Just say no to TransCanada’s tar sands pipeline

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Climate & Capitalism editor challenges mayor to oppose a dangerous and destructive pipeline project in Eastern Ontario

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I live in North Grenville, a town of about 15,000 people on the  shore of the Rideau River in eastern Ontario, south of Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. This stretch of the river is part of the 180-year-old Rideau Canal system, which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

On June 24, we learned that TransCanada Corp. wants to modify a 55-year-old natural gas pipeline to pump 850,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen a day through Ottawa, under the river, and through North Grenville. This would be part of the company’s huge $5-billion Energy East project, designed to move bitumen from landlocked Alberta to the East Coast, where it will fetch higher international prices.

As previously reported, environmentalists in Ottawa were quick to launch a campaign to stop the plan. Opposition is also growing in North Grenville: the article below was published prominently in the North Grenville Times, a weekly newspaper that is distributed to most homes in the area.

We’re just getting started …


An open letter to the Mayor of North Grenville


by Ian Angus

Dear David Gordon:

On July 16, you told CBC Radio that you are “very happy” about TransCanada Corp.’s plan to pump tar sands oil through the Rideau River and across North Grenville. I hope you’ll read my reply with an open mind, and join in opposing this dangerous and destructive project.

The first thing to understand about this plan is that TransCanada will not be pumping regular crude oil but thick tar sands gunk, diluted with volatile chemicals so it will flow through the pipe. That poisonous brew is called diluted bitumen, or ‘dilbit.’

Any oil spill is bad, but dilbit spills are horrendous. The solvents evaporate, releasing cancer-causing chemicals into the air, and complete removal of bitumen from soil and water is just about impossible.

On average, there are two pipeline spills every week in Canada. Older pipelines are particularly vulnerable, and this one is over 55 years old. So the question is not if the pipeline will leak, but when and where.

In July 2010, a 40-year-old pipeline carrying dilbit burst in Michigan, forcing closure of 40 kilometres of the Kalamazoo River. Most of the bitumen sank to the bottom, where it continues to release poison into the water. Nearby homes were evacuated because high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, were found in the air. Three years and over $800 million later, Enbridge still has not completed the cleanup.

Imagine a similar break in the section of TransCanada’s pipe that will cross the Rideau River near Highway 416. Boating, swimming and fishing would be banned, from Kemptville to midtown Ottawa. Crops grown nearby would be unsaleable. Children and the elderly would be particularly vulnerable to the noxious fumes. Homes near the river would lose all value.

The risk is simply unacceptable.

And if the leak isn’t in the river? Ask the people of Mayflower, Arkansas, where a pipeline carrying dilbit from Alberta burst just four months ago. Dilbit flowed into a residential neighborhood, contaminating the soil and poisoning a nearby lake. High levels of carcinogens were found in the air. Most of the residents have had to leave, and the few that remain face serious health threats.

On CBC Radio, you said no one has died from a pipeline leak. You should have added the word “yet.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that after a leak like the one in Kalamazoo, “dissolved components of the dilbit … could be slowly released back to the water column for many years … and could cause long-term chronic toxicological impacts.”

In other words, the threat to life continues long after clean-up crews have moved on to the next disaster.

But perhaps there is an upside? On CBC, you said that the proposed pipeline would allow east coast refineries to process Canadian oil, reducing dependence on oil from other countries.

But Canada’s east coast refineries aren’t designed to process the ultra heavy oil this pipeline will carry. Anyway, as the Globe and Mail reported on July 18, the oil companies don’t want to refine it in Canada. Their aim is to “move landlocked North American crude to coastal markets where it would fetch international prices.” If it gets to the coast it will be shipped overseas, where prices are higher.

So what North Grenville faces is all downside and no upside — an ever-present threat of environmental disaster, and no benefits at all.

The threats to North Grenville are bad enough, but there is a bigger issue. If we allow this line to cross our town, we will be complicit in what has accurately been called the greatest environmental crime in history, the mining of Alberta’s Tar Sands. It has already created major health problems for the First Nations whose lands are being destroyed, and it is a prime contributor to global climate change.

The simple fact is this: more pipelines equals more tar sands mining – and that means more greenhouse gas emissions. The CO2 embedded in the tar sands, all by itself, is enough to push global warming far over the red line. As noted climate scientist James Hansen says, if the tar sands are fully exploited, it will be “game over” for world’s climate.

I don’t believe the people of North Grenville want to support the appalling destruction of First Nations’ lives and land, or the fast-rising temperatures that are already raising sea levels and causing extreme weather around the world.

Like North Grenville, Toronto faces a proposal to pump dilbit through the city in an aging pipeline. Conservation authorities there say that the plan could endanger the city’s drinking water and air. So in February Toronto’s City Council voted unanimously to participate in National Energy Board hearings, to ensure that the city’s residents, homes and waterways are protected.

You and North Grenville Municipal Council should do at least as much.

Working together, the people of North Grenville can stop this project. We can keep our town and the Rideau River free of dilbit. We can help end the devastation of First Nations lands. And we can help slow the climate change crisis.


Ian Angus

(Ian Angus is an environmental writer who lives in North Grenville)