Energy East pipeline could threaten Rideau, Ottawa rivers

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Project's risks outweigh benefits, OEB report finds

By Emma Jackson, Ottawa Community News

Some local leaders are hoping a report from the Ontario Energy Board will take the steam out of a proposal to bring crude oil through the Ottawa Valley.

TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline proposal would convert about 3,000 kilometres of natural gas pipeline to instead carry diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to refineries on the east coast.

Along the way, the pipeline would skirt or cross a number of waterways in Ontario, including the Rideau, Madawaska and Ottawa Rivers, and the Oxford-Marsh and Nepean aquifers south of the capital.

TransCanada has long touted the economic benefits of the project, but the provincial energy regulator’s report released Aug. 13 found that safety and environmental risks could vastly outweigh any of the “modest” economic benefits Ontario would see.

“As with all pipelines, the benefits will largely accrue to the region producing the goods … and the region taking the goods out of it,” the report said. “This leads to an imbalance between the economic and environmental risks of the project, and the expected benefits for Ontarians.”

The pipeline will create jobs, particularly during construction, but not enough to have a huge economic impact in the province, according to the OEB. And any modest gains could be offset by the fact that natural gas prices could rise by as much as 12 per cent during winter months between 2016 and 2035.

That’s because converting the pipeline to carry crude oil will effectively reduce natural gas supply, particularly for eastern Ontario.

And the safety risks could be costly, too, both in monetary terms and in environmental damage.

The OEB has added a greenhouse gas emission analysis to its report mandate, after it was raised as a major concern time and again at public consultations. Another big concern from residents was the fear that bitumen is more toxic and more difficult to clean up in the event of a spill – an incident that could send enough oil to fill an Olympic swimming pool into the Ottawa Valley’s drinking water supply.

The proposed route nears the Ottawa River downstream from the city’s drinking water intake, the report found.

RISKY BUSINESS

The report’s seemingly dire findings have got some local leaders hopeful the province will advocate for the route to be changed – or even canned altogether.

“We’re assuming with this report the provincial government cannot support this project,” said Graham Saul, executive director of Ecology Ottawa. “The OEB emphasized there were serious risks, not just environmental risks, and they clearly stated those risks outweigh the benefits.”

Ottawa South MPP John Fraser certainly seemed swayed by the report, which his government commissioned, although the province has yet to say if it will support or reject the project when it acts as an intervener at the National Energy Board hearings sometime next year.

Calling the report “a win for our environment and for the Rideau River,” Fraser said the document gives voice to serious safety and environmental concerns raised by residents that might otherwise have been silenced.

“We’ve looked around the world to see the devastating impacts of spills,” Fraser said. “We don’t want 30 or 40 years from now (to have) the next generation – our grandchildren, our great grandchildren – going, ‘What were they thinking?’

“The Rideau River is a UNESCO world heritage site and it runs through our city and through a large portion of eastern Ontario, and not only is it there for recreation and people’s enjoyment, but people depend on it for their livelihood,” he said.

Capital Coun. David Chernushenko, who chairs the city’s environment committee, is personally against the pipeline, and has long argued that the broader climate change debate must be part of the impact assessment of the project.

“Initially we were not talking about whether we should be consuming oil in the first place,” Chernushenko said.

The City of Ottawa has yet to take an official stance on the project, although council sent a letter to the National Energy Board outlining the city’s concerns with regard to emergency preparedness, safety and drinking water protection.

Chernushenko said the city won’t be an official intervener in the hearings next year, but he hopes the environment committee will eventually host a public discussion on what stance, if any, the city will take on the project.

“We had anticipated that debate would come this fall, but we keep pushing back when that might be because the NEB’s deadlines keep getting pushed back,” he said.

UNPREDICTABLE

Even if the province and the city do take a stance against the pipeline, it’s ultimately up the National Energy Board to decide if it goes ahead – and that’s unpredictable at best.

“(Canada’s) environmental protections have been so damaged by (the Harper) government, and the National Energy Board process itself has been so fatally undermined, we can no longer count on the NEB to provide a fair process,” said Saul.

Fraser agreed and said federal regulatory changes have weakened the hearings, which will result in limited community consultation, “minimal consideration” of environmental impacts and less of a voice for First Nations and Métis people, who believe the pipeline violates their aboriginal and treaty rights.

The changes to the scope of the National Energy Board hearing process is meant to speed up the pipeline application process, Fraser said.

“As a resource-based economy, there’s pressure to get new resource projects going faster,” he said.

With files from Erin McCracken