Thunder Bay city council has given its endorsement to TransCanada's Energy East pipeline project after nearly two years of not having an official position on the issue. 

At Monday's meeting, council voted 9-3 in favour of a motion from Coun. Iain Angus to support the pipeline conversion project as long as conditions put forth by the regional lobby group Common Voice Northwest are met.

The vote followed debate around another motion tabled by Coun. Paul Pugh, seeking council's opposition to Energy East. That vote was lost 8-4.

Map of Energy East

TransCanada Corp.'s proposed pipeline project, which would carry 1.1 million barrels a day from Alberta through northwestern Ontario to an export terminal in Saint John, N.B. (Canadian Press)

"We have a significant number of petroleum-laden rail cars that are travelling through Neebing, Westfort, McKellar, Current River wards on the CP line," Angus said, adding that his main reason for supporting the pipeline is the threat of a rail disaster.

Angus cited a rail disaster near Gogama, in northeastern Ontario, and said that if a similar thing happened within Thunder Bay, the results would be catastrophic.

"It's safer to put it underground, it's cheaper to put it underground in terms of the shipper," Angus continued. "All the pipes are buried, even the valves ... will remain underground."

The Energy East project proposes to run a 4,600-kilometre stretch of pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick. It would be built by converting an existing natural gas pipeline to one suited for oil transportation, as well as constructing new sections to complete the route.

"The majority of council is confident that the conversion will be done safely and that we will not have major risks of any kind of leakage," Angus continued.

Concerns about safety, environmental impact

Prior to the final vote, councillors heard arguments both for and against Energy East with the topic taking about three hours to discuss.

People and organizations opposed to the pipeline say it will increase the amount of greenhouse gas emissions and that a rupture in the pipe and subsequent oil leak would be catastrophic for the environment.

A deputation by a coalition, including Citizens United for a Sustainable Planet and the Council of Canadians, charged that more oil is spilled by pipeline than by rail and that there's not enough research into how a spill would affect northwestern Ontario's environment.

The groups also point to fears that any leak would flow downstream towards Nipigon and Thunder Bay.

Angus said the conditions needed for council's full support are "significant" and deal with a heightened definition of what constitutes a significant waterway, as well as a number of safety recommendations, such as more backflow valves near waterways, frequent visual and aerial inspections and around-the-clock staff to monitor the pipeline.