“It’s absolutely the worst!”
Elizabeth Frazer slammed her palm down on the kitchen table. The coffee cups rattled on their tray. Startled at her own sudden outburst, Frazer smoothed her short gray hair unconsciously before pouring the rest of her guests’ coffee.
“To say it’s the lesser of two evils is a complete lie,” she added more slowly, measuring her words as she out spooned cream and sugar for the collection of anti-pipeline activists gathered around her kitchen table in North Bay, Ontario.
Reverend Elizabeth Frazer – of the United Church of Canada, respected community leader – is riled up. Her friends say the long-time activist has always been passionate, but she usually keeps it housed neatly inside, stored in its appointed place to be portioned out only as needed.
Today, though, her frustration keeps seeping through little cracks and fissures in her composure, like the oil sands crude she’s so worried about.
Energy East. The beleaguered TransCanada pipeline proposal that would see Alberta bitumen pumped through aging pipes across the country and eventually to “tidewater” (an industry term for the ocean shoreline) in Saint John, New Brunswick. Most of the pipeline already exists, running from the Alberta/ Saskatchewan border to Montreal, and carrying natural gas. TransCanada wants to expand it and convert it to carry bitumen from the west to refineries and shipping ports in Quebec and New Brunswick.
It’s a contentious project, and it comes at a difficult time for the country. Over the past year, the price of oil plummeted to below $30 a barrel, and is only now starting, fitfully, to recover. The commodity slump drove the Alberta economy into the ground with job losses not seen since the early 1980s, and it is hurting the Canadian economy as well. In January, the Canadian dollar slid to 69 cents US, within spitting distance of its all-time low and – like oil – is only starting to show signs of recovery in the past few weeks.
Michael Reid has seen this before. He’s the business manager of the local pipefitters and welders’ union. Like many in the industry, he says Energy East can help pull the country’s economy back on track, and that now is the time to build it.
“When you’re spending money on infrastructure in the country, it’s keeping money in the country,” Reid says.
“Construction workers spend close to 90 per cent of their income, and that goes straight back into the economy, and that just keeps the economy going and growing,” he says.
In Ottawa, Reid’s chapter has more than 200 workers itching for a job as part of the Energy East project. He says most of the talk about the layoffs, especially in Alberta, has focused on the young rig hands, guys in their 20s who can go back for job training or move across the country.
But many of the members of Local 71 are – like most pipeline workers – much older than that. With an average age of 42, most of them have built careers in the trades, and they need to a project like Energy East to put them back to work.
But Energy East has stirred controversy across the country. While it means jobs for Reid’s fellow trades workers, for Elizabeth Frazer, it means thick, heavy crude oil could end up flowing through the Trout Lake Watershed, which supplies all the drinking water for her home of North Bay, Ont. A spill there could have catastrophic consequences. In August, an Ontario Energy Board ruling ordered TransCanada to either reroute the pipeline away from Trout Lake, or find a way to justify not doing so. TransCanada promises the plan is safe, and that it will benefit the local economy, but Frazer and her anti-pipeline compatriots are not convinced. They say they oppose the pipeline under any circumstances, calling it an “extreme” infrastructure project that’s just not needed.
“It’s all lies,” says Donna Sinclair, as she reaches across Frazer’s table for a scone. “Lies of omission and commission.”
“Exactly,” Sinclair’s husband Jim chimes in. “Take the community consultation meeting in Mattawa. That’s a perfect example.”
At that meeting months ago, TransCanada representatives met with concerned citizens in Mattawa, hoping to explain their safety strategies and mitigation measures for the proposed pipeline. At one point, Sinclair asked how long it would take the company to respond to a major oil spill along the route, which stretches some 2,000 kilometers through largely uninhabited tracts of Northern Ontario. The terrain is rugged, remote and uncut by roads.
“The TransCanada guy stands up and says it would take only 10 minutes to respond to any spill along the line,” Jim says. “And I said, ‘you’re not from around here, are you?’”
Suzanne Downey isn’t from around “here” either. She has a very different perspective on Energy East – she works for a small pipeline company in the heart of Alberta’s oil patch, where 10,000 oil sector workers have lost their jobs. She’s seen the impact of flagging oil prices and a slowing economy first hand.
“A lot of the smaller companies like us are struggling. We don’t have deep pockets and a lot of cash – stock values have dropped. A lot of bigger companies have the cash but they’re waiting to see if oil goes back above 30 bucks a barrel,” she said.
The Alberta government has been pressuring the Trudeau government to approve Energy East, arguing that it’s the best option to help get Alberta crude – and the economy along with it – flowing again.
Downey agrees, but with an important caveat.
“I feel that definitely Alberta oil is a good product. We’re extremely innovative, we’ve got good human rights records. We need to get that product to the market, be it within Canada or elsewhere.
“But we need a better balance. If there are environmental concerns, if there are aboriginal land-owner concerns, we need to find a solution that works for everyone involved,” she said.
Feature photo: Energy East opponents (left to right) Jim Sinclair, Elizabeth Frazer, Brannain Lloyd, Donna Sinclair and Jane Howe during an anti-pipeline strategy meeting in North Bay, Ontario. Feb 19, 2016 © Jesse Winter.