A group of Mount Allison students were all smiles Tuesday night after Sackville Town Council voted 5-3 to oppose the Energy East oil pipeline.
The students, who were enrolled last fall in an environmental activism course taught by Professor Brad Walters, asked councillors in November to take a stand against the proposed 4,600 kilometre pipeline that would carry up to 1.1 million barrels per day of diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to Irving Oil facilities in Saint John.
Will Balser, one of seven students in the group, said he “couldn’t be happier” that a majority of councillors had passed a motion asking the federal government not to approve the $15.7 billion pipeline.
“I couldn’t have been more nervous leading up to the final round (of voting), you know, who was yea or nay,” Balser said. “This sets a precedent for all other municipalities in New Brunswick and around Canada who are opposed to projects that influence and detrimentally affect our future.”
The five councillors who voted in favour of the motion opposing the pipeline were Bill Evans, Megan Mitton, Allison Butcher, Bruce Phinney and Andrew Black.
Councillors Ron Aiken, Joyce O’Neil and Michael Tower voted against the motion introduced by Bill Evans.
Pipelines and climate change
Town Council’s vote followed a lively, 31-minute debate in which all councillors and the mayor spoke.
Bill Evans began by referring to what he called “the primary issue,” global climate change.
“The facts are that global climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity, it’s bad for us and we have to do something about it to avoid catastrophe,” Evans said.
He added that independent experts agree that the world must not continue burning more and more of the fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases leading to climate change.
Evans said the pipeline proposed by TransCanada Corporation would only increase the burning of oil.
“TransCanada is pushing this project because they believe it will be profitable and it can only be profitable if they ship a lot more oil,” he added.
Support for the motion
Councillors Megan Mitton and Allison Butcher echoed Evans’s arguments about climate change.
“We still have a chance to have a liveable climate, but we are running out of time,” Mitton said. “The Energy East pipeline and all new fossil fuel infrastructure means that we have less of a chance because of the lock-in effect. If it gets built, it will get used and we will burn more fossil fuels.”
Councillor Butcher said that while she wanted to support business, the pipeline would not help businesses or people in Sackville.
“It will do the reverse,” she added. “It will cause irreparable damage to everything that’s important to us.”
Councillor Bruce Phinney said he made up his mind about the pipeline three years ago when he attended a presentation given by TransCanada.
Afterwards, when he asked if the pipeline would mean cheaper gas, a senior official said no.
“I said, ‘so the only people who are going to benefit from this pipeline is going to be TransCanada pipeline, its shareholders and the Irving empire,'” Phinney added. “He never hesitated, he said ‘pretty much.'”
Phinney also blamed petroleum company drilling near his sister’s home a five-minute drive from Strathmore, Alberta for the sulphurous, rotten egg smell in the area’s water supply.
Councillor Michael Tower gave a number of reasons for not supporting Bill Evans’s motion. For one thing, he said, it perpetuates the misconception that “Sackville is not business friendly.”
He also argued that council should not be dealing with a symbolic motion such as this when the power to regulate and approve pipelines rests with other levels of government. Tower said Sackville could play a more positive role by urging governments at all three levels to work together on reducing the use of fossil fuels.
“Instead of opposing a pipeline, I’d like to see (us) make recommendations to the government for financial incentives, assistance to help New Brunswick and other provinces to offer rebates on the purchasing of green cars, backyard windmills, solar panels for creating electricity and possibly hot water,” Tower added.
Deputy Mayor Joyce O’Neil agreed that the town should not be dealing with federal and provincial matters and she added that council should not presume to speak for all town residents since people here are on both sides of the issue.
“I will be voting against this motion as I feel the pipeline will be a nation-building opportunity to create jobs and energy for the entire country,” O’Neil said. “It will also reverse the international flow of payments for the volume of oil shipped to our country by in-bound freighters from other countries.”
For his part, Councillor Ron Aiken said that as someone who holds a PhD in ecology with an emphasis on fresh water biology, the motion placed him in “more than a bit of a quandary.”
However, he said that while he doesn’t like pipelines, he too, felt that Sackville should not be dealing with something that is not its direct responsibility.
“If anyone on council wants to protest the pipeline, fight against it, lay down in front of bulldozers,” he said, “I’m behind you. It’s a great thing. But it’s not the role of this council to be making motions to the federal government on these issues.”
Black’s crucial vote
As councillors delivered their various opinions, it looked for awhile that the vote would be tied especially when Councillor Andrew Black said he felt “slightly soured” by the fact that students brought the pipeline issue to council as part of a class project.
He also said he firmly believed the municipality should not be discussing an issue in federal and provincial jurisdiction, especially when Sackville itself is far from the path of the pipeline.
But then, Black said, he talked the issue over with his family.
“I have kids who would be impacted by the potential of the Energy East pipeline,” he said adding that passing or not passing the motion would probably not affect whether the pipeline gets built.
“I’m always a bit of a pessimist and I really hope that it doesn’t go through,” he said. “The environmental concerns are too much for me to pass on even though I think that it could benefit the province economically especially since the province of New Brunswick is mostly bankrupt, the money coming in would be quite nice. But I will support this motion tonight because of its environmental, potentially environmental impact on this province.”
Mayor weighs in
After all councillors had spoken, Mayor Higham took the unusual step of leaving his chair so that he could also speak on the issue.
He made his view clear that Sackville should not “cast aside its mandate for local action” and give its opinion on “a complex and difficult issue” that would affect other communities more than ours.
“As a member of council during the fracking issue some time ago,” he said, “I recall how our debate centred on local approvals. We were required to approve an exploration permit. It was improperly presented to us and that’s frustrating, but we had to deal with a jurisdictional question and we had to deal with the impacts and that led us through that path to challenge provincial policy based on the town’s interest.”
Higham added that at the time, the issue received national media attention because councillors were working in the best interests of the town.
“Many of us got furious to hear other communities that had no fracking,” he added, “telling us what to do and the province accepting their opinion as equal to ours. I’ve ever since been very wary of presuming to lecture people who have impacts and will suffer them to tell them what they should do.”
In the end, however, Higham did not get to express his opposition to the Evans motion by voting against it. Mayors vote only to break a tie and in this case the motion passed handily, 5-3.
Afterwards the Mt. A. students called the outcome “a big relief” after months of lobbying.
Mara Ostafichuk said she learned how much effort is involved in working for change.
“I definitely gained a better appreciation of how much work everyone who has these other environmental campaigns, how much work they put in to getting their ideas out and supported by government,” she said.
Claire Neufeld said it was “super eye-opening” for her how much “legwork you have to do” to deal with government processes.
“I know this might be kind of small compared to some of the environmental movements that are going on around the world,” she added, “but this is definitely a stepping stone for me and a good gateway into getting out in the world and try to make a difference and stand up for what I believe in.”