There are obvious economic benefits to the pipeline, like adding $36 billion to the economy and creating thousands of jobs, but the hard questions are ones of environmental impact and safety.

Opponents are concerned about the possibility of pipeline ruptures and spills and their impact on communities, wildlife, and water resources. Similarly, many are concerned about the carbon emissions that would go along with adding 1.1 million barrels of oil to our daily tally.

Supply and demand

All of these concerns are valid, but by framing them in terms of the Energy East pipeline, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. This is not, in truth, additional oil. “If there’s a demand for oil, it’s always going to be filled from somewhere,” explains Neil Lane, Executive Director of the Pipe Line Contractors Association of Canada. “Pipelines simply don’t drive the consumption of oil; they only change where the supply is drawn from.”

And right now the refineries in Quebec and New Brunswick that Energy East would be feeding are importing the majority of their crude from OPEC countries in the Middle East and Africa. “There’s a human footprint to importing oil from these countries in addition to the carbon footprint,” says Lane. “We can’t close our eyes to that.”

A bridge to a greener tomorrow

As Canadians, we absolutely must reduce our oil consumption and reign in our carbon emissions; our future depends on it. But greening our economy and our society is not something that happens overnight, and it would be a great tragedy to let our desire for a more environmentally friendly nation tomorrow prevent us from making the most responsible decisions today. The immediate alternative to the Energy East pipeline is not a massive reduction in consumption; it is continued transportation of largely foreign oil by road, rail, and sea.

“We have better quality control, improved welding techniques, better data acquisition, better sensors, better valves. The technology has just come so far.”

In terms of carbon emissions and cost efficiency, pipelines are far and away the best alternative. “The numbers don’t even come close,” says David Kavanaugh, President of O.J. Pipelines Canada.

The impact on us all

When it comes to safety, it is much harder to compare, for example, the human cost of train and truck accidents with the environmental damages of tanker and pipeline spills. About one teaspoon of oil is spilled for every 800 litres transported by pipeline.

That’s still too much, but the safety record continues to be improved by advancing technology in pipeline construction and monitoring. “We have better materials than ever before,” says Kavanaugh. “We have better quality control, improved welding techniques, better data acquisition, better sensors, better valves. The technology has just come so far.”

There’s no question that reducing our oil consumption by a million or so barrels a day would be preferable to building the Energy East pipeline. For the world we actually live in though, we are duty-bound to consider the practical alternatives. While we work towards a greener society, we must decide between transporting domestic oil by pipeline, sending it through our cities by road and rail, or importing it on tankers from the Middle East. Energy East looks very different in that light.