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Canada needs a national energy strategy

The Hill Times by Dayna Nadine Scott 25 June 2012

It may seem like a measure of economic desperation that while municipal politicians across the country are fighting to keep their citizens protected from toxic emissions, Mike Bradley, the long-time mayor of Sarnia, has raised his hand to say, “Bring it on.”

As pundits, national unions, and the NDP bemoan the fact that our emerging national energy strategy does not seem to contemplate actually refining the crude here in Canada, but simply “exporting jobs,” Bradley has publicly put his city forward as a key destination.

His message is that Sarnia’s refineries, and highly-connected system of infrastructure, provides an easier alternative for getting oil sands crude to market than the proposed Northern Gateway or even Keystone XL.

We need to thank Bradley for bringing Sarnia rightfully into the middle of this brouhaha because what has been happening in Sarnia, and to its close neighbour the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, demonstrates perfectly that the pipeline decisions we are currently contemplating have real distributive consequences.

In focusing our attention on the everyday toxic emissions that inevitably come with the refining of dirty oil (completely separate from the greenhouse gas emissions tied to its extraction), we can see that a national energy strategy needs to confront not just the distribution of benefits from expansion in the oilsands, but the distribution of risks.

It is not just crude oil, or diluted bitumen, that flows along a pipeline’s route. Air pollution tags along too, and it is emitted at the point we choose to locate the refineries. Typical environmental health effects for communities downstream of refineries include elevated rates of leukemia and other cancers, asthma and respiratory illness, and reproductive disorders.

Sarnia’s cluster of petrochemical plants and refineries, known as Canada’s “Chemical Valley,” leads right up to the fence-line of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation reserve.

The World Health Organization has rated air quality there to be the worst in the country, a distinction only recently lost to the oilsands locale of Hinton, Alta.

As energy interests jockey for position—TransCanada hoping to sneak the Keystone through during the frenzy over Enbridge’s plan to turn the Northern B.C. port of Kitimat into its critical ‘gateway’ to market, and Enbridge quietly pursuing its Trailbreaker proposal to bring oil east through Sarnia and on to Montreal (otherwise known as “Plan B”)—it can seem as if only corporations and their shareholders will win or lose in this battle.

But communities of people will live with the consequences of these lasting infrastructure decisions for decades, maybe even generations. In other words, they’re getting the short end of the pipe.

Bringing oil east might make good economic sense to some, but it will come with real costs. And those costs are likely to be most strongly felt by the Aamjiwnaang community, who already have a Charter challenge before Ontario courts based on the chronic health risks posed by pollution from the cluster of refineries upwind of their reserve.

Sarnia’s Suncor facility, named in the judicial review application, is one of the expected destinations for bitumen and its derivatives from Alberta. The company recently boasted about its aim to eventually enable the Sarnia refinery to process up to 40,000 barrels of oil sands crude per day.

It’s been predicted that a “national” energy strategy will only be possible if Alberta and Ontario can agree on how to get oil sands product east for refining in Ontario. If we accept this, we’re in danger of buying into a vision of development that leaves certain communities completely out of the picture.

Municipalities have been at the forefront of progressive public health measures recently in Canada. If Sarnia could champion tough, innovative measures to protect air quality downstream of refineries, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty could come onside, it might actually produce a plan worthy of having the word “strategy” attached to it.

Dayna Nadine Scott is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. She participated recently in a meeting of Canadian environmental lawyers and professors on the prospects for a National Energy Strategy held in Cypress Hills, Sask.