The missing context in Energy East debate: the climate can’t afford more tar sands extraction

Image description: An extremely unflattering photo of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, his face distorted in an expression of disgust. The National Post chose this photo to illustrate its story on Coderre's opposition to Energy East, just one of many petty attacks on the mayor.

Image description: An extremely unflattering photo of Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, his face distorted in an expression of disgust. The National Post chose this photo to illustrate its story on Coderre’s opposition to Energy East, just one of many petty attacks on the mayor. [Image credit: Postmedia]

A furious feud has exploded between Montreal mayor Denis Coderre and a group of prominent Western politicians. There have been personal insults, below-the-belt jabs, aspersions cast on prominent politicians’ integrity and intelligence, and a whole lot of aggravation. What’s missing from all this argument, though, is some much-needed context.

The whole flap blew up pretty quickly yesterday, after Coderre, in his capacity as president of the Montreal Metropolitan Committee (MMC), a regional grouping of 82 municipalities, announced the group’s formal opposition to TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline.

The MMC consulted the public extensively on the issue over the past year, and Coderre cited widespread concerns about the environmental impact of a potential spill in explaining the committee’s position. Additionally, Coderre and other Montreal-area mayors felt that the cities were not being adequately compensated for assuming the risks attendant with having the pipeline run through their cities.

It didn’t take long for folks out west to get outraged over Coderre’s announcement.

“Well, he’s wrong, it’s as simple as that,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said of Coderre’s rejection of the pipeline on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics

Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean was even more blunt, telling host Rosemary Barton he wouldn’t take “environmental lessons from a mayor who releases eight billion litres of raw sewage into the river right in front of his community.”

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall chipped in his two cents:

This is a sad day for our country when leaders from a province that benefits from being part of Canada can be this parochial about a project that would benefit all of Canada, including these Quebec municipalities.

On Twitter he was even more pointed:

Coderre doubled down on his criticism of the project today, and hit back especially hard at Brian Jean, who said the decision to oppose Energy East was based on politics rather than science.

Coderre fired back at Jean in an interview on Radio-Canada.

“You have to allow me a moment to laugh at a guy like Brian Jean, when he says he relies on science. These are probably the same people who think the Flintstones is a documentary,” he said.

Coderre, a former Liberal MP, was echoing a comment made by Liberal strategist Warren Kinsella in 2000 against then-Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day.

Histrionics and petty personalism aside, there was a lot of more measured criticism of Coderre’s position, from the likes of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, and even, tentatively, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

One inescapably common thread in all these criticisms – including the more harshly worded denunciations from the likes of Brian Jean and Brad Wall – is the insistent refrain that pipelines are a vastly more safe way to transport tar sands bitumen than train cars.

Equally common in defences of Energy East and denunciations of Coderre is the claim that Energy East will be a boon to the Canadian economy, and to stand in its way is short-sighted regionalism and divisive populism. Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci called pipelines like Energy East “crucial” to Canada’s economic future.

Besides, pipeline apologists insist, Alberta has a new greenhouse gas emission reduction plan, an effort which ought to receive more recognition.

All of which adds up to widespread denunciation of Coderre & Co. from some of the biggest names and heaviest hitters in Canadian politics.

But it’s like there’s a collective amnesia hanging over this discussion. Nobody – not even Coderre – seems to recall, or to be willing to mention, the landmark study released last January which showed that 85% of the tar sands absolutely need to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid a catastrophic 2°C of warming.

And as I wrote a few months back, the Alberta government’s “climate change” plan basically refuses to acknowledge this basic reality, preferring to pretend that it can offset the massive emissions of the tar sands extraction industry by shutting down its coal plants and encouraging folks to use less greenhouse gases personally, a plan with absolutely no basis in reality.

Given Canada’s ostensible climate change target of no more than 1.5°C of warming, it seems pretty straightforward to say that pipelines like Energy East absolutely cannot be built, as they work directly against the imperative of leaving the tar sands largely unexploited.

So never mind whether pipelines or rail cars are the safer way to transport bitumen to the coast – why doesn’t anybody bring up the fact that we really ought not to be bringing it to the coast at all, or even digging it up to begin with?

Perhaps Coderre remembers the vicious barrage of criticism that Linda McQuaig had to withstand after she said most of the tar sands may have to be left in the ground during the last election. The then-NDP candidate made the remarks in passing, but the united outrage of pipeline boosters across Canada absolutely buried her campaign, and McQuaig effectively went silent for the rest of the election, which she went on to lose to Liberal Bill Morneau.

If Coderre is subject to such widespread condemnation and vicious attacks merely for opposing one pipeline, imagine the fury that would be unleashed if he, or a politician of his stature, were to publicly suggest that the tar sands ought to be shut down altogether.


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