Facts show that there’s more than a pandemic behind Enbridge’s abandonment of its proposed new fracked gas pipeline across the Beverly Swamp and rural Hamilton. Things have been going badly for North America’s biggest pipeline company right from the start of this project largely because of public opposition to the pipeline and to any expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the face of the climate emergency.
Back in May, Enbridge was facing over 850 questions filed in the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) process and with just 15 minutes to go before it was required to provide answers, the company filed a letter asking the OEB for a pause in the hearings allegedly because of the pandemic.
The OEB readily granted the request. None of the 16 intervenors opposed the delay. So when Enbridge announced on October 22 that they were withdrawing their application but will likely re-apply next year, it looked quite fishy. Why didn’t the company just ask for a further ‘pause’ in the hearings? The pandemic is still going on and the OEB could hardly argue otherwise so almost certainly would have agreed to a further delay.
That suggests the pipeline project had a lot more problems than the pandemic. It’s not hard to find those numerous obstacles.
Public opposition to the pipeline began months before Enbridge filed its application with the OEB in late November of 2019. By that point, members of the Hamilton 350 Committee had formally delegated to Hamilton City Council as well as to the three conservation authorities from which Enbridge needed permit approvals.
One of those agencies – the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA) – owns the land across which nearly a tenth of the pipeline was scheduled to cross. And the HCA has repeatedly promised publicly that it buys land to ensure that “it will never be developed or bulldozed”. Hamilton 350 reminded the HCA board of this commitment as well as the climate emergency and recommended at least a thorough consultation with the HCA’s donors and membership rolls before granting the easement desired by Enbridge. In response, the board voted unanimously to delay granting the easement at least until Enbridge provided a full ecological study. It also required an independent peer review of that study.
Both of those documents were about to be released by the HCA for public comment days before Enbridge pulled the plug on the pipeline. It could be asked why the company went to the trouble and expense of the study at all if the pandemic was the only obstacle facing its project. Perhaps it was worried about the HCA insistence on a public review of the studies rather than the expected internal decision. Perhaps it was worried that there was even going to be a debate about whether it got the easement.
The day after the HCA voted on the easement delay, Hamilton City Council also voted unanimously to support the HCA position and to maintain its own role as an intervenor. Both the HCA and City Council advocated that the OEB consider upstream and downstream climate impacts of the pipeline and the gas scheduled to flow through it. Ten Hamilton citizen groups and over 150 individuals pushed the OEB for the same commitment to include climate change.
This was a long shot. The OEB had never examined climate change in its hundreds of hearings on fossil fuel pipelines. And Enbridge demanded that this not be allowed and that some of the intervenors be forced to stop asking about it, and be required to merge their intervention to reduce their role in the hearings. But the OEB cracked open the door. It delayed finalizing the hearing issues list and asked for comment on inclusion of climate issues.
Climate change was the last thing Enbridge wanted examined. The gas it is planning to transport through the pipeline came from fracking in Pennsylvania – an extraction process which some researchers argue makes the resulting gas a worse climate offender than coal, not to mention its intentional contamination of groundwater and very large amounts of surface water that is blasted into the earth to shake loose some gas. And of course burning gas, like burning coal and oil, pours carbon dioxide into the atmosphere where it increases the greenhouse effect and warms the planet.
In the end, the OEB decided that climate change is not part of its mandate – after all what could fossil fuels have to do with climate and why would the government agency overseeing pipelines have that in its mandate! However, it did concede that some issues related to climate such as the source of the gas could be challenged by intervenors. And some of them very much did so – helping to generate the massive number of questions that Enbridge was supposed to answer.
Public pressure also dealt a blow to Enbridge’s demand that it be given a “leave to construct” the pipeline by no later than April 30, 2020. A key piece of that deadline was convincing the OEB to hold a written hearing, rather than an oral one. Over Enbridge’s objections, the OEB agreed to hold an oral hearing. Hamilton City Council formally asked that take place in Hamilton. The OEB left the location decision to be determined later, but the prospect certainly would not have been welcomed by Enbridge. The April 30 deadline came and went and by the time the hearings were paused there were still weeks of OEB process still to come.
The company also stumbled and got caught on where the gas was coming from and where it planned to ship it using the new pipeline. When a representative paid a courtesy call to Hamilton City Council in June 2019, councillor John Paul Danko extracted the admission that pretty much all the gas was expected to come from fracking in Pennsylvania. Danko concluded “so it’s the dirtiest source possible”. Opponents of the pipeline immediately jumped on this admission and the label stuck despite seven Enbridge officials coming back to city council later and trying to sell a different story. In response to direct questions they said the gas could “come from anywhere” because there are pipes all across North America all linked together. Their story didn’t fly.
The extraction source turned into a bigger public relations problem for Enbridge when its OEB application explained the expected market for the gas. That included the New England states that are practically right next door to Pennsylvania. So why would the gas be shipped hundreds of kilometres west and north to Sarnia, then hundreds more across southern Ontario to Quebec only to be sold to Maine and other Atlantic coastal parts of the country it came from? In its OEB application Enbridge’s marketing consultant explained that there were difficulties in getting Pennsylvania fracked gas into those adjacent states that were expected to continue.
They didn’t offer details of the difficulties but they are easy to determine. New York State, which lies along a long border immediately north of Pennsylvania, has banned fracking. They’ve also been blocking new gas pipelines through New York. In fact, while the OEB hearings were going on earlier this year New York ruled that a proposed new gas pipeline posed an unacceptable risk to New York waters and was inconsistent with the state’s climate commitments.
The scheme to use Ontario as a bypass for US gas going to the US turned into a real problem for Enbridge at the OEB hearings. Multiple intervenors jumped on it and demanded to know why Ontario gas users should help pay for a pipeline that was being used to supply US gas to US customers. These questions didn’t just come from intervenors who were concerned about the climatic impacts of a new pipeline. They came from groups representing businesses and residents who pointed to Enbridge’s plan to raise gas rates in Ontario by $120 million to cover the largest part of the projected $205 million cost of the pipeline.
The other market opportunity that Enbridge identified for its new pipe was the Ford government’s plan to replace some electricity generation by nuclear reactors with gas-burning power plants. That plan would reverse the huge gains in emission reductions achieved by shutting down all of Ontario’s coal-fired generation plants. If implemented, it would push up greenhouse gas emissions by 300-400 percent.
Not surprisingly, that brought on a lot more public opposition and exposed Ontario cabinet ministers to public outrage. The Ontario Clean Air Alliance jumped into the fight against the pipeline with a billboard and flyer campaign that saw over 15,000 “protect our climate” brochures distributed to homes in the Hamilton area, and many more delivered in Toronto and other parts of the GTA. More than 40 organizations have already signed onto to the OCAA demand for a cap on existing gas-fired power generation, and a complete phase out by the end of the decade.
This part of the stop-the-pipeline campaign has been endorsed by major national and provincial organizations such as the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, the Council of Canadians, and the Canadian Environmental Law Association. It is now also bringing in municipal governments, including Kitchener and Halton Hills who recognize that dirtying Ontario’s electricity supply with more fossil fuels completely undermines local plans to shift energy use away from oil and gas. Why buy an electric car or put electric buses on transit routes if the electricity supply is made with the fossil fuels you are trying to avoid?
The route of the proposed pipeline through parts of the Beverly Swamp wetland generated more public opposition, including the Ontario Wilderness Society, the 600-member Hamilton Naturalists’ Club, Dundas Turtle Watch and others concerned about the dozens of rare floral and faunal species living in what is considered one of the two or three most important wetland complexes in Southern Ontario. A newspaper essay by the founding Chair of the Hamilton Conservation Authority demanded the project be blocked and noted it was the construction equivalent of an 8-9 lane highway. And that was just for the permanent easement pursued by Enbridge. An additional similar sized area was sought to accommodate construction staging. Provincial rules actually say no development is allowed in provincially significant wetlands although companies as large as Enbridge regularly get exceptions.
A large part of the pipeline route lies within the watershed of Spencer Creek, the largest stream in Hamilton which flows through and frequently floods urban Dundas. Opponents didn’t have any difficulty convincing residents that the construction project would likely make that worse – and that the clearing of hectares of forested area would exacerbate the climate change which has been driving increased flooding.
Provincial Green Party leader Mike Schreiner was an early vocal opponent, pursuing the Ford government in the legislature. The Greens went to on to generate a 6000-name petition against the pipeline, one of several multi-thousand name petitions collected over the last year. The MPP for the Dundas area, NDPer Sandy Shaw, came out swinging against the project along with her party’s environment critic Peter Tabuns. These provincial representatives are continuing to demand changes to the mandate of the OEB to include climate change.
All of this meant that Enbridge’s pipeline was facing far more opposition than the company might reasonably have expected for its 10 kilometre pipe through a low-population rural area. They would have expected no serious problems from the city or the conservation authorities, and a relatively short and easy ride through the OEB process for a pipeline of allegedly “clean natural gas”.
But times have changed and are continuing to change for the fossil fuel sector, including gas. As part of their climate actions some cities in the US are now banning the installation of gas lines into new homes. Fracking is increasingly being exposed for its gas leaks, water contamination and earthquake-generating impacts. Those gas leaks including from pipelines are rapidly pushing up atmospheric levels of methane which is many times more damaging than even carbon dioxide. The State of Maine has recently committed to installing at least half a million residential electric heat pumps by 2025 to cut gas use. And there are many signs that even governments are realizing that fossil fuels are a diminishing sector and must be phased out if we are to have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.
And yes, we’re in a pandemic and at least temporarily it has cut fossil fuel use, especially oil, and battered prices and demand. Likely that pushed helped push Enbridge to abandon the pipeline. It’s a little harder to swallow their prediction that this is just a delay for a few months. The opposition is not going away. The climate crisis and all its effects are just going to get worse.