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Quebec’s relationship with the oil industry: it’s complicated

By Jacques Poitras      

Pipe Dreams: The Fight For Canada's Energy Future, by Jacques Poitras, has been shortlisted along with four others for the Writers' Trust of Canada's 2018 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. The winner will be announced in Ottawa on May 15 at the Politics and the Pen gala.

Quebec’s former Parti Québécois premier, Pauline Marois, said she never outright endorsed the Energy East pipeline, but reporters suggested her government seemed to have a favourable view of it. Photograph courtesy of the Parti Québécois
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The Lac-Mégantic disaster remained seared in Quebec’s consciousness. The train that exploded in July 2013—one example of the fiftyfold increase in oil-by-rail between 2009 and 2013—had come through the American Midwest, crossed into Canada at Windsor, then passed through Montreal before heading toward the Maine border to cut across the northern part of the state, the shortest route to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John. The derailment released six million litres of oil, and the resulting inferno killed 47 people and destroyed 30 downtown buildings. The Transportation Safety Board concluded that the disaster was the result of human error, a “weak safety culture” at the railroad, “limited” government regulation, and tank cars that did not meet “enhanced protection standards” for shipping flammable liquids.

The oil that ignited there wasn’t bitumen from Alberta but a lighter, more volatile crude from the Bakken fields of North Dakota, but it still transformed the debate about pipelines. Anti-oil activists argued that any transit of fossil fuels through Quebec was a safety and environmental risk.

“People see oil, and it’s ‘dangerous,’” said Jacques Benoit, president of the union at the Suncor refinery in Montreal. “It scares people. That’s normal. We need strict standards. I completely agree.” Others grudgingly acknowledged that a pipeline would be safer. “That doesn’t mean you’re enthusiastic,” said Yves-François Blanchet, a former Quebec environment minister. “It means it’s less bad.” Ghislain Bolduc, the Liberal member of Quebec’s National Assembly representing Lac-Mégantic, supported Energy East. “If you want to supply Irving Oil or Valero in Quebec and you don’t have a pipeline, you have to railroad,” he said.

As a former businessman and chemical engineer who’d worked in the United States, Bolduc saw Energy East through other prisms, not just that of the rail explosion. The U.S. was laced with pipelines, he said, pointing to one that ran from Houston to New York to supply parts of the eastern seaboard with gasoline. “I don’t want to say the pipeline is the solution to everything,” he noted. “I’m using it as an example where you have huge infrastructure and it allows a lot of savings if you invest for the long term. And TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline is one of those that will last decades.” Bolduc knew there was a transition to renewables coming, but “we’re going to be dependent on oil for another 30 years,” he said.

Even with Energy East, there was no guarantee that Suncor would buy Alberta bitumen if the price of foreign oil went lower. “You could force them,” Benoit said. “The important thing for me is to get [Alberta] oil to refineries in Canada—it’s our country—and not send it overseas where value will be added there. … You have to create jobs for your people.” Benoit’s logic sounded familiar: it echoed what the industry was saying in those office towers in Calgary. “If you say you don’t need to use oil, great,” Benoit said. “If you need to use oil, let’s do it here.”

But as I would be reminded, “here”—Montreal—wasn’t Calgary.

The urban landscape around the Suncor refinery in the eastern end of Montreal hardly matched the city’s image as a chic, classy metropolis: freight containers were stacked in a yard to the right, the vast Lafarge quarry yawned on the left. Farther on were vacant warehouses, parked tanker rail cars, discount mattress stores, more Suncor storage tanks, tire retailers, and the Resto-Bar Larry advertising “Serveuses Sexy.” Near Shell’s former refinery, now a storage terminal, a series of small pipelines passed over the street.

Jacques Poitras is the author of several books, including Irving vs. Irving. His latest is Pipe Dreams: The Fight For Canada’s Energy Future. Photograph courtesy of the Writers’ Trust of Canada

Hip, artsy, sophisticated Montreal was only a subway ride away. Near Place des Arts, the city’s ultra-modern downtown performance venue, at an upscale bar packed with a well-dressed after-work crowd sipping cocktails, I met Audrey Yank and Marie-Ève Leclerc, two young women leading the fight to stop Alberta’s oil from reaching Montreal. I mentioned the flooding on the Ottawa River. “It’s a preview of the nightmare that’s to come,” Leclerc said. “You can’t look at one event, but when you put all the events together, it’s clear.” People in Quebec were realizing that climate change wasn’t just happening elsewhere, she said. “They’re seeing the consequences. It’s not one cause, one effect, but it’s the accumulation of effects.”

In early 2014, Yank, an environmental engineer from the Outaouais, and Leclerc, an activist from Quebec City, helped create Coule Pas Chez Nous, a loosely organized grassroots campaign against oil pipelines. Equiterre, a long-established environmental lobby group based in Montreal, had held public meetings in smaller communities along the Energy East route, but there was no organization on the ground for local residents. Coule Pas Chez Nous—“Don’t spill in our home”—was designed for them. “It’s to empower the local groups, to give them tools they can use for their own citizen campaigns,” Leclerc said. “It was very organic.”

Leclerc and Yank were also trying to fill a void left by Quebec’s elected politicians. Environmentalists traditionally had the support of the left-leaning separatist Parti Québécois, but while Premier Pauline Marois had campaigned on a green energy platform, once in power she’d supported the Line 9B reversal and hadn’t opposed Energy East, either. It ought to have been easy: polling by TransCanada’s communications consultants, Edelman, had shown that Quebecers were more “environmentally concerned” than other Canadians, and that although they preferred Alberta oil to foreign oil, they did not “link the success of Canada’s oil and gas industry to economic growth in their region.” A pan-Canadian pipeline in particular would have been a convenient target for a separatist government.

Instead, Marois’s government was divided on the issue. An early symbol of that division was Daniel Breton, Marois’s first environment minister. A longtime, well-known activist, Breton used his environmental bona fides in 2012 to defeat a star candidate of the left-wing upstart party Québec Solidaire in a Montreal riding. Within weeks of his swearing-in as minister, he spoke out against the Line 9B reversal. “Alberta wants to bring its oil on our territory without our consent,” he said, evoking a provincial election fought and won 50 years earlier on the nationalization of Quebec’s hydroelectricity sector. “Are we maîtres chez nous or not maîtres chez nous on our territory?” Breton asked, borrowing the defining phrase of that campaign. “We’ll see.”

Breton’s linking of nationalism and hydroelectric power—the emissions-free source of 99 per cent of the province’s electricity in 2016—was politically potent. “There’s a history in Quebec with hydroelectricity and clean energy that I think people are proud of,” Yank said. “That has an impact—that these kinds of [pipeline] projects aren’t our way of doing things.” Hydro-Québec, she added, “is seen as part of the Quebec nation, and that association is being challenged by oil projects from Western Canada.”

Breton’s comments against Line 9B, however, put him at odds with the political exigencies of job creation. The natural resources minister, Martine Ouellet, said her goal was to help Suncor diversify its crude supply. Marois told me she shared this view: “We knew very well that there were risks, but at the same time our petrochemical industry in Montréal-Est needed that raw material to work. We said, ‘Let’s consult people,’ but we were inclined to be favourable.”

Pipe Dreams: The Fight For Canada’s Energy Future, by Jacques Poitras, Viking, 336 pp., $34 (hardcover), $16.99 (eBook).

Breton soon had bigger problems than a public disagreement with his cabinet colleagues. Just weeks after taking office, the PQ fired the Liberal-appointed chair of the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), the arm’s-length provincial agency that conducted environmental assessments; Breton had said he held a pro-industry bias. When it emerged that Breton had also visited the BAPE offices and asked staff for their phone numbers, he was accused of violating the agency’s independence. Because Marois had a minority government, the Liberals and the third party in the legislature, the Coalition Avenir Québec, were able to schedule committee hearings into Breton’s actions. But before that could take place, newspapers revealed a series of minor legal infractions from his past. He resigned the next day.

In the same week as Breton’s downfall, Marois met with Alison Redford, the premier of Alberta, to discuss Energy East. During a summer gathering of Canadian premiers in Halifax, the two premiers agreed to set up a joint working group to examine the project. “There’s certainly an economic advantage given the jobs that could be created in Quebec,” Marois told reporters. “We have a significant petrochemical industry.” It looked like the PQ would not try to block Energy East. “She was a very reasonable supporter of the project, I will say,” said Dallas McCready, an adviser to David Alward, then the premier of New Brunswick. “She knew it would be met with environmental concerns, but she also understood the economic importance and was approaching it with the best of intentions, and appreciated the position New Brunswick was in and wanted to be as supportive as she could in the most prudent way.”

Marois told me, however, that too much was read into her comments. “If you review the coverage … you’ll see that journalists said ‘It seems’ or ‘The Marois government would have a favourable view,’” she said. “We never, ever said on the public stage that we would eventually accept that project.” To prepare for our interview, the former premier told me, she’d reviewed media coverage of her comments and consulted advisers from that period. She insisted that the record showed she never endorsed Energy East outright. “We always had doubts,” she said. “I wanted to maintain good relations with my counterparts in Alberta and New Brunswick, who were very interested in the project. But my own reaction was I had great doubts.”

This is an excerpt from the book Pipe Dreams: The Fight For Canada’s Energy Future by Jacques Poitras. Copyright © 2018 by Jacques Poitras. Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Limited. All rights reserved.

The Hill Times



Three questions for Jacques Poitras


Why did you want to write this book?

“I wanted to write this book because I saw an important national story taking shape in late 2015. It had been developing already for several years, but in 2015 it became very apparent that something important was going on.

“[Alberta premier] Rachel Notley and [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau were both elected, attended the Paris climate conference, and began moving fast to implement more robust climate change policies—in part as an attempt to strike a ‘grand bargain’ to get an export pipeline built from Alberta to tidewater.

“At the same time, activists in Quebec had scored a big win against Energy East by forcing the cancellation of an export terminal in Cacouna, on the St. Lawrence River. The battle lines were being drawn.

“Energy East had been portrayed as a nation-building exercise that would bring the country together. But now the debate was taking a very divisive turn. I wanted to explore whether it was possible in Canada to achieve a consensus on pipelines and climate action.

“And, of course, when I conceived of my framing device, a drive along the route of the proposed pipeline from west to east, I was excited about getting on the road and seeing firsthand the enormous scale of the project and the vast landscape it would occupy.”

Why is this book important?

“I think it’s important because I believe it distils the whole climate-and-pipeline debate into what I hope is a very accessible narrative. This really is the defining issue of our time, and it’s been dominated by a lot of slogans and spin.

“I wanted to do something different—to get on the ground with people who live and breathe the subject, whether they’re Albertans in the town of Hardisty who rely on pipelines for their livelihood, or activists in Montreal determined to block the growth of emissions.

“I also looked for surprising perspectives, like the Greenpeace campaigner in Edmonton who was wrestling with how to challenge a pro-pipeline-but-carbon-taxing NDP government, or the Montreal-area mayor who wholeheartedly supported Energy East.

“I also show that the pipeline story is an Indigenous story, particularly in a chapter that I’m very proud of that recounted how the Canadian Pacific Railway was adopted by politicians as a metaphor for Energy East. It’s not hard to figure out why a politician would align themselves with Sir John A. Macdonald’s National Dream, but for Indigenous people on the Prairies, the CPR comparison evokes a much less glorious history, and it was important to say so.”

Who should read it?

“I think anyone who is trying to make sense of the current pipeline battles will get something out of this. General readers, who may find all the rhetorical arguments a bit overwhelming, will go on a leisurely and interesting journey through the many aspects of the story.

“And politicians and staffers will, I hope, learn something from perspectives other than their own—and perhaps realize that the issue is more nuanced and complex than they’ve been letting on.”

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