Opinion

Quebec slags Alberta's oil bounty, while gorging itself on it at the same time

During last year’s election campaign, François Legault was the lone provincial leader to declare himself open to the idea of pipeline development in Quebec. Yet as premier, he has called oil “dirty energy” and slammed the door on more pipelines through the province.

Disdain for Alberta bitumen weeps from all facets of Quebec’s political spectrum

During last year’s election campaign, François Legault was the lone provincial leader to declare himself open to the idea of pipeline development in Quebec. Yet as premier, he has called oil “dirty energy” and slammed the door on more pipelines through the province. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Quebec, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois wants everyone to know, doesn't want Alberta oil within its borders. The MNA from Québec solidaire upbraided Alberta Premier Jason Kenney for the latter's contention, delivered en français, that an oil pipeline through Quebec would be beneficial to all Canadians.

"Quebec's not into tar sands oil and Albertan pipelines," Nadeau-Dubois informed Kenney via Twitter.

The self-righteousness of his comment, perhaps forgivable for the 28-year-old former student leader, is nonetheless outdone by its gobsmacking hypocrisy. Quebec, as even a cursory bit of Googling reveals, is actually really, really into Alberta oil and Alberta pipelines. Some 44 per cent of the province's oil comes from Western Canada, the vast majority of it harvested from the very oilsands Nadeau-Dubois frequently derides.

And it almost always arrives from Wild Rose Country by way of a pipeline. Since the reversal of Enbridge's 'Line 9' in 2015, which allowed for an eastward flow of oil from Sarnia to Montreal, rivers of Alberta oil pour into Quebec.

Originating in Edmonton, Enbridge's pipeline runs through Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ontario before dumping raw bitumen into the maw of hungry refineries located in Montreal's east end. Combusted in the engines and furnaces of the province, it helps sate Quebec's energy appetite, 41 per cent of which is derived from refined petroleum products. Not even Quebec's vaunted hydroelectricity production accounts for as much.

It might be tempting to dismiss Nadeau-Dubois' oil-based hypocrisy as a by-product of the frequently hubristic Québec solidaire, a lefty party and the province's self-anointed ecological conscience.

Yet disdain for Alberta bitumen weeps from all facets of Quebec's political spectrum. Six years ago, Coalition Avenir Québec leader François Legault championed Quebec's own fledging oil and gas industry. During last year's election campaign, he was the lone provincial leader to declare himself open to the idea of pipeline development in Quebec.

Yet as premier, he has called oil "dirty energy" and slammed the door on more pipelines through the province. Indeed, as Nadeau-Dubois helpfully pointed out, the Quebec National Assembly unanimously passed a motion reiterating "Quebec's commitment to fight climate change" and the notion, familiar in these parts, that the abandoned Energy East pipeline project "was not socially acceptable in Québec." Passed a day after Kenney's victory, the motion had a Nadeau-Dubois-esque righteousness to it — and an identical whiff of hypocrisy.

It makes it particularly galling to hear the premier denounce Alberta oil when his own chauffeured car no doubt consumes the stuff. Even worse: when Quebec politicians use the issue to drive a wedge between the allegedly virtuous province and the knuckle-dragging petro-state that is Canada, as Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet recently did.

Since his acclamation as leader of the Bloc's ten-member rump back in January, Blanchet has attempted to bring life to the moribund sovereignist party in large part by trading in hoary clichés. You've no doubt heard them before: Quebecers are fundamentally different than Canadians, are ill-served in federation and would therefore be better off in their own country. To this list Blanchet has added another familiar refrain: Alberta's ceaseless cheerleading of what he once called "toxic oilsands" is "incompatible" with Quebec's vision.

Given his political past, Blanchet's anti-oil sands rhetoric is particularly noxious. In 2013, when he was Quebec's environment minister, Blanchet greenlit the McInnis Cement plant in the province's Gaspé region, a project of debatable usefulness pushed by the Beaudoin and Desmarais clans, two of the province's most powerful business families. Somehow, the project sidestepped Quebec's own environmental review process, and no wonder. Today, the plant is by far the province's largest greenhouse gas emitter, belching out over 330,000 tonnes of the stuff in 2017 alone.

Given his political past, Blanchet’s anti-oil sands rhetoric is particularly noxious. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

To be sure, Quebec fares comparatively better, environmentally-speaking, than many of its neighbours. Per capita, Quebecers use 11 per cent less oil than the national average, and they emit the least amount of greenhouse gases. This is due in large part to the nature of its economy, which is less focused on manufacturing than Ontario, and the province's ability to churn electricity from its many rivers. And fundamentally, Legault is correct: oil is dirty energy, particularly the carbon-heavy version extracted from Alberta's Athabasca fields.

Still, there are demonstrable advantages to using it rather than the equivalent from Algeria, Kazakhstan and Angola, the three main sources of Quebec's oil before the Line 9 reversal — not the least of which is the dubious human rights record of those three countries. By virtue of flowing through a pipeline, it needn't travel by barge down the St. Lawrence. Nor does it travel by rail, unlike the load of North Dakota oil that derailed in Lac-Mégantic in 2013, killing 47 people.

Politicians have every right to criticize oil, just as they can loudly broadcast their desire to wean society off of it. Yet Quebec's political class nonetheless betrays a certain chutzpah by critiquing Alberta's oily bounty while the province gorges itself on it.


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About the Author

Martin Patriquin is a Montreal writer and political commentator.

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