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TransCanada pitches pipeline conversion in Mattawa

Story by Brennain Lloyd. Photos by Brennain Lloyd and Yan Roberts. It was a typical industrial open house, with the large upper room in the Mike Rodden Arena in Mattawa lined with large bright coloured posters on easels.
Story by Brennain Lloyd. Photos by Brennain Lloyd and Yan Roberts.

It was a typical industrial open house, with the large upper room in the Mike Rodden Arena in Mattawa lined with large bright coloured posters on easels. The public turnout was never more than a trickle and always outnumbered by the large cast of TransCanada employees and consultants who were spread out around the room, mostly in small clusters of two or three.

The Wednesday session in Mattawa was TransCanada’s opening act in Ontario for a marathon of 22 open houses that will literally span the province over the next two months, from Kenora in the west to Chute-à-Blondeau on the Quebec border in the east. The pitch: for a conversion of 3,000 kilometres of pipeline from natural gas to crude oil, and an extension of the same pipeline for an additional 1,400 kilometres further east, extending the line from near Cornwall, Ontario to Saint John,New Brunswick.

According to TransCanada, the Energy East Pipeline will “carry 1.1-million barrels of crude oil per day from Alberta and Saskatchewan to refineries in Eastern Canada”.

Dubbed “crude oil” by TransCanada, the product TransCanada wants to push through the re-purposed pipeline is more commonly known as “tar sands” oil or bitumen. It’s the mixture of hydrocarbons, a black, sticky tar-like substance being extracted from the Athabaska tar sands in northern Alberta. Also called oil sands or bitumen sands, bitumen is thick and sticky and will not flow unless heated or diluted.

For the first time since announcing their interest (several months ago) and then their intention (in July) to use one of the existing natural gas lines through northern Ontario to carry bitumen, TransCanada made available a detailed map showing the Energy East route through North Bay and area.

Branching east from just north of the TransCanada pump station on Highway 11 North - approximately ten kilometers north of the junction of Highways 11 and 17 - the route for the Energy East proposed pipeline conversion crosses close to Four Mile Lake in the north end of the City of North Bay, and continues east through the Trout Lake watershed before approximately following the Mattawa River on to the Mattawa area.

Asked about what kind of re-engineering would be required to convert the natural gas pipeline to carry bitumen, TransCanada staff explained that the crossovers between the twin lines would be removed, and shut off valves would be installed along the bitumen line, “approximately” very thirty kilometers and “typically” on each side of a water body. Questions about how the thirty kilometer spacing was arrived at went unanswered. Both pipes currently carry natural gas, but if the Energy East line is approved one would be converted to carry the crude oil.

Asked what kind of agreement would be required from landowners who had consented to a natural gas pipeline decades earlier, lands specialist Steve Campbell of TransCanada explained that the earlier agreements were for the transport of hydrocarbons, which includes both natural gas and products like bitumen. He acknowledged that landowners might have very different concerns and questions about the toxic and sticky tar sands oil than they would have about natural gas, and agreed that in discussions with TransCanada about earlier pipeline construction and upgrades landowners “probably” understood that the product flowing under their fields and bush lots would be natural gas.

Asked to do a short interview on camera for posting to the BayToday web site, Mr. Campbell abruptly ended the conversation and walked away, saying that he was not the media person. Another TransCanada staff member explained that the people at the open house were not the ones to answer questions from the media, that they were there to talk to the public, and didn’t have all the TransCanada “messages”. A third member of the TransCanada team was ushered over to hand out a business card with a toll free number for all media calls.

No stranger to pipeline controversy, TransCanada is also the proponent for the Keystone XL Pipeline, described on TransCanada’s web site as “the safest and most advanced pipeline operation in North America”, but more generally known as one of the most strenuously contested industrial projects of this decade.

A series of environmentally disastrous pipeline failures have coupled opposition to further development of Alberta’s tar sands because of climate change concerns to produce widespread opposition to pipeline schemes like TransCanada’s Energy East Project. Two of the more well known are the Enbridge spill of 2011 and Exxon’s spill of March 2013.

In 2010 a pipeline carrying diluted bitumen operated by Enbridge burst and began dumping into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Thirty-five miles of the Kalamazoo River were closed for clean-up until June 2012, when portions of the river were re-opened. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has since ordered Enbridge to return for additional dredging and cleanup.

Exxon Mobile's pipeline spill that flooded Mayflower, Arkansas earlier this year with up to 290,000 gallons of tar sands oil is largely being blamed on defects in pipes in a line that was constructed decades ago. Reportedly the pipes had been inspected a month before the spill, but Exxon is not releasing the results of those inspections, claiming that to do so would reveal “trade secrets”.

A still ongoing spill near Cold Lake, Alberta began June 1st, and less than two weeks after it began the Globe and Mail was describing it as the “biggest of recent disasters in North America”. Now, after almost ten weeks, Alberta's Energy Regulator says the spill is still ongoing and "has yet to be brought under control". The company responsible, CNRL, had issued a statement last week suggesting that the incident was contained.