Death of Energy East direct legacy of Harper’s decade in office

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Not only did the prime minister systematically refuse to bring premiers together, he had no interest in a new national project.


First published on Monday, October 9, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—The death of Energy East is a direct legacy of the Stephen Harper decade in office. Not only did the prime minister systematically refuse to bring premiers together, he had no interest in a new national project.

Harper was Canada’s energy superhero, and oil companies didn’t even have to leave Calgary to get support for their mega-projects.

With an oil patch superstar in the prime minister’s chair, National Energy Board approvals were a sure thing. There was talk that the existing weakened process would be limited in order to secure pipeline approval.

But that approach overlooked that fact that the pipeline crossed six provinces in the 4,500-kilometre journey from Alberta to New Brunswick. Each of those provinces might have something to contribute to the debate.

Energy East should have been a great national project. But if TransCanada Corporation wants someone to blame for last week’s cancellation, it need only look in the mirror. With billions of investment dollars at stake, the company should have started building broad pan-Canadian public support years ago.

It is not rocket science. It is straight politics.

Instead of believing the Harperites’ spin, the company should have been working the country, gaining political, labour and business support that crossed party and provincial boundaries. Instead, the company largely sat on its hands and its wallet, waiting for the federal government to move.

Quebec Inc. has its own homegrown energy behemoth in the shape of Hydro Quebec. Quebecers consider themselves to be purveyors of green, non-polluting hydroelectric power, which dovetails nicely with a world agenda to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

So why did the folks at TransCanada invest so little in building partnerships in Quebec long before a change in national government meant more regulatory scrutiny.

TransCanada still has a great story to tell. After all, in the world of oil transportation, there is no safer mode to transport oil than pipelines. The Lac Mégantic disaster proved that rail travel is risky business. The same elements of risk are attached to truck transport.

The pipeline safety story can be easily proven. In addition, a little bit of creative mathematics could have ensured that every province through which the pipeline travelled, would share in economic benefits and have a say about environmental and safety considerations.

Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel, in defending his position against Energy East last week, made a very compelling case that any government has the responsibility to assess the environmental standards of pipelines traversing their territory.

When Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi took to Twitter to debate the project months ago, it was already game over.

The time to build a national energy vision, was long before each side had become intractable.

When TransCanada suspended the project last month, Saint John mayor Don Darling interrupted his vacation to meet with Nenshi in an emergency strategy session. But the jig was already up.

The Federation of Quebec Municipalities was doing its own strategizing, and unanimously resolved to oppose the project.

Coderre was effusive in the wake of the cancellation last week. He credited local mayors and the communities with the move.

In the end, the death of Energy East will not mean the oil will stay in the ground. When markets improve, and prices rise, there will be a new and improved plan, tweaked geographically, to achieve the same goal of getting western oil to lucrative eastern markets.

Meanwhile, the bellicose bombast of Conservatives like Pierre Polievre and Jason Kenney is not credible. By blaming the project cancellation on red tape, the Tories are killing any hope they have of pretending to care about the environment.

Do they really think that Canadian energy projects should be subject to the same weak labour and environmental standards that exist in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Algeria?

Even the premier of Alberta supports the federal decision to include upstream assets and other factors when calculating the carbon footprint of a new energy project.

That is just what the National Energy Board did, and it didn’t sit well with TransCanada, which had already burnt precious political capital by misunderstanding the huge groundswell of opposition in Quebec.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling, whose city will lose $5-million in annual tax revenue as a result of the cancellation, pointed an accusatory finger at Quebec. He blamed his neighbour for sabotaging the opportunity for a pan-Canadian visionary project.

To be truly national, a dream must involve the support of more than two provinces.


Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.