The trans Canada energy corridor we need to build
Survey data shows half of all Canadians support the Trans Mountain pipeline. Canadians instinctively grasp the need and the wisdom of linking what powers our economy, as well as what it produces.
The first corridor across Canada was the Canadian Pacific Railway, to move people. Over the decades, the railway was augmented by roads. Long-haul people movement has mostly gravitated to the air; short-distance travel to the roads. Railways today mostly move freight and natural resources east-west, linking producers and consumers.
After moving people, freight, agricultural products, wood and minerals, comes energy: overwhelmingly oil, gas and electricity. These strategic Canadian resources originate far from where they are consumed and lack a Canadian east-west corridor.
It makes little sense to burn oil (in locomotives) to move oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan producers, to western shipping ports and eastern refineries, where it is converted to usable products. The least-risky, and lowest-cost way to move the oil and gas Canadians will produce, consume, and need for generations is through a dedicated pipeline. Canada needs that ‘energy railway’ to ship Canadian oil and gas to Pacific markets and expand existing pipeline capacity to central Canada markets.
Long-term, sustainable economic development means not the reduction of carbon emissions to zero, but to carbon emissions below the ability of the surrounding environment to rapidly absorb them.
Urban transit’s steady shift from oil to other fuels, such as electricity, natural gas, and hydrogen won’t displace oil, nor should it. Oil will power inter-regional and interprovincial transit and shipping, aircraft, heavy machinery, commercial, industrial and construction equipment. Oil will still be used for plastics, lubricants and other applications. Natural gas will heat existing homes for generations.
To replace oil, urban transportation and other applications will shift to electricity. Nearly 85 percent of Ontario’s electricity comes from Candu nuclear reactors and hydroelectric dams, mostly generated far from where it is consumed. Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia will shift their electricity generation fuel from coal to renewables, and possibly nuclear. The pan-Canadian challenge lies in sharing power generation capacity for its efficient use, and not ‘stranding’ electricity because it can’t be transmitted to where it is needed.
Few Canadians realize there is no high-capacity electricity corridor to transmit electricity between western and eastern Canada through Canadian territory. A utility executive once summed up the Manitoba-to-Ontario electricity transmission capacity issue to me as “trying to power your house by sending electricity through a piano wire.” Manitoba has an electricity capacity surplus. Getting Manitoba power to southern Ontario, mostly for summer peak needs, means re-routing electricity south of the Great Lakes, through the USA, before connecting back into the Ontario power grid.
We need to send oil and gas back and forth between eastern and western Canada and transmit electricity in both directions.
Internal politics was a factor in building the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 19th century. Post-Confederation in the 1860s and 1870s, the Government of Canada saw a victorious Union army that was the equal of any European army of its day move west across the Mississippi River to knit together the east and west coasts of the United States across the prairies. What, they wondered in Ottawa, was to stop the U.S. Army from turning north and taking what is now western Canada?
America was exhausted, physically and financially, by the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. A third war with Britain within a century wasn’t a risk that the U.S. Congress of that day would entertain or could afford. But fear of that potential invasion was one of the forces that spurred Canada to draw people to the west and stitch the new country together with an iron road.
Canada’s indigenous nations need a 21st century energy corridor to broaden their economic engagement with Canada and the provinces. Public ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline means Canadian federal and provincial governments can do with oil, gas and electricity what Canadians did with people, freight, agricultural products and natural resources. A trans-Canada energy corridor is a national and not a regional priority, as strategic to Canada’s long-term well-being in the 21st century as a transcontinental railway was in the 19th.