Transcanada wants to build a $12-billion pipeline east. What are its chances?

Anna Mehler Paperny – Global News

TransCanada wants to go forward with a $12-billion plan to build a 4,400-kilometre pipeline trekking oil from Alberta to New Brunswick.

Capable of carrying more than a million barrels of oil a day, Energy East would be one of the biggest energy projects on the continent. It would dwarf even Keystone XL, TransCanada’s embattled transcontinental pipeline to the Gulf whose fate remains uncertain.

Read: What’s in the pipeline, and where’s it going?

Along with Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal, this makes two west-to-east pipeline proposals from energy giants who’ve seen other projects – Northern Gateway in Enbridge’s case; Keystone in Transcanada’s – founder or stall.

At first blush, Energy East’s odds look pretty good: Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick are on board. So is the federal government.

But it’s early days yet: The pipeline’s exact route has yet to be determined. TransCanada won’t file its application with the National Energy Board until early next year; it could be another two years before construction begins, assuming it gets approved.

How big an assumption that is depends whom you ask. The company’s pretty confident in its chances; so are some analysts, who hail this as a golden opportunity to expand an energy industry in need of new markets.

“It’s actually quite good news for western Canada’s oilpatch and for the Canadian economy,” said Scotiabank analyst Patricia Mohr.

But opponents are adamant that the economic benefits are overstated, that the plan to pipe up to 1.1-million barrels of oil 4,400 kilometres daily is environmentally catastrophic. And they’re hoping those living in the pipeline’s path will feel the same way.

“I think it’s a really risky project. I think it’s not in the best interest of Canadians,” said Adam Scott, climate and energy program manager with Environmental Defence.

“The pipeline crosses huge chunks of the country, through all of these different communities, none of whom actually get any benefit from the project but all of whom are accepting a considerable risk. …  I don’t know why TransCanada thinks that Eastern Canada is going to think any differently than the U.S.”

TransCanada, for its part, notes the vast majority of the pipeline is already in the ground, and converting that section to carry oil will have minimal environmental impact; only parts of pipe with “anomalies” will need to be dug up.

And, like other energy companies, it argues that if you’re going to transport oil somehow, better to do it via pipeline than any other route: Trekking it by train, as was made fatally evident in Lac Megantic last month, is statistically more prone to accidents. This, TransCanada CEO Russ Girling argues, is “the safest and most efficient means possible.”

Project spokesperson Philippe Cannon said they’ve gotten good responses so far.

“People were happily surprised to see a company reaching out to them to have a discussion with them this early on in the process,” he said.

“A few people, they said, ‘Well, for once somebody’s not coming to us with something that’s already done and we have to swallow the whole project.’ People appreciate the fact that we are that transparent.”

While opposition to Energy East doesn’t appear as vocal as opposition to Northern Gateway or Keystone, it could be too early to tell – especially as it still isn’t clear which Quebec communities would have the new pipeline under their backyards.

“We are doing fieldwork to determine where the pipe route is going to go,” Cannon said. “And that information, the final route we’re going to propose, is only going to be known after all those open houses, all those meetings with people on the ground.”

Scott suspects the National Energy Board will approve the project.

But he thinks provincial opposition could be enough to stymie the pipeline. “If the provinces don’t think it’s in their interest, they can step in.”

Premiers from Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick all issued statements lauding Energy East Thursday; New Brunswick Premier David Alward called it “a game-changer and a historic moment for our province.”

Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley’s office referred questions to Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli.

“Safety is our top priority,” reads an emailed statement attributed to Chiarelli. “Ontario will follow our standard practice and participate in the hearing process to ensure that the environment, health and well being of Ontarians are protected.”

Quebec’s environment minister didn’t return requests for comment Thursday. Premier Pauline Marois has said she’ll have to study the proposal.

Ultimately, says the Canadian Energy Research Institute‘s Dinara Millington, it could come down to Quebec – she notes Quebecois farmers have travelled west to talk to their Albertan counterparts about resource development.

“I think where the opposition might come is in Quebec, especially the recent accident on the railway. People are saying, ‘Well, see? No mode of transportation is safe enough.’”

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