By JACKSON DOUGHART (Policy Analyst)
12 Sep 2016
From the Charlottetown Guardian and the Journal-Pioneer.

Progress on the Energy East pipeline is stalling. The National Energy Board recently cancelled a scheduled week of hearings into the project in Montreal, citing security concerns from environmentalist demonstrations. More successes from Energy East opponents could jeopardize the project to bring oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan to the east coast.

It is of course appropriate that decisions on major infrastructure projects be subject to input from the public. This is the purpose of the 18-month public review. And indeed one wants to ensure that the environment is protected from potential problems with the pipeline’s construction and maintenance. On this score, the government should absolutely hold TransCanada to account.

Unfortunately, some elected officials have overestimated their duty to gain approval from vocal minority factions with intransigent positions on oil infrastructure. Seeking “social license,” they hope that extending a hand to those with reservations about the project will lend it greater legitimacy. This is a risky bet that might not pay off.

The problem is that many of the environmental activists object not just to a pipeline on safety grounds, but to any and all projects that support the oil and gas industry. Because energy companies make a product that creates pollution, erecting public works – like a pipeline – that facilitate the use of oil cannot, they say, be defended.

They aren’t so much intervening on the basis of concerns with one project, but rather trying to kibosh any expansion of fossil fuel-based energy production. Many of the protestors are behaving like zealots, shutting down the consultation process instead of participating. Government should not reward their behaviour.

Ottawa should be able to see the distinction between addressing potential safety concerns and working to impede an industry important to Canada’s economy. The minds of radical environmentalists will not change, even on account of demonstrated commitments to environmental protection. They only see one side of the equation. What they ignore or downplay is the great economic benefit – especially to our region in Atlantic Canada – that extensions to pipeline structures would provide.

The window for achieving Energy East won’t remain open forever. As we have seen with the failed Keystone XL project to the United States, persistent dithering from elected officials – in this case, U.S. President Barack Obama – favours opponents in the long term. If those against Energy East are similarly able to affect great delays in the consultation process, they will have a greater chance to ultimately defeat the pipeline.

Should disruptions continue to stall these hearings, it will be necessary for Ottawa to act in the national interest. Energy East would bring employment to Atlantic Canada and expand the oil refining business, which is already a major employer in New Brunswick. Nationally, it would allow for greater energy independence and supplement Canada’s existing crude exports with more lucrative refined products. And a fixed pipeline structure is logically safer than relying upon locomotives to transport oil.

For Atlantic Canada, this matter is urgent. If the process for Energy East does not move forward, the key players will not only turn away from this project, but they might also turn away from our region. The alternatives to moving oil east – namely, sending oil by rail to the United States or the west coast for shipment to Asia – would benefit Canada as a whole, but not Atlantic Canada in the same way.

The Government of Canada is ultimately responsible for the National Energy Board’s review. This means acting to ensure the review process is able to continue. Accordingly, “social license” cannot give opponents a veto over Energy East – a project of immense national and regional benefit.