David McLaughlin: 4 ways to manage Energy East 'game changer'

David McLaughlin says New Brunswick put the "Canada" into a Canadian energy strategy on Thursday and New Brunswick Premier David Alward deserves credit. But McLaughlin also offers a path forward for the New Brunswick government.

Pipeline support has given New Brunswick 'new clout,' expert says in op-ed

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. announced on Thursday it was moving forward with its proposed Energy East Pipeline project. In an opinion piece, David McLaughlin offers four ways to manage the pipeline project. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald/Associated Press)

David McLaughlin, the former president and chief executive officer of the National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy, offered this opinion article on TransCanada Corp.'s decision to move forward with the west-east pipeline.

New Brunswick put the "Canada" into a Canadian energy strategy on Thursday and Premier David Alward deserves big league credit. 

His dogged pursuit of TransCanada Corp. to look east to New Brunswick paid off. 

He helped smooth the way with early forays to Alberta and Quebec, building critical relationships with fellow premiers, to extoll the virtues of this province anchoring the most important pan-Canadian energy project in decades.  It’s an approach he needs to keep up as ceremony gives way to reality.

The premier labelled Energy East as a "game changer." He’s right.

But the best way to be sure that occurs is to change the way the game is played. And, right now, pipelines, energy, and environment are a tougher game than ever.

David McLaughlin, the former president and chief executive officer of the National Roundtable on Environment and the Economy, writes about four ways the New Brunswick government should manage issues around the proposed pipeline. (CBC)

Counting this one, five major pipeline projects are in the works.  Each faces its own share of opposition, controversy and delays.

Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project in British Columbia is opposed by the provincial government and a sizeable share of the population, not to mention First Nations groups and numerous environmental organizations.

Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain line in British Columbia is not as contentious but faces ecological hurdles too.

Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal across Ontario to ship crude oil from Sarnia to Montreal will be subjected to an additional review by the Quebec government. 

And, of course, there’s TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the United States, which President Barack Obama has delayed once and he said he would only approve if it did not "significantly exacerbate"  carbon emissions and hence, climate change.

Pipeline proposal faces challenges

Energy East will not be immune from some of the same challenges.

Indeed, lack of pipeline progress elsewhere makes this project even more necessary for Alberta oil sands crude to gain market access.

But pipelines have become environmental chokepoints in the global climate change debate. And the heavier carbon content and emissions associated with Alberta oil sands crude makes both the product and the pipeline a prime target of environmental dissent and demonstration.  It is hard to imagine Energy East getting a free pass.

Opposition to pipelines revolves around three main areas: First, are local environmental risks of spills and despoiled habitats and the global climate impact of burning more fossil fuels and venting carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Second, are community concerns about the trade-offs between construction dislocation and property rights on the one hand and local jobs and benefits on the other.

Third, is the integrity of the consultation process undertaken as environmental, community and economic concerns are considered and reconciled.

Each of these is a challenge on its own; bring them together and the game changes even more. The fractious fracking debate over shale gas is proof enough to New Brunswickers of how opposition coalitions can coalesce around and against something in short order and stall development.

Path forward for New Brunswick

How can New Brunswick address this? Start by changing the rules of the game. Here’s how.

Embrace the environment. Alward took an important step already by citing the need for the project to be built to the "highest environmental standards."  Recognizing this is a legitimate concern takes the temperature down and raises the bar up.  That’s good.

Act local while thinking global.  Building a pipeline is no longer about just satisfying local environmental concerns, it’s about meeting global environmental scrutiny too.

Climate change and carbon emissions issues will have to be addressed. New Brunswick will need to update its provincial climate change plan and emission reduction targets especially with likely increased industrial emissions this project will cause to head off this concern.

At the same time, New Brunswick now has a direct stake in how Alberta and Ottawa regulate oil and gas sector emissions to meet climate targets.

Raise people’s energy literacy.  It’s never too early to start educating and engaging folks on what this is about.  Explain the plans and how they will be done.

Don’t wait till the shovels are in the ground to find out concerns. Invest in the process now.  Make it transparent. Create dedicated website and social media outlets to actively engage, not passively react.

An informed citizenry is the best way to gain the social licence to operate.

Keep it real. There’s an old saying that when politics comes in the door, truth goes out the window.

Managing-down the hype is necessary to gain perspective on all aspects of the project. It is harder to refute wild, outsized environmental claims, let’s say, if the same is being done on jobs and growth. Steady, factual, and independent sources of information and dialogue are key.

Together, these confront directly what will be coming to New Brunswick’s front door soon and can change the rules of the game in the province’s favour.

At the same time, a new leadership opportunity lies ahead for the province beyond this one project.

Energy East changes the nature of the fiscal federalism dialogue and equalization in Canada. The deliberate and dedicated partnership between Alberta and New Brunswick, gives Alward a stronger moral voice in how the federation should work. 

Put simply, without New Brunswick, some Alberta oil would never get to market. That’s new clout. That has to count for something and may yet prove to be the biggest game changer of all.