AT FIRST glance, the public hearing of Canada’s National Energy Board that began on May 23rd involves only a minor matter. Enbridge, an energy distributor, wants permission to reverse the flow of Line 9, a duct of 195km (121 miles) which moves imported oil westward to petrochemical plants in Sarnia, Ontario. Instead, Enbridge wants the pipeline to carry light crude oil eastward, from Alberta and North Dakota to a refinery in Nanticoke, Ontario, and then to others in Quebec. But environmentalists in both Canada and the United States have filed petitions against the switch. They worry that, if it is approved, Line 9 will soon start moving oil from the Alberta tar sands to Montreal and then, if the flow of another pipeline is reversed, to Portland, Maine for export.
Oil production from the tar sands is set to rise from 2m barrels a day (b/d) to 3.3m by 2020, or from 58% to 72% of Canada’s total oil output. Getting this oil to market is a mounting worry for Canada’s energy industry and for Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. That is because the necessary infrastructure is opposed both by local communities and by greens, who want to halt development of the tar sands. Per barrel, the extraction of oil from bitumen emits between three and four times as much carbon and other greenhouse gases as conventional oil does, according to the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank in Calgary. But other estimates are much lower.