This article is brought to you by the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). Read our other articles on the National Geographic News Watch blog featuring the work of our iLCP Fellow Photographers all around the world.
Text and Photos by iLCP Fellow Garth Lenz.
This summer I spent two weeks exploring the proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline from Quebec City, as it runs along the St. Lawrence River, to Saint John, New Brunswick, where it will terminate at the massive proposed Irving Oil refinery and tanker port.
I am just wrapping up a project with the Canadian environmental charity, Environmental Defence and the International League of Conservation Photographers. The project is part of Environmental Defence’s long-standing and critical work on this issue.
All along the pipeline’s proposed route, I have struggled to understand how this project could benefit local communities, or even the country as a whole. Significantly larger than the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, TransCanada’s proposed Energy East Pipeline could transport over a million barrels a day of tar sands bitumen, cut with toxic natural gas condensate, from the Alberta tar sands to the proposed tanker port in Cacouna, Quebec and on to Saint John, New Brunswick.
The purpose of the pipeline is to gain ocean port access to landlocked Alberta’s tar sands crude. It can then be shipped unrefined to Europe or Asia, overseas markets where the sticky tar-like substance will fetch anywhere from $20.00 or more per barrel additionally than it would if sold to the U.S., where the vast majority of it now goes. Business and expansion being all about profit margins and access to markets, this will facilitate the proposed tripling of tar sands production – currently at just under 2 million barrels and proposed to increase to 6 million barrels a day within the next decade. The Energy East pipeline would take care of about 1 million barrels of the proposed daily increase, 3 million to go… That is why industry is pushing not just for the Energy East pipeline but also Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, Montreal to Portland Maine, Kinder Morgan, and likely a host of others we have yet to even hear about.
It is pretty clear why industry wants the pipelines, but how does the general population benefit and what are we giving up? As an export pipeline, Energy East wouldn’t create many permanent jobs. It would threaten our shared environment and the water of millions of Canadians. The proposed route is a literal connect-the-dots line linking some of Quebec and New Brunswick’s richest and most vulnerable ecosystems. From Quebec City, it traces the shores of the St. Lawrence River, a critical habitat for 13 species of whales including, sperm whales, Blue Whales, Fins, Greys, threatened Belugas, and others. It also passes through internationally recognized wetlands. In Tadoussac, large whale watching boats are packed each day and surrounding restaurants, hotels, B&B’s and other businesses are all thriving as a result of the tourists.
At Cacouna, on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, the pipeline turns south east to cut through New Brunswick, headed to the coastal port of St. John. However before it does that, it will leave a proposed large tanker port at Cacouna in its wake. This beautiful spot is almost directly across from Tadoussac – the whale watching capital of Quebec – and adjacent to the Ramsar designated, globally significant, Baie de l’Isle-Verte wetlands and their teeming waterfowl populations. A pipeline rupture or tanker spill anywhere in this area would have long-term, if not permanent, severe impacts on both the ecology and the economy.
As it cuts through New Brunswick, Energy East would cross two critical waterways. Shortly after crossing the border into New Brunswick, the proposed pipeline crosses the Salmon River, just above Grand Lake, where a rupture of fast sinking, natural gas soaked, bitumen would contaminate the province’s largest freshwater body. A little further along, it crosses the Kennebecasis river system, a tidal/freshwater marsh that is one of the largest and most diverse of its kind. This area would be threatened both by a pipeline rupture or a tanker spill in the Bay of Fundy where hundreds of massive tar sands oil tankers carrying vast amounts of toxic tar sands bitumen would pass the mouth of this system each year.
Finally, we get to Saint John and the terminus of the proposed pipeline. From here, hundreds of massive tankers laden with tar sands crude would travel through the rich fishing grounds of the Bay of Fundy. With some of the world’s highest and most powerful tides of over 40” vertical feet, the impacts of any tanker accident would very quickly be felt throughout this fishing and tourist haven, on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.
It’s clear that oil companies want to ship tar sands oil to overseas markets. But it’s also clear that Energy East would put the land, water, environment and climate of Canadians at risk. What would we get in return? In terms of jobs, the reality is that pipelines bring few jobs other than in the construction phase. Pipeline construction jobs are usually given to trained personnel within the industry, not locals. Refineries are heavily mechanized operations that do not employ large numbers of people. In terms of the national economy, Statistics Canada figures suggest that the oil sands extraction contributes only about 2% to Canada’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Despite the spin, tar sands are not the economic engine of Canada’s economy.
Saint John can perhaps serve as something of a case study in this regard. It is the centre for a great concentration of heavy industry: An industrial port, LNG port and terminus, the largest oil refinery in the northeast, a massive pulp mill, all owned by the Irving family. If these kinds of projects were good for the economy, Saint John should be booming. However, reality tells a very different story. In the years of this industrial build-up, Saint John’s population has dropped from 100,000 to 70,000. In the last three months alone there was a 1,000 person exodus from the province. How could anyone think that adding the massive export of tar sands crude would improve the situation? Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Mega projects which benefit a very few and impoverish the rest are clearly not the answer.
As I travel home to Canada’s west coast, potentially threatened by the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, I am incredibly grateful for the work of groups like Environmental Defence and iLCP. Environmental Defence has been at the forefront of speaking out about the planned reckless expansion of the tar sands and the pipeline proposals that would enable this expansion. More importantly, groups like Environmental Defence are working to raise awareness about the kinds of solutions, like clean, safe modern renewable energy, that can power our economy and not damage our environment. For more information on Environmental Defence’s Energy East campaign, please visit: www.rejectenergyeast.ca
iLCP’s focus on tar sands related issues goes back to the large scale Great Bear Rainforest expedition in 2010. To learn more about iLCP’s work on this and many other issues, please visit: http://www.ConservationPhotographers.org/
For the past twenty years I have focused my work on large-scale industrial resource extraction and the impacts on the environment and indigenous peoples. For information on this work please see http://www.garthlenz.com/, and take a look at my recent blog on National Geographic Proof.