The reversal of a pipeline between Sarnia, Ont. and Montreal to carry Western crude oil east is an exercise in good public relations, says Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.

Enbridge's Line 9 would show eastern Canadians the benefits of Alberta oilsands development, argues Oliver.

"Certainly, we have found that the farther away the resource is the less people are comfortable with it. If you bring the resource to them, they're helping to develop it, it creates added value in Canada," he added

Enbridge has filed a preliminary application with the National Energy Board to reverse a section of the pipe between North Westover, Ont. (near Hamilton) and Montreal. The company already has NEB permission to reverse the flow between Sarnia and North Westover. The company plans to ship light crude oil to the Suncor refinery in Montreal to meet growing demand.

On top of the good PR, there is an argument to be made about energy security. Canada gets half of its oil from overseas even though we export two-thirds of the oil we produce.

That may seem counter-intuitive, but Oliver says the reason is simple: Up until a little while ago, it was cheaper for Eastern Canada to import oil from the middle-east than from Alberta.

But not everyone is convinced that is Enbridge's endgame. In its latest document filed with the NEB, the pipeline company says they would like to ship heavier crudes — like oilsands bitumen — at a later date.

"All they want to do is transit through Montreal and then ship it to the U.S. There will be no energy security. This is bollocks," says Steven Guilbeault, head of Equiterre, an environmental group based in Montreal.

Getting oilsands oil to port

Guilbeault has been working on the Line 9 file for four years when it was part of a plan called Trailbreaker. That plan called for the reversal of Line 9 and another pipeline between Montreal and Portland, Maine. It was shelved in 2008 because of the global financial crisis.

new2_map_oilsand_pipelines-300

Line 9's route through Ontario and Quebec. The Portland Montreal Pipeline's route through Quebec and the United States. (Duk Lee/CBC)

The idea was to get oilsands crude to an ocean port where it can be exported by ship — and fetch the international price, known as Brent Crude, which is higher than the West Texas Intermediate price set for pipelines to the south.

Guilbeault believes the new Line 9 reversal plan is Trailbreaker reborn. And he isn't alone. A group of concerned citizens in Quebec's Eastern Townships is working to make sure the Montreal-to-Portland pipeline is never reversed.

"The fact it could bring tarsand oil is adding to the risk," explains Jean Binette, president of the Committee for the Environment of Dunham, Que.

"The name is there. It's tarsands. And the sand, they don't remove it completely. So it's a little bit like passing sandpaper in the pipe," he adds. Binette worries that will be too much of a stress on the 60-year-old piece of infrastructure that has carried nothing but light sweet crude its entire life.

He worries a bitumen spill would poison local wells and other water sources used by a region of 12,000 people. Binette looks at Enbridge's Kalamazoo River accident in Michigan. That 3.3-million litre leak happened two years ago and is still being cleaned up.

Enbridge says all of these criticisms are unfair. Firstly, it says there are strict screening procedures for all product that enters their pipes. All sediment — sand or otherwise — is removed before it is shipped. As for the Montreal Pipe Line Company, Enbridge is not associated with it.

"We need to respond to the needs of our clients, our shippers, our refining customers," explains Graham White, an Enbridge spokesperson.

As for the Kalamazoo spill, the company insists it has learned its lesson, tightened up its operations and vigilance.

"We do serve as an easy target for those who have a general opposition to not just the oilsands but the energy industry in general," says White.

Guilbeaut says that while Oliver may think Line 9's new direction is great PR for the oilsands and Enbridge believes it makes good business sense, they should prepare themselves for a lot more scrutiny of this project.

Line 9 passes through 99 towns and cities and 14 aboriginal communities in Ontario and Quebec.

"If the company and the federal government think this is going to be a slam dunk, I think they are seriously mistaken," warns Guilbeault.