TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline hit the wall last week. That’s good for our country and the climate.

The Energy East pipeline project is no more. It would have seen millions of litres of toxic diluted bitumen pumped under major waterways from the Prairies to the Atlantic coast. It would have passed directly through hundreds of communities, like Kenora, ON, putting their drinking water, land, and local ecosystems at risk from spills. The pipeline would have facilitated massive expansion of the tar sands at the precise moment when Canada must accelerate toward a low carbon economy, not double down on fossil fuels.

That’s why we stood with our client, grassroots community group Transition Initiative Kenora, in strong opposition to this project. But what began as an effort to show the risks this pipeline would bring to just one small community became a chance to counter bias at the National Energy Board (NEB) and ultimately play a role in toppling Canada’s largest ever pipeline proposal.

As you might remember, in August 2016, the National Observer reported that two members of the Energy East review panel had invited interested stakeholders, including Jean Charest, who was then a paid consultant for TransCanada, to attend closed-door meetings where Energy East was discussed. This violated the rule against bias in administrative proceedings and the NEB’s own code of conduct. Many people, including us, were rightly concerned — who could trust this panel to make a fair and independent recommendation to the Federal Cabinet?

This revelation was a pivotal moment in the demise of the Energy East pipeline. It compelled us to file a motion on behalf of our client, urging the two compromised NEB panel members to recuse themselves from the review process. In the result, all three panel members stepped down.

But their recusals didn’t end the matter for us: When the panel members stepped down, they acknowledged that the entire process, including their decision about the issues to be considered in the hearing, was tainted by a reasonable apprehension of bias. So, after new panel members were appointed in January 2017, we filed another motion demanding they declare the dozens of decisions made by the former Energy East panel void. They did.

These actions paved the way for a reset of the Energy East process so that a fair and unbiased review could take place.  

New Firsts: National Energy Board decides to consider climate change impacts

Once the Energy East review’s questionable past was behind it the new panel announced it would take public input on the issues it should consider as part of its hearing. They asked specifically whether to consider Energy East’s potential to cause huge increases in upstream and downstream greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We argued yes, and the new panel agreed.

We counted this as an encouraging sign. Initial estimates showed Energy East could have led to 32 megatonnes (MT) of additional upstream GHG emissions each year — similar to the output of Ontario’s now-retired fleet of coal-fired power plants. Further, the emissions from downstream combustion of the oil would have been even greater. For example, estimates showed that Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion — a significantly smaller project — could result in an additional 53.8MT of GHG emissions each year.

The new panel’s decision on upstream and downstream GHGs played an important role in the demise of Energy East. It’s safe to assume that TransCanada didn’t want the ugly truth about its pipeline’s full climate implications to be a factor in the government’s decision-making.

But it wasn’t the only reason Energy East collapsed. In order to really understand what led to its demise, we must look at the broader implications of what’s happened since the project was first proposed in 2013.

Since that time we have seen world leaders pledge to tackle climate change via the Paris Agreement. We’ve seen renewable energy growth (especially solar) outpace that of fossil fuels in the energy sector. Production of coal, the world’s most polluting fuel, continues to drop. Automakers are going all-in on electric vehicles while countries plan to phase out combustion engine cars within decades.

Meanwhile oil prices have slumped, companies have walked back massive tar sands expansion plans, and other pipelines have been approved (but not yet built). These are bear market conditions for a major new pipeline designed to operate for decades and nobody would know it better than TransCanada.

Despite years of gathering headwinds, political leaders and business elites (with some exceptions, mostly in Quebec and among First Nations) never stopped pushing for Energy East. Why? The Harper era mythology of Canada as a virtuous fossil fuel superpower has an enduring hold on the powers that be. They think we can keep selling more oil and gas for decades, get a little richer, and then trust our children to do the hard work of building an economy that doesn’t pollute. But climate science, economics, and morality are converging in a way that exposes the mythmaking once and for all.

In truth, Energy East is the last of its kind. There will be no second tar sands expansion boom; no major new pipeline proposals. Energy markets don’t want it and the climate can’t take it. The decline phase of oil and the world’s ever-shrinking carbon budget are firmly on the horizon. Canada remains a leading oil producer but who can say it is virtuous to continue this way, eyes wide open, in the coming years? What will history say about our country if we choose to preserve profits instead of a climate that could sustain our children, and their descendants for generations?

This is what drives the “people power” that showed up time and again across the country to oppose Energy East. Groups like Transition Initiative Kenora got active locally and at the NEB to protect their communities from spills, stop tar sands expansion, and fight against governmental bias that too often favours industry. These people are getting results and they aren’t backing down until our country is on a truly sustainable path.

As for Ecojustice, we’ll keep fighting to make sure Canada becomes the climate leader our government likes to say that we are. One case at a time.