TransCanada on Thursday announced a two-year delay to its plans to move the Canadian tar sands. The company is cancelling its plans to build a controversial export terminal in Quebec, citing environmental concern over the endangered beluga whale. This means a delay to plans for finishing the Energy East pipeline, now set for 2020. In the meantime, TransCanada will search for a new location for its port.
For once, then, Canadian oil news isn’t about the TransCanada-owned Keystone XL, which has faced a six-year delay as the Obama administration sits on a decision to issue a permit. At least not directly, anyway. Energy East, once completed, would be even bigger than Keystone XL, delivering 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day, compared to Keystone’s 800,000 barrels. As its name implies, the pipeline would run from the Alberta tar sands eastward to the shipping lanes of the Atlantic coast.
Not only are Keystone and Energy East similar battles, but proponents (and opponents) often tie the two pipelines’ fates together. Keystone opponents say building that pipeline would ensure tar sands extraction continues at a rapid pace, setting the world on track for severe climate change. Proponents argue that Keystone doesn’t matter either way, because other pipelines like Energy East make tar sands development inevitable. If the United States doesn’t build its pipeline, they say, Americans will miss out on the economic benefits. “We don’t think there’s any way that the oil will stay in the ground,” Matt Letourneau, a spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said last year. “Certainly the market will find a way.”
But so long as there are delays, tar sands development isn’t inevitable because Energy East’s future, like Keystone’s, is far from settled. Oil companies are still in the middle of working out how to get the landlocked tar sands to the coasts for refining and shipment, and during their delays on multiple fronts, Keystone isn’t a futile fight.
The delay could provide a boost to organizers trying to delay other tar sands projects. Each of these pipelines face a similar environmental playbook: Delay as long as possible in the hopes that it becomes unprofitable or impossible for companies to pursue their plans. Keystone has faced years of delay, and now Energy East faces its own uncertain future. Environmentalists weren’t the only reason for TransCanada’s change of plans. Because oil prices are low right now, companies have little incentive to pursue their plans to extract costly tar sands for little profit.
TransCanada still has a strong incentive to find a new port and finish construction. Oil prices surely will rebound eventually, making the tar sands profitable once again.
“I don’t think you can look at this as a major impediment to the future of oil sands development but it certainly speaks to the opposition to pipelines, the anxiety about shipments of oil and, of course, to the increasing importance of environmental protection to the public,” Andrew Leach, an economist with the University of Alberta, said. “The beluga is an iconic species, so I think the writing was on the wall for this once the risk to habitat was made clear, in particular in Quebec.”
In the short-term, however, this is a win for environmentalists. And it may even help them in their fight against Keystone.
Rebecca Leber is a staff writer for The New Republic.