The poisoned well: Jacques Poitras examines the political trials of the Energy East pipeline

Jacques Poitras will be in Ottawa on Oct. 3.

Timing is everything, they say. It certainly seems to be the case with a new book by veteran New Brunswick journalist Jacques Poitras.

His book, Pipe Dreams: The Fight for Canada’s Energy Future, details the failed bid, encouraged by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, to connect Alberta’s oil with a refinery in Atlantic Canada owned by one of Canada’s wealthiest families, the Irvings. The project, known as Energy East, died on the vine when conflicting provincial points of view prevented its completion.

Today, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is confronting a different pipeline dilemma, the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline that runs from Edmonton to Vancouver. Trans Mountain, too, has become mired in Canada’s tricky governmental approval process. The Federal Court of Appeal recently slammed the brakes on the pipeline expansion because of the failure of the federal government and its agency the National Energy Board to properly consider the impact of expanded oil tanker traffic on the sensitive maritime environment off the British Columbia coast or to adequately consult with First Nations, whose land lies along the route of this project.

The lessons of Energy East are being learned again.

When Poitras started thinking about this book, Trans Mountain was not on the political horizon.

“I was looking for something to write that was more national in scope. New Brunswick is my bailiwick, but my agent really encouraged me to think of a book that would be national.”

He ended up doing a bit of both.

“My book about the Irving family came out four years ago. Towards the end of that book I had talked about them attaching themselves to the Energy East project and how this was a big step for them to link themselves to Alberta. They have always been oriented elsewhere.

“Their crude comes from around the world but it has been mostly Saudi oil for a long time. Their market is Eastern Canada and New England in terms of their retail gas stations.”

So to see the powerful Irving family connected to Alberta was interesting.

The trigger that got Poitras thinking was a visit to the New Brusnwick legislature by the former Alberta Conservative premier Alison Redford in 21o3.

She was in Fredericton then to promote the pipeline project.

“It was quite a day,” he said. There is usually not much reason for an Alberta premier to come here. They don’t generally need much from us.” But this time the Albertans did want something … access to tidewater through the Irvings’ refinery in New Brunswick.

“There was also a lot of big nation-building rhetoric, which I talk a lot about in the book; of tying the country together, of keeping our oil in Canada and all this stuff. There were¬†comparisons to the Canadian Pacific Railway. It was a big day.”

Poitras’ initial vision for the book was a story of a massive mega project.

That all changed in 2015.

That was the year the NDP was elected in Alberta in the spring. By then the opposition to the pipeline was starting to build. That fall, an oil terminal in Quebec was shuttered. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the federal election over Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. And Barack Obama officially killed the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Louisiana. Finally Canada signed on to the Paris climate change accord.

“All these things were coming together to make Energy East a big story. I had my pitch all written. I sent it to agent in January 2016 and a day or two later former Montreal mayor Denis Coderre came out against it.”

All of a sudden the pipeline became a national unity story. Alberta and Saskatchewan were complaining about Quebec getting equalization payments and not being grateful for it. And national columnists were making comparisons to the Meech Lake Accord.

It did become clear, Poitras said, that it was a big story.

“I argued it would continue for a couple of years.” The publishers bought the proposal.

If Energy East was a indicator of something to come for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, it was all bad news.

Today it is hard to imagine a mega project successfully crossing several provincial boundaries.

“The main question I wanted to answer when I started was whether a consensus was possible on a project of this scale relating to oil. Whether anything else is possible in the future, we’ll see. I don’t know what else you would build across six provinces these days except a pipeline. Something more benign might succeed but certainly the politics of this are difficult,” Poitras said.

It is a lesson the country has learned before starting with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline which was scrapped in the 1970s after an inquiry led by Justice Thomas Berger.

The political fallout of pipelines could be interesting. The Green party is picking up momentum in provincial races and seems poised to win seats federally in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. But Poitras isn’t sure it is the start of something big.

His eye is more focussed on Justin Trudeau.

“Trudeau is a interesting example. He has been trying to walk this line between economic development and environmental protection. I think the evidence would support fact that federal government really does see the need to do something on emissions, but also it has to be incremental in how they go about it because otherwise politically they are dead.”

The constituency for more action on climate change is there in Quebec and B.C. but Poitras says it may not necessarily be enough to guarantee re-election for the federal Liberal government.

“There is definitely a shift going on but how just widespread is it? Out west, in Saskatchewan and Alberta, there is no change.”

As for Energy East, even though some like the federal Conservatives might like to revive it, Poitras believes the time has passed.

“I think the people who know the situation have moved on. You don’t hear Rachel Notley trying to revive it. You don’t hear the oil producers trying to revive it. You certainly don’t hear the pipeline companies suggesting it should be revived.”

In many ways Energy East is also a microcosm for all our difficulties in getting East and West working together.

In the interview, Poitras recounted a time when former prime minister John Diefenbaker put the kibosh on a proposed west-to-east pipeline because Canada had recently won exemption from a U.S. ban on oil imports.

“He didn’t want to jeopardize that. He said that oil coming from the west should head south not east to Montreal. That was national policy.”

In New Brunswick, K.C. Irving, when he was running things, opposed the idea of being forced to buy Alberta oil because at the time it was more expensive than Saudi oil.

“Governments can only compel this kind of thing so much in defiance of natural market forces,” Poitras said.

An example of that is the federal Liberals’ carbon tax which for a brief moment seems to have had a national consensus, that now seems to be falling apart.

“Those windows only exist for a short time in Canadian politics,” Poitras said.

Lesson learned?

Pipe Dreams (Viking)
Jacques Poitras
In town: The author will be at a book launch sponsored by the School of Journalism and Communication in the Reader’s Digest Resource Centre, Room 4400, Richcraft Hall, Carleton University on Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m. For more information:¬†eventbrite.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.