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A Trans Canada worker inspects a pumping station in Steele City, Nebraska. Photos: Brian Mann
A Trans Canada worker inspects a pumping station in Steele City, Nebraska. Photos: Brian Mann

New York and the US look to Canada for energy, raising big questions about the environment

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North Country congressman Bill Owens is praising a Canadian company for its plan to move forward with construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Owens' backing for the controversial pipeline comes at a time when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is also pushing a plan to import more hydro-electric power from Quebec.

Canada is already the biggest foreign supplier of energy to the US. And across the political spectrum, American leaders see Canada as a safer alternative to energy suppliers in the Middle East and Central America.

But there are growing questions about the environmental costs to Canada's energy boom and the debate is causing some Canadians to rethink their country's image as one of the world's most environmentally friendly societies. Brian Mann has our story.

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Canadian energy is already hard-wired into the US economy

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

A few years ago, I traveled to far northern Quebec, paddling the wild Rupert River, where I spotted a gray wolf prowling the banks. 

This is the Canada most Americans think of: empty, pristine and incredibly beautiful. Canadians are so proud of their country's natural beauty that they put a maple leaf on the national flag.

But last November thousands of protestors marched in Washington, demanding that President Obama reject plans for a Canadian pipeline that would link oil fields in Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

Hundreds of people were arrested, including climate change activist Bill McKibben.  

"These tar sands in Alberta are a big deal," McKibben told me, when I interviewed him at his home in Vermont.

"They’re the second biggest pool of carbon on earth. If you burn them heavily, it doesn’t matter what else you do – it’s essentially game over for the climate."

This winter, the White House rejected the $7 billion dollar project, at least temporarily; though the company says it plans to move forward with construction of one stretch of the new line.

While that fight simmers, McKibben says Americans and Canadians are just beginning to grapple with Canada’s new role as one of the world’s energy heavyweights.

"Canada is an an interesting place. And it needs to decide whether its economic future lies in being a petro-state – in the long run, petro-states don’t end happily. That’s the story if you look around the world."

The Keystone debate has been framed in the US as a simple question:  Will America tap into Alberta’s tar sands or not? But the truth is Americans are already drinking deep from Canadian oil.

I took a trip last month to tour a high-tech pump station in Steele City, Nebraska.  It looked like a space ship that had landed smack in the middle of the American prairie.

"The existing pipeline will now move about 570,000 barrels a day," said Jim Krause.

He works for Trans-Canada, the company that wants to build Keystone XL.  It turns out Trans-Canada already operate a massive pipeline grid that stretches from Alberta to Illinois, with a spur south to Oklahoma.

"All the station functions of the pipeline is operated out of our control center in Calgary." 

This lonely outpost, unmanned most of the year, is sort of a symbol of a North American energy grid that's already deeply intertwined. 

Canada is the largest single foreign supplier of oil to the US, delivering nearly twice as much petroleum each year as Saudi Arabia.  90% of natural gas imports to the US are also piped from Canada. 

And in the Northeast, one out of every six American homes and businesses is now powered by Canadian electricity.

"The great hydro and wind resources that exist today in Canada need markets," says Donald Jessome.

He's head of a Toronto-based company called TDI that’s developing a new 2-billion dollar cable that will be laid under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, feeding electricity from Quebec directly to New York City.

"A thousand megawatts is approximately enough energy for a million homes, so it’s a fairly significant injection into the New York market."

Industry groups in Canada say it’s a perfect fit.  Their country’s huge energy resources will fuel America’s huge, energy-hungry economy.  They’ve been airing ads like this one, arguing that Canadian energy will help free US consumers from reliance on countries in the Middle East.

"Why are we paying their bills and funding their oppression?  Today there’s a better way, ethical oil from Canada’s oil sands," the ad promises.

Republicans in this year’s presidential campaign have embraced the idea that Canadian energy would mean more stability, more energy security.

Republican Newt Gingrich blasted the Obama administration for its decision this winter to block the Keystone XL project — and he gave a shout-out to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper

"Prime Minister Harper is Conservative.  He’s pro-American.  But if he’s faced with a president who’s not going to allow Canada to get its oil out through the United States, he’s going to cut a deal with the Chinese and he’s going to ship it straight to China."

But it’s not just conservatives and the "drill-baby-drill" crowd who want more Canadian energy. 

In his state of the state address this winter, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – a Democrat – unveiled plans to further integrate his state’s electric grid with that of Canada.

He's calling for $2 billion to be spent developing an “energy expressway” from Quebec.

"Let's build an energy highway system that doesn't exist now.  We have supply in northern  New York and Quebec.  We have a tremendous need for power in downstate New York."

For Canadians, meanwhile, the energy boom has meant new prosperity.  Canada was the first G-8 country to emerge from the global recession. A lot of economists say energy exports fueled the recovery.

But critics say the environmental costs have been staggering. 

In 2009, a year after I paddled that wild northern river in Canada, a government agency called Hydro Quebec diverted much of its water – siphoning it away into a massive man-made complex of reservoirs.  

"The Rupert is drastically changed. From a purest wilderness standpoint, it definitely makes me sad to see it all happen," said Phil Royce, a geologist at St. Lawrence University.

He’s been studying the impact of big hydro in northern Canada for seven years.

He says a chunk of Quebec the size of Connecticut has been industrialized. Rivers have been dewatered.  Wolf and caribou habitat is criss-crossed by roads and power lines, with more big dams in the works.

"The next section, the Phase 3 that they’re looking at, in terms of the Little Whale, the Great Whale, the Nastopoka, are some of the most beautiful, pristine rivers that I’ve ever paddled."

Elizabeth May, head of Canada’s Green Party shares those concerns.  She says the damage from tar sands oil development in western Canada is even more troubling.

"Some of the largest manmade structures in the world are the dams that hold the thousands of square kilometers of toxic waters and tailing ponds.  Those tailing ponds are leeching into the Athabascan River.  The whole project is an abomination."

May acknowledges that the energy boom has meant jobs and tax revenues.  She says it’s inevitable that her country’s vast resources will be developed over time.

But May thinks Canada’s accelerating energy "gold rush" is forcing people here to look in the mirror, questioning their cherished image as environmental leaders.  

"You know we never had a record that matched our reputation.  We’ve been coasting for years on natural beauty and on a time when we were in the lead."

A decade ago, Canada championed efforts to protect global biodiversity and curb greenhouse gas pollution.  But late last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper withdrew Canada from the Kyoto climate treaty.  

He’s pledged to keep pushing Washington to open the floodgates to more oil, more electricity and more natural gas from the North.

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