There’s a lot about Montreal’s camilienhoudesque mayor Denis Coderre to dislike. His grandstanding bloviations, his antiunion smear tactics, his big-fat-finger-in-your-face bully-boy way of dealing with people. To put it as bluntly as he would, Coderre doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether he’s liked. He feeds off power and he’s got plenty of it.
So it’s no surprise that Coderre, chairman of the 82-municipality Montreal Metropolitan Community, is working himself into the job of Public Enemy #1 in Alberta and the Maritimes. What is surprising is the longtime former Liberal MP’s reckless disregard for the Trudeau government, caught between Alberta, the four Maritime provinces, the greens and the PMO’s growing credibility gap between climate-change platitudes and greenhouse gas-reducing action.
At stake is TransCanada Pipelines’ Energy East project, a $16B project to move more than a billion barrels a day of Alberta and U.S. crude to the Irving refinery in St. John, N.B. and from there to world markets. Underlying the desperation to see Energy East built: unless North American producers can move their oil to a year-round deep-sea port, the oil sands and the frackers will be out of business and a much poorer Canada is back to dependency on oil from the Middle East and North Africa for as long as it takes to wean North America from fossil fuels. With oil prices at 2003 levels and a worldwide glut fed by $10-a-barrel Mideast producers, there isn’t much incentive to save the planet.
Through a combination of external factors and their own conflicting ideologies, Trudeau Liberals have no room to manoeuvre. A federal carbon tax similar to those in Quebec, Ontario and B.C. risks sending the fragile Canadian economy into a full-blown recession. Duties on oil imports wouldn’t survive a domestic legal challenge, let alone WTO scrutiny. Now that the U.S. Keystone and B.C.’s Northern Gateway have been nixed, Ottawa’s last and only hope is Energy East. Except both Quebec and Ontario oppose it, citing both risk and concern for the environmental impact of oil sands oil.
Optics aside, Trudeau could ignore the opposition of Canada’s two largest provinces by insisting the project is essential to the nation’s survival, just as his father did with the Enbridge line in the late ’70s. The constitution gives Ottawa authority over transportation, and that includes oil pipelines. Under the Harper government, the National Energy Board’s mandate was rewritten to exclude consideration of climate change as a regulatory factor. One of the Liberals’ election vows was to change it back. Have no doubt Coderre took note of that.
This morning’s La Presse carries Coderre’s broadside, entitled ‘No to the Energy East pipeline project.’ He begins by restating the MMC’s zero-tolerance position. In other words, TransCanada would have to guarantee there will be no spills, something no pipeline operator in its right mind would agree to. “We’re not against pipelines,” Coderre continues, noting the MMC’s support for the Enbridge Line 9B reversal, now moving 300,000 barrels of oil from western Canada and the U.S. to Quebec’s two refineries – Suncor in Montreal East, Valero downriver opposite Quebec City.
Coderre position is almost unassailable. He has the backing of 81 mayors representing well over four million residents and we already know what he thinks of unions, (Big Labour supports Energy East because of potential petrochemical spinoffs.) Municipalities outside the MMC are on the Coderre bandwagon because they can’t lose. If the project is approved, it will almost certainly come with a massive damage deposit (former Conservative energy minister Joe Oliver used the figure $1B) and a hefty annual fee to cover the cost of training first responders and other risk-management expenses. Enbridge’s pipeline reversal approval process educated us as to what a catastrophic spill could cost when we learned details of the firm’s Kalamazoo, MI. river rupture. The Lac Mégantic disaster taught us how important it was to have a cleanup contingency fund in place from the get-go, beyond the reach of the corporations and their lawyers.
Enbridge’s reversal is Coderre’s only weak link. The Marois government did nothing to enforce Coderre’s zero tolerance standard or the need for a damage deposit when Enbridge got the green light from the National Energy Board. If the Enbridge line were to rupture underneath the Ottawa River at Pointe-Fortune, the spill would affect dozens of municipalities on both sides of the Lake of Two Mountains and the Back River. If enough crude was spilled and Enbridge isn’t quick enough on the shutoff valves, a catastrophic spill could find its way into the Montreal water supply. An unlikely chain of worst-case scenarios, yes, but as the NEB pointed out in its list of conditions for approval, what measures are in place to mitigate a catastrophe? As we saw with the Lac-Mégantic disaster, what began with a request to Transport Canada to reduce manning levels on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway resulted in a cascade of events that caused 47 deaths. It’s likely the $500M cleanup, compensation and reconstruction bill is low.
Is Coderre bluffing to force TransCanada and Ottawa to sweeten the pot? Montreal is crumbling, but so is infrastructure in every Canadian city and town. This week we’ve heard stories comparing Montreal schools with those in the Third World, but at least Montreal kids have schools to go to. As Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall notes, Quebec has managed to portray itself as a have-not province to the tune of $20B in transfer payments this year. This is exactly the sort of inequality that resonates with Canadians, especially in the newly disadvantaged western provinces.
Students of Canadian politics will recognize this as a replay of the 1956 TransCanada gas pipeline debate that cost Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals the 1957 election and nearly tore the country apart. Sixty years later, Canadians face the same risk as we fight over TransCanada’s plan to convert its gas pipeline to carry western oil. Now, that’s ironic.
Pointe-Fortune residents express dissatisfaction at the prospect of a second oil pipeline crossing.