Fates Intertwined

Alberta and Quebec, joined by pipe

By Paula Simons

Line 9B. It’s not a fancy name. It doesn’t have the poetic ring of “Trans Mountain” or “Northern Gateway” or even “Energy East.” Yet the Enbridge 9B pipeline, for me, symbolizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of our country—and the urgent way we must come together to tackle the challenges we face as a nation.

From 1976 to 1998 the line carried oil from west to east, as you’d expect. But from 1998 to 2015, the flow in the 639 km pipeline switched directions: tankers brought West African and Middle Eastern oil to the port of Montreal, and the pipeline carried that oil west, to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario.

On December 1, 2015, Enbridge reversed the flow again and started using 9B to transport western oil to Quebec once more. In 2019 Line 9B carried on average 240,000 barrels of oil a day to refineries in Montreal.  According to Enbridge, 90 per cent of the oil is light crude. Half of that is from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin, primarily from Alberta. Half comes from the Bakken Basin, primarily from North Dakota and Saskatchewan. The final 10 per cent is Alberta heavy crude.

Before the flow reversal, Quebec got less than 10 per cent of its oil from the west. Today, the western crude in Line 9B provides 60 per cent of Quebec’s oil supply.

Much of it goes to the Jean Gaulin refinery in Lévis, the second-largest refinery in Canada, where it is turned into gasoline, jet fuel and home heating oil. Much of the rest goes to the Suncor refinery in Montreal, where it becomes gasoline for Quebec and Ontario, as well as asphalt, benzene and the component parts of polyester.

According to Enbridge, the last leak along the line was in 1993, a spill of 28 barrels.

But here’s the thing about the Line 9B success story. Not many people know it. Here in Alberta, it suits a certain political narrative to perpetuate the myth that Quebec buys most of its oil from places such as Saudi Arabia or Libya. Similarly, it suits a certain political narrative in Quebec to pretend that somehow they are not implicated in their use of “dirty” Alberta oil.

Last spring, as part of my work as a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, I was in Quebec City for public hearings on Bill C-69, the controversial new environmental assessment act. I was fascinated—and frustrated—to hear an earnest Quebec environmental lawyer say she’d rather Quebec tanked its oil from Algeria than allow any more Alberta crude.

It’s a cross-country folie à deux.

 A mutually beneficial fiction allows activists in both parts of the country and at either end of the political spectrum to pander to their base, truth be damned.

In fairness, in recent months, the governments of both Alberta and Quebec have publicly recognized the economic interdependence exemplified by 9B. No matter. It still suits the political purposes of some in Alberta to pretend Quebec doesn’t buy our oil, when the province is now one of our largest markets. It still suits the political purposes of some in Quebec to pretend that they don’t buy our oil, when Alberta energy keeps their delivery trucks on the road.

It’s a mutually beneficial fiction, one which allows activists in both parts of the country and at either end of the political spectrum to pander to their base, truth be damned.

The truth is complicated. But we can’t tackle the serious issue of climate change if we’re being disingenuous about how much energy we consume, where that energy comes from and how intertwined our fates are as Canadians.

Love them or loathe them, pipelines are essential infra-structure that bind this country every bit as much as roads or railways. Now, as all Canadians face the hard necessity of transitioning to a new, lower-carbon economy, we need a new national dream, a new pipeline of ideas and expertise that links Canadians as we face this daunting challenge.

It’s not going to be easy for us to learn to heat our homes, to manufacture our products and to transport our goods and people without oil. It will mean very real economic dislocations, especially in provinces with large manufacturing economies, such as Ontario and Quebec. And we can’t wish away those realities by denying that eastern Canada today runs, in large part, on Alberta crude.

Global warming is real. Climate change is already upon us. The day is coming when we in Alberta will no longer be able to rely on fossil fuel extraction to power our regional economy, when stalwart vintage infrastructure like Line 9B will no longer be an answer to our problems.

We are confronting the prospect of an epoch-ending economic and social disruption in Alberta. It may not be imminent. But it is an eventuality we cannot face alone. It’s time for Canada to retire its national obsession with malignant regional backbiting. Time to face the future together, without comforting myths, but with clear vision.

Paula Simons is an independent senator, a former columnist for the Edmonton Journal and a long-time Albertan.



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