As the leadership contest for Alberta’s newly formed United Conservative Party heats up, it’s no surprise pipeline politics are front and centre.
As four major oilsands pipeline projects from Alberta sit abandoned, stalled or awaiting review, one contender is proposing to beat the pipeline gridlock through an entirely new route.
It wouldn’t be through the west or east coast but through the Arctic — namely Churchill, Manitoba, the polar bear capital of the world, nestled in Hudson Bay.
“Churchill has Canada's only deep-water port facility, and it could be capable of sending 250,000 barrels/day of Alberta oil to global markets so we can secure the premium price,” states a media release from Jeff Callaway, former Wildrose president and now leadership contender for the United Conservative Party.
The president of the Churchill Chamber of Commerce blasted the proposal as ecologically dangerous.
“Everyone always wants jobs and security that way but oil is pretty scary business, especially on the edge of the Arctic,” Dave Daley, an avid dogsledder and owner of Wapusk Adventures, told CBC.
"As soon as that article hit town here there was a big uproar about 'Say no to oil.' "
Latest Oil Pipeline Proposal Comes as Support Grows for Getting Off Oil
This latest pipeline proposal comes at time when the world is grappling with the urgent need to ramp down fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.
Pipelines have become a symbol of the larger debate about climate change, with new pipeline proposals threatening to enable increased oil production at a time when scientists and world leaders agree rapid de-carbonization is needed.
New polling released by Abacus Data this month indicates a majority of Canadians (59 per cent) are growing “more worried about climate change and it is changing my view of how long we should use oil.” That includes 48 per cent of Albertans and 35 per cent of Conservative voters.
“Energy, pipeline and climate issues have been among the most highly charged political debates in Canada for several years,” said Abacus chairman Bruce Anderson.
“What we are seeing in our numbers now is an evolution of opinion: concerns about climate change have deepened, and belief that the world is going to transition away from oil has grown.”
Canadians are also becoming more convinced that oil demand will decrease in the next few decades. Ten years from now, equal numbers believe demand for oil will be rising (31 per cent) as believe it will be falling (32 per cent).
“This represents a striking 15-point increase in the number who believe demand will be falling, compared to our result in April of this year,” Abacus states.
A majority (55 per cent) would prefer to see demand in decline in 10 years and fully two-thirds would like to see demand declining in 30 years.
Even in Alberta, more people would like to see demand for oil declining (38 per cent) in 10 years as would like to see it increasing (28 per cent). Looking out 30 years, 48 per cent would prefer to see oil demand in decline, compared to 20 per cent who would like to see it increasing.
So if public sentiment is shifting to a place where it doesn’t support an increase in oil demand even in the next 10 years, how does that impact the debate about constructing new pipelines?
“Over the last three years, feelings about the construction of new pipelines to deliver Canadian energy to new markets have shifted. Negative feelings have not grown (21 per cent), but positive feelings (44 per cent) have dropped, while more people take a neutral stance (36 per cent),” Abacus states, noting stark differences of opinion based on generation and partisanship.
Yet when asked to choose between two alternatives: building new pipelines while pursuing efforts to reduce emissions, or building no new pipelines to avoid contributing to climate change, the large majority continues to support a strategy that both builds new pipelines (thus increasing emissions) while simultaneously ramping up policies that will see the country shift to more renewable forms of energy (to reduce emissions).
This question gets at the crux of the breakdown of public narrative on the construction of new export pipelines. Either the public fundamentally misunderstands that the export pipeline proposals under consideration would enable increased production, and therefore increase emissions, or essentially Canadians want to have their cake and eat it too.
Alberta Government Proposed as Main Investor in Churchill Pipeline
Back to Callaway’s Churchill pipeline idea. Key to the proposal is a front-and-centre role for a new conservative Alberta government, which Callaway envisions subsidizing the proposal as the pipeline’s main investor.
According to Callaway, after ousting the NDP government, Alberta should buy the out-of commission rail line that connects Churchill with points south, and the port facilities.
The port would then be revamped to handle both oil and grain exports. In addition, a new oil pipeline and access road would be built alongside the railway line.
The plan echoes one carried out by Premier Peter Lougheed in the 1980s when the government put up $200 million to expand the grain export terminals in Prince Rupert so farmers would have better access to world markets.
But it’s a far cry from recent conservative policy in Alberta, which decries any government bankrolling of energy projects. Canada has also joined other G20 countries in pledging to stop subsidizing fossil fuel extraction.
Omnitrax, a Denver-based company that owns the railway and the port facilities, has said it is not prepared to pay the $20 to $60 million dollars it would cost for repairs. It wants the federal government to step in instead.
Callaway did not respond to interview requests for this article.
Pipeline Projects Face Uphill Approval Battle
If the proposal ever came up for serious consideration, it would be years away.
At this stage, Callaway is not a front runner in the leadership race for the United Conservative Party, the party that emerged after the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives agreed to unite. Jason Kenney, a former Harper cabinet minister, and Brian Jean, former leader of the Wildrose, have much better chances of winning.
Alberta’s provincial election is two years in the future and approval for a project of this magnitude, never mind completion, could easily take ten years (past the point when the majority of Canadians say they want to see oil demand decreasing).
But Callaway’s “big idea” is another sign of the growing frustration, particularly among conservatives, with a lack of progress on the pipeline file.
When NDP Premier Rachel Notley announced Alberta’s Climate Change Action Plan in November 2015 she touted it as a path to social licence for Alberta’s energy projects, particularly interprovincial pipelines. The plan included a carbon tax, a phase out of coal- generated electricity and a cap on oilsands carbon emissions and more renewable energy.
If Alberta doesn’t get a pipeline built, David Taras, a veteran observer of Alberta and Canadian politics and professor of communication studies at Mount Royal University, said the frustration in Alberta could boil over.
The “politics of isolation and anger” may surface in Alberta and that would play right into the hands of the United Conservative Party.
Numerous projects have faced regulatory and social licence hurdles when it comes to moving oilsands crude from landlocked Alberta to coastal export facilities.
After one of the most protracted, controversial and public pipeline reviews in Canadian history, the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline project is now dead.
The future of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline project remains uncertain.
The project, which involves twinning the current Trans Mountain pipeline will lead to a seven-fold increase of oil tanker traffic off the coast of British Columbia. Concerns over oil spills, a lack of consent from First Nations, as well as growing support for strong climate policies have converged to make the pipeline politically toxic in B.C.
The new B.C. NDP government was recently granted intervenor status in a legal challenge of federal permits for the pipeline and has promised to do everything possible to legally impede the pipeline’s construction.
Pressure on the federal government to modernize the National Energy Board’s process for reviewing pipeline projects escalated during the Trans Mountain assessment process, which was widely criticized by numerous participants and coined an act of public deception.
Public scrutiny of Canada’s review process for pipelines has come to bear on the ongoing review of TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline. In August, the National Energy Board announced it would consider upstream emissions in addition to downstream emissions of projects undergoing review, prompting TransCanada executive to request a suspension of the Energy East review.
The company signalled it will reconsider whether the pipeline is worth pursuing given the changes to the regulatory process.
In a perhaps unexpected turn for TransCanada, the Keystone XL pipeline project, unequivocally rejected by former President Barack Obama, was resuscitated by President Trump in March. Despite the new political support for the project, the company has publicly questioned the need for the project, leading some to wonder if Keystone XL, first proposed over a decade ago, will in fact be built.
How all of this pipeline turmoil will play out in the next Alberta election is anybody’s guess, given the rapidly shifting public opinion around the need to get off oil.
But it’s worth noting the Abacus survey was fielded in early August, before two devastating hurricanes hit the U.S., before another scorching month in B.C. stoked further forest fires and before drought conditions struck several provinces.
As the world feels the urge to shift off of fossil fuels, a transition some are calling the third industrial revolution, it’s clear the pipeline debate is caught in the crosshairs.
Image: Trans-Alaskan pipeline. Photo: etherlore via Flickr