Clean energy could suffer collateral damage in pipeline war: C.D. Howe

Pipelines aren't the only energy transmission system that require regulatory approval – so do interprovincial transmission lines.

Opponents committed to halting the $7.4 billion expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which now includes the Government of British Columbia, often champion clean renewable energy as an alternative to “dirty oil.”

But a new C.D. Howe Institute brief warns that killing oil pipelines could also have negative consequences for clean energy projects in Canada.

Whether it is oil or renewable power, both need two things: billions of dollars of investment and transmission. They also need regulatory approval, and the regulatory processes by which they are approved have been under assault.

The C.D. Howe brief, addressed to the new NDP government in B.C., warns that using regulatory processes to delay or halt the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion won’t just discourage investment in oil pipelines, it could also discourage private investment in clean energy projects and transmission lines.

“If the oil pipeline fight establishes tools that can stop federally approved energy transport projects, those tactics will be used to stop power transmission for renewable power projects,” James Coleman, assistant professor of the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, writes.

C.D. Howe associate director of research Ben Dachis points out that the same National Energy Board review process that approved the pipeline expansion would be needed to approve any new interprovincial transmission lines – between B.C. and Alberta, for example.

And the integrity of those processes is being challenged. The new NDP minority government has vowed to use every available tool to flout the decisions made by a federal regulatory body, which sends a negative signal to investors, whether they are oil and gas midstream companies, or independent power producers, according to C.D. Howe.

“Most economic reviews have found that stopping North American pipelines has only a marginal impact on oil production—and may have no impact at all on world oil production,” Coleman writes. By contrast, renewable power cannot reach markets without multi-billion dollar investments in transmission — electricity from solar and wind cannot travel by train or truck.

“Thus, a short-sighted focus on using new procedures to stop oil transport projects may ultimately do more harm than good in moving Canada to a low carbon economy.”

But would a new interprovincial or intercontinental transmission line really generate the same kind of opposition as oil pipelines?

Dachis points to the opposition already mounting against the Northern Pass project – a proposed new transmission line that would connect northeastern states in the U.S. to Quebec’s hydro power – as one current example.

“There will always be groups out there that oppose any kind of project that has a local impact,” Dachis said.

“The process that the government puts in place for a pipeline is very much going to have an impact on the environmental policy for approval of interprovincial transmission lines.”