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Protests in pipeline bid

Sian Griffiths, OttawaNovember 12, 2013

Oil giant TransCanada has struggled to get its Keystone XL pipeline built in the US and is facing fresh protest in Canada where activists fear a new pipeline could ultimately worsen climate change.

Oil pipelines stacked in a TransCanada Pipe Yard near Cushing, Oklahoma (Photo: EPA/LARRY W. SMITH)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

As soon as he starts talking, it's pretty clear that TransCanada's Philippe Cannon knows oil pipelines inside and out.

"This is a 42 inch (107 centimeter) pipeline," he said, pointing to an epoxy-coated pipe segment beside him that comes to the height of his hip. "Right next to it is a PIG - that's a Pipeline Investigative Gauge."

The TransCanada spokesperson, dressed in a smart blue business suit, is hosting an open house in the suburbs of suburban Ottawa. He's talking to members of the public and the media about his company's planned Energy East pipeline. It's the 65th open house event held by the company so far.

"People who come here can find out about who TransCanada is, and what the project is all about," Cannon explained. "They can also find out about safety and the regulatory process."

Controversial source

Cannon says the pipe will ship some 1.1 million barrels of crude oil across the country every day, should it get approved.

That crude oil will be made up in part of diluted bitumen from Alberta's controversial oil sands region. The raw product from the so-called tar sands area is highly controversial due to the way it is mined.

In a complicated process that uses large amounts of water, oil is extracted by being washed out of the earth. The mining method leaves behind large piles of residue waste sand, and also negatively affects soil quality.

An aerial view of a tar sands mine facility near Fort McMurray, in Alberta, Canada. (Photo:The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh, File/AP/dapd)
A tar sands mine facility in Alberta, CanadaImage: dapd

Still, TransCanada says that the pipeline will create thousands of much-needed jobs and reduce Canada's dependence on foreign oil.

Some 70 percent of the 4,500 kilometer (2,796 miles) pipeline infrastructure is already in the ground according to Cannon, and currently being used as a gas pipeline.

The safety aspect

Russ Girling, the Chief Executive Officer of TransCanada, insists that oil pipelines in Canada are 99.9 percent safe. Yet, over the last five years, pipelines in Canada have spilled over 1 million liters (264,000 million gallons) of oil and other fuel products into the environment.

"We are quite close to the existing pipeline so that is why we are concerned about it," said one visitor DW spoke to outside the open house. "From the answers we were given they seem very confident that everything is going to be alright."

"We invest $1 billion a year in our safety program for pipelines but we also monitor pipelines 24/7," spokesperson Cannon said, pointing to a pipeline investigative gauge. It is designed to move through pipelines to detect corrosion, stress and other problems inside the pipelines. "All the pipelines are equipped with shut off valves," he added.

While TransCanada's Canadian pipelines have spilled under 3,000 liters oil in total, the company's natural gas pipelines have come under criticism for serious safety breaches. One of its pipelines in Beardmore, Ontario exploded into a gas fireball in February 2011.

Last month, a TransCanada whistleblower, former metallurgical engineer Evan Vokes, came forward and said he blamed the leaks on construction flaws. He pointed to one TransCanada natural gas pipeline which was exposed by floodwaters as it hadn't been buried deeply enough. He claims to have been fired last year after raising his concerns with senior TransCanada executives - before going to Canada's pipeline regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB).

The energy regulator has since written a letter to TransCanada to express concern over its "non-compliance with NEB regulations."

Bruce Hyer, an Independent Member of Parliament, claimed to have been a big supporter of the pipeline - until he began having doubts it would give Canadians energy independence.

"If we are going to export it in crude oil form I will do whatever I can to slow down or stop this pipeline proposal," Hyer said. "I want to see us stop giving away our precious key strategic national resources to any foreign country before our needs are met."

As news of the pipeline has been spreading, so has the opposition. Critics fear that any spill could be catastrophic to Canada's environment and that the pipeline project could inevitably lead to an expansion of the oil sands project, also known as "tar sands" - and worsen climate change.

Mary O'Neill and her husband protest at Ottawa City Hall about the Energy East pipeline
Mary O'Neill and her husband are concerned that the planned pipeline could damage the Rideau riverImage: Sian Griffiths

Shortly before the open house took place in Ottawa, a small group of protesters paddled along the city's Rideau River and marched beside it too.

"It's the immediate potential danger of having nasty bitumen spilling into the Rideau River," said Mary O'Neill, paddling in a red canoe with her husband.

She was dismissive of TransCanada's claim that their oil pipelines were very safe. "People across North America have been experiencing that 0.1 percent. When it happens, it is catastrophic."

Not a plan B

Ben Powless, a First Nations man and the protest's organizer, told Ottawans at the protest that the only reason the Energy East pipeline was being built was because pipeline projects were being opposed elsewhere.

"There has been incredible opposition by groups in British Columbia and in the United States to Northern Gateway and to Keystone XL," he said.

Philippe Cannon shows off a section of piping at the open house event in Ottawa
Philippe Cannon from TransCanadaImage: Sian Griffiths

"They have blocked the pipelines all the way to the US. They have blocked the pipelines south. Now they are going to try to build pipelines east. This is the last hope that oil companies have to expand the tar sands."

However, TransCanada's Philippe Cannon denies that Energy East is some kind of plan B.

"Even if Keystone, when Keystone, gets approved, we're still going ahead with the Energy East pipeline project," he insisted although the pipeline still needs to be approved by the NEB.

"They are totally independent, one from the other," Cannon told DW. "We need both of them."

When asked why the proposals were being put forward now, with Keystone XL plans yet to be approved by Washington, he simply said "It's all about timing and market demand."