrify some of its public transportation with its electricity surpluses. But until the province's crude consumption truly decreases – and this can't be done overnight – it will continue to buy oil.
Quebec currently imports its oil from Europe and North Africa. Is the oil extracted in Algeria and shipped by tanker so much cleaner than western oil? And what about the Alberta oil that is now making its way by train, with the risks associated with derailments, such as the one that happened in Jansen, Sask.?
The bigger issue is one of safety. Using pipelines is a secure way to ship oil, but when accidents happen they can be catastrophic, as in the Kalamazoo spill of 2010, when an estimated 20,000 barrels of oil were discharged near the Michigan River. This is where Quebec needs to get tough – especially since the federal Environment Commissioner recently concluded that Canada is ill equipped to handle a spill should a pipeline burst or a tanker run aground. There can be no complacency.
But once the necessary precautions are taken by the government and the industry, approving the reversal of Enbridge's pipeline should be a slam-dunk decision, so obvious are the benefits to Quebec.
Getting access to the cheaper Alberta oil will preserve, for the foreseeable future, Quebec's two last refineries: Suncor's in Montreal-East and Valero's in Saint-Romuald, on the south shore of Quebec City. Together, they employ around 1,000 workers. Montreal-East has already been hit hard with five refinery closures, and the dismantling of the Royal Dutch Shell refinery, where 800 people worked, is still a vivid memory.
Valero has also long committed to $140-million in additional investments in Quebec, should it access cheaper western oil, and the company's CEO, Brian Klesse, confirmed it this week again. The company plans to upgrade its Montreal-East equipment and maritime terminal at a cost of $110-million, and would invest another $30-million to expand its Saint-Romuald wharf. Another $60-million would help finance the acquisition of small tankers, but unless Chantier Davie Canada Inc. landed the contract, the money would be spent out of province.
That is only from Quebec's perspective; the money spent on western oil would also help Alberta and possibly narrow the price discount on Western Canada Select versus North Sea Brent crude. Quebec imported $13-billion worth of oil in 2012, which represented 60 per cent of the province's trade deficit, according to the Institut de la Statistique du Québec.
Jobs, investments and hey, even making friends in Alberta: Anyway you look at Enbridge's pipeline reversal project, this is a no-brainer.