THE BLOG
10/30/2014 11:33 am ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

TransCanada's Proposed Energy East Tar Sands Pipeline Faces a Sea of Opposition

A new tar sands pipeline called Energy East proposed by TransCanada -- the company behind the contentious Keystone XL tar sands pipeline -- faces considerable opposition and numerous hurdles that make this project far from a done deal. The project application for the massive new 1.1 million barrel per day pipeline project and supertanker loading facilities was filed today. Traversing 4,600 kilometers (2,858 miles), the $12 billion pipeline is designed to carry tar sands crude oil from Alberta's tar sands across Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick, where it will be loaded to tankers, many of which are destined for the United States. To do this, the proposal involves the construction of marine terminals at Cacouna, Quebec on the Saint Lawrence River and Saint John, New Brunswick in the Bay of Fundy, from where the majority of transported crude would be loaded onto large tankers for export to refineries in the U.S. Gulf Coast and around the world. It is no wonder that this gigantic and costly project has faced such stiff opposition from a wide range of interests since rumors of TransCanada's plans surfaced. It threatens land and water from Alberta to New Brunswick, and puts coastline from the Bay of Fundy, all along the Eastern Seaboard to the U.S. Gulf Coast at risk of a major oil tanker spill. And, despite claims from TransCanada, Energy East would do little help to reduce overseas crude oil imports, as most of the crude processed by Eastern Canadian refineries is already coming from North America, and Energy East is meant primarily as an export pipeline. Opposition to this risky project is running high, with around 2,000 people joining a protest in Cacouna, Quebec earlier this month. In addition to the risks to land and water, the climate change impacts associated with extracting 1.1 million barrels per day of tar sands are unacceptable; we must stop this dirty energy project in favor of clean, renewable energy.

Though Energy East's pipeline route crosses only Canadian territory, emerging details about TransCanada's plans should make Americans concerned, too. Not only are U.S. waters south of the Bay of Fundy being put at risk by this proposal, the entire eastern seaboard may be exposed to the risk of a tanker accident as oil is moved to Delaware and Gulf Coast area refineries. With tankers known to stop at smaller ports en route to refinery areas--like Portland, ME and Boston, MA--numerous communities and coastlines face a serious risk as tanker traffic is set to substantially increase.

An Energy East Tanker Spill Could Devastate the Bay of Fundy and Eastern Seaboard

One of the sites selected by TransCanada for a supertanker port for loading tar sands crude transported by Energy East is Saint John, New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. A diluted bitumen spill in the Bay of Fundy would be devastating; recent studies by Canadian government scientists have confirmed that spilled bitumen will sink and form tar balls in marine conditions. With renowned tides and consequent navigational risks, transporting tar sands oil out of the Bay could lead to potentially disastrous impacts to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and the State of Maine.

From the Bay of Fundy, tankers could take the tar sands anywhere in the world including to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, meaning that a tar sands tanker accident could occur anywhere along the Eastern seaboard, putting a vast swath of U.S. coast at risk.

Energy East Threatens Our Global Climate

In addition to threatening land and water with oil spills, one of the big environmental concerns of Energy East is the climate impact of the additional 1.1 million barrels per day of carbon-intensive tar sands extraction that this project would allow. The tar sands industry is rapidly running out of pipeline capacity to transport its product from landlocked Alberta to markets. As rising production, construction, labor, and transport costs have led to a slowdown in the tar sands industry's expansion in recent months, it is now clear that tar sands expansion is not "inevitable" and that the industry is quite susceptible to any factor that might impact profitability. Thus, projects like Energy East are significant enablers of tar sands expansion that encourage the long term production of one of the world's dirtiest fuel sources at a time when clean energy alternatives including wind, solar, electric vehicles and efficiency are on the rise.

The Energy East Pipeline Threatens North American Waterways

A report released by the Council of Canadians in late August revealed that the proposed route for Energy East will cross 961 waterways. These rivers and streams provide critical drinking water for communities, support First Nation's cultural practices and treaty-protected resources, and are vital to regional tourism. Worse still is the fact that it is now well-known that when diluted bitumen spills into water, the bitumen portion sinks and does not substantially biodegrade. This means that aquatic and marine environments exposed to spilled diluted bitumen could face years of harmful environmental impacts during the lengthy and expensive cleanup process. With Energy East, the risk of a spill into a waterway is exacerbated in ways that dwarf other existing and proposed tar sands pipelines. The sheer volume of oil, and the pressures at which it must be shipped, mean that even a short term spill could result in a very significant release of oil. For example, an Enbridge, Inc. pipeline spill that entered the Kalamazoo River in 2010, lasted for only 17 hours, but released more than one million gallons of diluted bitumen and is still being cleaned up today. For Energy East, a spill at full operational capacity would reach this size within 35 minutes.

Energy East Project Threatens Endangered Beluga Whales

After being transported East by pipeline, the tar sands would be loaded onto tankers, which present major risks to water and wildlife. Even without a spill, endangered beluga whales are being threatened by Energy East. TransCanada prematurely commenced exploratory drilling near Cacouna on the St. Lawrence River in early September. The area around Cacouna--one of the sites selected by TransCanada for a major export terminal--is the location of critical calving habitat for beluga whales, and the seismic testing could be harmful to the belugas, which are particularly sensitive to sound. Environmental groups succeeded in securing a temporary injunction to stop the drilling after a Quebec court found that TransCanada's drilling permit had been granted without a proper review of possible impacts to endangered beluga whales. Quebec groups are working to secure a permanent injunction against this supertanker port.

What's more, the company's plans envision the loading of Suezmax tankers, which can hold around one million barrels (more than 40 million gallons) of crude oil and would obliterate local species in the case of an accident.

Opposition to Energy East is Growing

Opposition to Energy East is growing. With 50% of Energy East's length crossing Ontario and Quebec, TransCanada will face an uphill battle to convince citizens that they should let this dirty oil project anywhere near their lands. The construction of Energy East will require converting around 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) of existing natural gas pipeline and construction of around 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) of new pipe, with the most construction expected in Quebec. The impact of building a new pipeline creates a significant hurdle for TransCanada, as Quebec has long touted its pro-environment stance and is not eager to play a role in enabling tar sands expansion plans in Alberta. At the same time, Ontario's government has grown increasingly skeptical, as TransCanada has failed to demonstrate how a pipeline crossing the province could provide anything but risk to landowners and livelihoods lying near the pipeline's path. The Ontario Energy Board has been holding its own hearings on the pipeline, and both the Quebec and Ontario governments plan to intervene in the National Energy Board review for the project. Recently, around 2,000 people rallied against the project in Quebec.What's more, natural gas interests have been lining up in opposition to the pipeline, concerned that converting this natural gas pipeline into a tar sands crude oil pipeline will cause rate hikes for customers. Sophie Brochu, the CEO of Gaz Métro, Quebec's leading gas utility, said:

"I refuse [to accept] that the Children's Hospital of Montreal pays a higher price for its gas because Western Canada needs to export its oil to the international markets... What TCPL [TransCanada Pipelines Ltd.] is asking now is that the gas customers subsidize the oil shippers and I don't believe this is in the best interests of Canada."
The tourism industry is also concerned about the risks from Energy East (article in French). Mayors and local chambers of commerce know how important whale-watching and tourism is on the St. Lawrence River - it provides important economic benefits for the area. TransCanada has not been able to quantify any economic benefits from have the pipeline and tankers come through the St. Lawrence, and in fact, a tar sands spill could be devastating to the ecosystem and local economy.

Energy East Project Is Just another Pipedream

The Northern Gateway pipeline proposal--which imagines a tar sands pipeline traversing the mountains of British Columbia to reach that province's pristine coast--is a good reminder for why TransCanada's Energy East tar sands pipeline is unlikely to ever be built. With a route traversing two provinces whose leadership is already lukewarm at the prospect, TransCanada can expect a protracted legal and political battle that will undoubtedly raise costs and strengthen opposition. Add the numerous environmental risks--from increasing climate change to spills along the pipeline's endless route to spills in critical whale habitat--and TransCanada has a proposal on its hands that is not likely to go anywhere soon, or ever.

Written with Josh Axelrod and Elizabeth Shope, Natural Resources Defense Council