The Conversation

Canada Approves New Pipeline to Pacific Coast

Canada's government has approved the creation of a new pipeline which could move tar sands oil to Asian markets. The pipeline, if built, could replace a significant portion of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline's capacity in case it is not approved by the Obama administration.

Two years ago when the Obama administration initially delayed a decision on the cross-border Keystone XL pipeline, Prime Minister Harper said it would force a permanent change in Canada's energy policy. "We can not be, as a country, in a situation where really our one, and in many cases almost only, energy partner could say no to our energy products. We just cannot be in that kind of position," Harper said during a think tank panel in 2012. He went on to say, "one of our national priorities is to make sure that we have the infrastructure and the capacity to export our energy products outside of North America."

When the State Department issued its final environmental impact study on Keystone XL in January, it seemed to take PM Harper's claims of expanding Canada's access to markets seriously. A key statement in the report said, "approval or denial of any one crude oil transport project, including the proposed Project, is unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States." In other words, the oil would be coming out one way or another.

This claim was highly criticized by environmentalist opponents of the pipeline who have long argued that Keystone XL would drive tar sands extraction. For instance, the National Wildlife Federation put out a brief calling Keystone XL the "linchpin" for tar sands development. The brief states, "without major infrastructure like Keystone XL giving this product access to world markets, the fragile economics propping up tar sands extraction will begin to crumble." The document adds, "Other major pipeline proposals face significant legal and political obstacles in Canada, and appear increasingly likely to be stalled indefinitely."

Similarly, the executive director of the Sierra Club wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which he said, "In order to expand production, tar sands producers must reach the U.S. Gulf Coast, where the heavy crude can be refined or, more likely, exported. Although other pipeline projects have been proposed to export tar sands east, west, and south from western Canada, all of them face legal, technical, economic, and political obstacles that make them unlikely."

The NY Times reports that the new pipeline to Canada's western coast still has many hurdles to clear before receiving permission to build. The most significant hurdle is, once again, opposition from environmentalists and "native Canadian tribes" who have threatened to sue to stop it. Resolving all of the outstanding issues will likely take years. Nevertheless, it's further evidence that Canada is not wholly dependent on Keystone XL and that the State Department was right that tar sands oil is likely going to be extracted one way or another.


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