Ten questions for NDP energy critic Guy Caron about Energy East

An in-depth interview about the NDP’s position on Canada’s most politicized pipeline project
Photo: © Greenpeace/Robert van Waarden

Guy Caron is MP for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques, as well as the NDP’s energy and natural resources critic. Last Friday I asked him 10 questions about the Energy East pipeline, trying to find out what, exactly, the NDP’s position on the project is. In the interview below, Caron is adamant that the party has never supported the pipeline and is still reviewing it to arrive at a position.

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However, mainstream outlets reported repeatedly on the NDP’s support for this pipeline last year, with The Globe and Mail going so far as to call it “the cornerstone of the NDP leader’s energy policy” last February.

Caron says the NDP can’t control the media, and that’s true. It’s also true that almost all pronouncements from politicians on the issue have been rife with semantic obfuscation. But although Mulcair may never have said the words “I support Energy East,” he has uttered some very similar words. If the media misrepresented his party’s position essentially all of last year, it’s unclear why the party didn’t clarify that misrepresentation sooner.

Perhaps the party’s position is evolving, though this is not what they have said. One NDP staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity, referred to the division within the party over Energy East as a “civil war,” with many if not most Quebec MPs and staff furious over the party’s failure to oppose the pipeline. Meanwhile, a source inside a major environmental organization told Ricochet they've been told there could be an announcement as early as Monday.

Here's what Caron had to say.

Ricochet: You told a Canadian Press reporter in a piece published March 19 in regards to Energy East, "we haven't been in favour and we're not opposed" and "we are analyzing the project on its merits.” You also wouldn't confirm if the party will have taken a definitive stance by the fall election campaign.

So at this time is it correct to say that the party’s position is that you have not yet made up your mind on the pipeline? Can you clarify the party’s position?

Guy Caron: That's correct. We're looking at all the angles, obviously the environmental question is part of it, also the changes to the National Energy Board, it plays a role in the analysis. We're looking at the scientific angle, the legal angle and the economic angle as well.

Will you have a position in advance of the election?

Before the end of spring, yes. We're still pursuing our analysis at this point, so we're evaluating the project from all those angles and once that’s finished we'll be able to state our position.

Does this current position reflect a change for the NDP from a number of past statements supportive of the pipeline and this statement by your leader in November?

As a basic proposition, of course, it makes sense, much more sense, for Canada to be taking that product from the west, moving it within our own country, refining it here because by refining, upgrading and adding value here, you're creating jobs in Canada. It's a win-win to bring it from west to east. It's better prices for the producers and therefore more royalties for the producing provinces. It's better energy security for Canada and it's more jobs here.

Guy Caron
MP for Rimouski-Neigette—Témiscouata—Les Basques
NDP

No, it does not. This is a position which Mr. Mulcair brought forth, which is not very different from what we’ve brought forth in the past, which is that these angles, which are mostly economic angles, need to be considered too. We are certainly taking that [reality] into account, but it doesn’t mean this project is necessarily something we approve. It’s just that we’re open to the principle of the pipeline, but that doesn’t mean this specific pipeline meets the requirements.

If you’re looking at the same article, he says that it makes the most sense out of all the projects, and that includes Northern Gateway for example. He also stated the concerns we have about this project. What Mr. Mulcair was bringing forth was that we are open to the idea [of pipelines], but that doesn’t mean we’ll be supporting that specific project.

For Cacouna, we gathered the information we needed. In our mind we always thought those two were separate issues, so we looked at Cacouna, we looked at Energy East, we knew Cacouna was actually going forward first, so we prioritized it in our analysis.

We looked at the effect on belugas, the environment, we spent the summer talking to scientists, collecting information on this, and talking to environmentalists as well, and by the end of summer we took a position that we were opposed to an oil terminal. It didn't make sense, not only because of the belugas, which was a big factor, but also because of the dynamics of the St. Lawrence river at that point, which makes it, according to the scientists, one of the worst places you could have such an oil terminal. At that point we brought forth a motion during opposition day in the Commons where it was opposed by all the other parties. So we did that work on Cacouna, and now we're doing the same for something which is a lot more complex, which is the pipeline itself.

So to clarify, the NDP never had a position in favour of the Energy East pipeline?

Never. Never had a position in favour of the pipeline itself.

If you don’t support Energy East, are you concerned that many Canadians have the false impression that you do? The Globe and Mail has called Energy East the “cornerstone of the NDP leader’s energy policy.”

Our position is actually that we're still analyzing it, so when looking at articles, we don't write the articles, the media do, and if they draw conclusions that they shouldn't be drawing it's regrettable of course.

Mr. Mulcair never stated he was in favour of Energy East. Eventually we will have a press conference announcing our position on it, and then we'll state very clearly that for all this time we were analyzing the project, gathering and weighing information to see what the official position should be. I understand this project brings forth a lot of concerns, and I do share a lot of those concerns as well, but it's an important decision on the economic side too. It has consequences on the environment, and we should look at all the angles and analyze it before taking a decision. I feel that we have a responsible approach. We're not saying yes at once, or no at once, but looking at all the implications and then after that we can actually explain and justify our position.

An analysis by Environmental Defence found that, due to capacity issues, 750,000 to 1 million barrels of Energy East’s daily capacity of 1.1 million barrels would have to be shipped abroad unrefined. Does the NDP still believe that most of the oil will be refined here, as your leader suggested in November?

Something that is dear to us is the possibility of refining this locally, rather than shipping it abroad, and then in the future reimporting it. So this is something that makes sense. This is the reason we have stated our opposition to Keystone XL as well, because we would be shipping the bitumen somewhere else and in the end it's very costly, even in Alberta, where the province has seen a major decline in, among other things, the petrochemical industry. Instead of transforming it here and using it here, we just extract it and then send it elsewhere.

I'm not saying this will be a deal breaker, but it's an important component of the way we're looking at the project.

We’ve heard a lot from the NDP about how this is the best pipeline option out of those on the table, and more recently that without an adequate environmental assessment process, which Harper has cut, you’re unable to determine whether this project should be supported. That’s a reasonable argument when it comes to allaying concerns over spills, but what about the climate impacts?

The UN has stated that 85 per cent of the tar sands oil has to stay in the soil to stave off catastrophic climate change. That cannot happen if Energy East is built. Do you dispute the scientific consensus that 85 per cent of the tar sands needs to stay in the soil? If not, why not oppose the pipeline on the basis of climate alone? Your platform positions you as a leader on the issue.

Once again this is part of the analysis. I've told you that we're analyzing it from the environmental and scientific angle, and those are things that we are also considering, which will be part of the decision we'll be making. So I don't dispute [the scientific consensus that 85 per cent of the tar sands needs to stay in the soil]; on the contrary, we will use that as part of our analysis before making our decision.

A new national poll was released on April 7. Let me read you a few of the numbers: 61 per cent of Canadians (71 per cent in Quebec) told pollsters protecting the climate was more important than building the Energy East pipeline, and 56 per cent (68 per cent in Quebec) agreed with the statement “Building the Energy East pipeline to export tar sands oil is unethical because it is harmful to the environment.” These numbers are in line with previous polls showing over half of Canadians, and two thirds of Quebecers, oppose Energy East.

It’s been argued that at least one of three major federal parties should oppose the pipeline, if for no other reason than to represent the views of this majority of Canadians. Do you think critics are right to say that in a democracy at least one major party should represent a view held by a majority of Canadians?

When looking at polls, and when you consult with Canadians in that manner, it's part of the issue of social licence, which is important. But on the other side you cannot let your decision be totally based on this. For example, when C-51 was tabled you had 65 per cent of Quebecers who were in favour of C-51 and the so-called war against terrorism that it represents, yet we voted against C-51 in second reading. So you need to take all that into account, and the safety of the population into account, but it also has to be part of your analysis, and it has to be more complete than just the perception that we've had. It obviously plays a role, but you cannot discard everything else you need to consider, like the environment, and the science, and economic aspects of it.

We are informing the population of this project, bringing them the information. It’s important to be in contact with the population. I'm not trying to convince them it's a good project or a bad project. I'm trying to bring them the information that they're looking for.

Coming back to polls, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois has said that whichever party, Liberal or NDP, opposes Energy East first will win Quebec. The poll I quoted shows 68 per cent of Quebecers consider it unethical to build the pipeline, so he may be right. Are you concerned that your lack of a clear position puts the gains you made during the orange wave at risk? Or that the Liberals will take a strong position first, and beat you to it?

We're doing our work now, and I’m not going to comment on other parties doing their work, but we are moving forward with what we're doing now. When we state our position we'll be a lot better for it because we'll be able to explain rationally why we came to that decision, based on the analysis we are doing.

We are consulting with the public right now, and we are giving them the information, but in the end when we make our decision, which will come before the end of spring, we'll be able to explain those processes by which we came to that decision.

When can we expect this position, more specifically? By the end of April?

Spring usually goes until June 20, so….

TransCanada has cancelled plans for a port in Quebec, and announced the delay of the Energy East project by at least two years. Do you think the pipeline is dead?

Well that's TransCanada’s decision. I'm not going to comment on whether they will go forward or not. If it's dead it's going to be because they pull the project, or because the NEB doesn't recommend it, or because the NEB recommends it and the federal government doesn't follow their recommendation. Those are the three options. If they pull the project, then they pull the project. And if they go forward, we'll make sure that they know and the population actually knows what our position will be when we'll make a response, because the next government will have to make the decision.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Full disclosure: I did some communications work earlier this year for a Quebec student coalition opposed to pipelines. That contract has now ended.
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