The Next Climate Bomb Is About to Explode in Quebec

Most of us have heard of the Alberta oil sands climate bomb. Canada's fastest-growing source of climate pollution is also one of the few places in the world where the fate of our planet's climate is being decided. If the oil sands are to expand, the bitumen has to reach ocean ports. And so we have proposals for the Keystone XL project through the United States and the Northern Gateway pipeline through British Columbia, Canada. Both projects are stalled, buying our planet some time. But while our attention is focused on these projects, Big Oil is developing big plans to send Alberta's bitumen east through Quebec, where the clock is ticking on a new climate bomb.

As nations of the world meet this week in New York to address the climate crisis, and people from all walks of life gather for the largest climate rally in history, the first oil tanker will leave Sorel, Quebec, to deliver Alberta bitumen to world markets. The Aframax tanker, carrying over 400,000 barrels of oil, will no doubt be followed by many more, thus discretely opening a new export route for Alberta's oil through the magnificent yet fragile St. Lawrence River, source of drinking water for 45 per cent of Quebecers.

This rail to tanker oil export project, operated by Suncor, is not the only one on Big Oil's drawing board. Proposals are on the books for two pipelines to bring oil sands bitumen through Quebec, where it would be put onto tankers for shipment to world markets. Under the proposals, Enbridge's 40-year-old Line 9-B would be reversed to carry 300,000 barrels of bitumen a day to Montreal, and TransCanada's Energy East would become the most important oil sands pipeline in the world, carrying 1.1 million barrels a day. The plans include an oil terminal in Cacouna, Quebec, in the heart of critical habitat for St. Lawrence Beluga whales, which are already on the brink of extinction. To top it off, 100,000 barrels of oil still move by rail through Montreal every day, just one year after a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac Mégantic, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town's centre.

Something is clearly happening, and one would have to be blind not to connect the dots.

If the two pipeline projects go ahead, oil sands production could almost double, adding more pollution to our atmosphere. It comes as no surprise that Alberta and the Canadian government support these projects. What is surprising is that Quebec, one of North America's climate-policy leaders, is willing to risk its reputation to offer free, unconditional passage to dirty oil, losing sight of its climate goals in the process.

Quebec is regarded as one of the most progressive jurisdictions on climate policy in North America. It has reduced its climate pollution by almost seven per cent since 1990 and entered a cap-and-trade system with California. Quebecers massively support climate policy, and all political parties in Quebec are in favor of reducing pollution. This may sound good in theory, but can Quebec's stated commitment to solve the climate crisis be considered credible if it gives Alberta a free run to double its pollution by allowing its oil to transit through the province?

Quebec is clearly at a crossroads. If it opens up its territory to bitumen shipments without obtaining any guarantee that Alberta will contribute to the fight against climate change, it will lose credibility on the climate file. Quebec needs to be coherent and say no to oil transit on its turf until it gets firm commitments from Alberta and the government of Canada to effectively fight climate change. If Quebec says an unconditional yes, then it will have to seek treatment for cognitive dissonance.