Is Energy East just?

Part 1 of 2

Filed under: Essays
Energy East is a project by TransCanada Corporation that will  extend existing pipeline infrastructure for Canada´s fossil fuel industry. Source:

Energy East is a project by TransCanada Corporation that will extend existing pipeline infrastructure for Canada´s fossil fuel industry.

TransCanada’ Energy East is a proposed pipeline for Alberta diluted bitumen that would be the biggest such pipeline on the continent, bigger than Keystone XL. Today, October 30th, 2014, TransCanada submits the Energy East proposal to the National Energy Board of Canada.

In this essay, part 1 of 2, David Gray-Donald asks, is Energy East a just project? If yes, why? If no, why, and what is stopping it from being so? 

This essay argues that because Energy East does nothing to undo the causes leading to its burdens and benefits being unfairly distributed at multiple scales it cannot be seen as just. TransCanada Corporation’s pipeline is proposed energy infrastructure that relies on and strengthens existing institutions of power. Proponents of projects like Energy East argue that oil is necessary or profitable or that we cannot live without it. However, a justice perspective [1] shows that the project is indistinguishable from extractive activities of the past and driven forward by the same root causes. Part I (this text) answers whether the project is just and Part II (forthcoming) will explore whether there are ways it could be made more just.

Oil sands crude production in 2012 was 1.9 million barrels per day. The Energy East pipeline, bigger than Keystone XL, would be able to transport 1.1 million barrels per day. The expansion of oil extraction in Alberta is constricted by lack of transportation infrastructure. The over 4400 km long Energy East, at 42” (1.07 m) diameter, would widen the neck of the bottle allowing bitumen to flow out faster. With official plans to triple the extraction of the oil sands[2] in coming years, there is little indication that oil traffic by rail would decrease as a result of this pipeline being built. The current plan is to get the oil out, fast. The analysis in this essay builds from the factual basis that (a) there are currently no plans beyond extracting and selling the oil as quickly as possible and (b) that Energy East is a centerpiece of that plan.

Extracting, transporting, altering, and burning matter from the oil sands has effects at many scales of time and space on Earth. Benefits and burdens of projects like Energy East are here first considered at an immediate time-scale looking at the whole planet. Analyzing the long-term effects with particular attention to climate change follows.

In the short term, there are people who receive money to work to physically make this work possible, to plan it, to advertise it, and to manage the operations. Some of these people, mostly in roles related to management and ownership, will acquire enough capital (i.e. wealth, money) to use is to accumulate more capital (i.e. capitalism) to such a degree that they reach a level of wealth far above the median and continue to accumulate more. For most workers and their families, the inflow of money they receive is temporary and insufficient for significant accumulation. Those with sufficient money, however obtained, can use the end product of this industrial process, oil, a versatile and concentrated mobile energy source, in vast amounts.

Those lacking wealth, including people living in Alberta, are less able to use such quantities of oil and often feel the effects of the industrial process in other ways. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that 94% of economic benefits from oil sands activities will be felt in Alberta. This leaves the vast majority of the world out. Those without wealth often find industrial sites located near them, like the Chemical Valley around Aamjiwnaang (Sarnia, ON) at a terminal of Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline, or the oil refineries in the east of Montreal, or downstream of coal mines in the Appalachians or of a Canadian gold mine in El Salvador. Poor folks often work at these sites doing the most dangerous jobs, like working on the rig floor on BP’s oil wells in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or cleaning up TransCanada’s pipeline spills all over North America.

A similar pattern appears with people of colour. It is often the dark-skinned people of the world who are outside the circles of wealth and power, and are pushed to take the least safe and least rewarding industrial jobs. This is true from deconstructing ocean-liners by hand in coastal Bangladesh to building oil tanks in northern Alberta in deadly conditions as temporary foreign workers.

Along the proposed Energy East route, TransCanada is asking communities to support the project. Consent is sought out from indigenous communities in ways nearly indistinguishable from the past. Historically, the British, the churches and the Canadian government explicitly sought to destroy native governance systems. As of now Canada continues to force indigenous peoples to be represented by elected governments. When this started, positions could only be held and elected by men. Women, in many communities, had long held much of the decision-making power in their traditional governments. The Canadian-mandated system is the only one Canada acknowledges as legitimate, though in many communities the traditional governments still exist and this situation causes internal conflicts. Importantly from a justice perspective, it is an exercise in control over another based on the Canadian state’s ideology that indigenous forms of governance are inferior, that indigenous people can’t govern themselves, and that European ideas of democracy must be imposed and upheld though they may interfere with treaty obligations. The elected councils, who are given their salaries and money for the community[3]via Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs, have had money withheld or cut back when making decisions the Canadian government does not like. This puts the elected band in a conflict of interest type situation where they cannot easily say no to what the Canadian government wants nor can they act in the way their community would want a government to act.  TransCanada’s project continues this way of relating with indigenous communities. It is an approach that does not deviate from colonial Canada’s institutionalized racist past and present.[4]

In addition to women being pushed out of their roles in their communities, extraction projects are often sites of high rates of gendered violence, due to the combined factors of large numbers of male workers who move in without ties to the community, high rates of substance and alcohol use in isolated environments, and inflated housing prices that mean that women who are present in those communities have a harder time leaving abusive relationships,. In places like northern Alberta, there are often few supportive resources for these survivors of unfair violence.

Some unequal benefits and burdens of the pipeline project at a small time scale have been described. There is an absence of plans in the Energy East project to remedy any of these unfair dynamics. This is troubling, and the scales of justice would remain unbalanced if the project proceeded.


Now bringing the long-term into view we find that climate change brings new complex multitudes of concern around justice. The unequal burdens of climate change are unconsidered in the National Energy Board review process of pipeline projects, but are essential to investigate in discussing Energy East and justice.

Neither TransCanada, nor the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, nor the Albertan nor Canadian governments have a strategy to address climate change. Nor does the world. It could be argued Canada has a strategy as most recently formalized in the 1994 NAFTA (section 6), which is, to paraphrase, “get the USA as much oil as it wants”. Now, as American President Obama continues to block cross-border pipeline construction, transport transport, the oil industry strategy has changed slightly to getting the oil out of the ground and sold as fast as possible by whatever means. There is a curious economic calculation being made. It goes that if alternatives to oil or a high price on carbon are coming soon, the most profitable thing to do is sell the oil as quickly as possible before changes come. It is a “use it or lose it” situation. We are in free-for-all mode with no thought to saving the resource (which is a potent source of energy) for when it may be needed and not working towards a major transition away from oil dependence.

Who benefits and who is burdened by this approach of government and investors working together to facilitate a quick dig and burn of the resource? As mentioned earlier, the main beneficiaries are those who own and operate the oil industry. There is some trickle-down of money from this small group, but relying on a trickle-down theory of economics in part led us to the famous 1% and 99% division of wealth (as partially explained by Piketty’s r > g). The economic marketing of the oil industry corporations may at times hide from view that they are legally obliged to act in the best interests of their shareholders, i.e. owners, and no one else. The investors who own most of these corporations, and those they entrust to manage and direct the corporations they own, are wealthy people in the global north. They are the best prepared with physical and monetary resources to face the effects of climate change. They (and me among them) are the most responsible for emissions causing climate change.

Those who feel the heaviest burdens of climate change (which Energy East will accelerate by pushing open the sell!-sell!-sell! plan for carbon-intensive Alberta oil) are those least responsible for creating emissions and who benefit least from the use of fossil fuels. This includes women, people of the global south, migrants, people of colour, and the young & unborn.

While men are also affected by climate change, women, in their positions as caregivers, heads of households, farmers and water-fetchers must take on the extra work when necessities become more difficult to access.

Displacement and migration are well-documented effects of climate change. From fishermen on beaches of Sri Lanka displaced after floods by land prospectors setting up hotels to those whose productive lands have been become absorbed into the expanding Gobi Desert, there are millions of climate refugees per year and many end up in urban slums.

Looking at benefits and burdens from a race perspective, a trend similar to that of colonial times appears. Take, for example, the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony and then, until 1946, a territory of the USA. While some American investors benefit from oil sands transportation, people of colour in the Philippines suffered during Typhoon Haiyan which wreaked havoc on the south Asian nation in 2013. Americans of colour at home also bear the brunt of climate-related disasters, as seen by the treatment of various peoples during and after Hurricane Katrina around New Orleans in 2005.

Future generations of all demographics, but especially those described here, will bear the burdens of climate change. To put this in economics jargon, as Mark Carney did recently, we have had a high discount rate, meaning we are valuing the present very highly to the great detriment of the future. Ideas with more consideration for inter-generational justice are not new. For example, Kanien’keha:ka scholar Kahente Horn-Miller reminds us of the seven generations philosophy, popular on Turtle Island, “as inherently about accountability and respect for oneself and the future seven generations.” [5]

Energy East is not accompanied by any plan to undo these unfair allocations of benefits and burdens. Not on an immediate time scale, not at an international level, and not on the scale of climate change. The oil industry and the governments of Canada also entirely lack such a strategy. There is no semblance of a serious conversation to that end from the corporations or governments invested in the project. There is no effort being planned on the scale of a Manhattan Project of our time, one for a conscious, just, fossil-fuel free future instead of bombs. The Energy East project, like nearly all extractive projects to date, digs us deeper into the path we are on.

Lacking any change of direction and noticing the continued systematically lopsided allocation of benefits and burdens, Energy East as proposed would only continue and strengthen the systems that allow unfairness to persist. In conclusion, Energy East must be considered unjust.

Part 2 of this article, which will discuss how Energy East could be more just,  is forthcoming. 

With files from Justice Climatique Montreal / Climate Justice Montreal. Check out their analysis and call to action regarding Energy East (et version francaise)


David Gray-Donald studied Environment & Biology at McGill University then worked there facilitating community sustainability projects. He is actively part of the struggle to undo our reliance on fossil fuels and is trying to educate himself on how to be a responsible adult male. He lives in Montreal and Toronto.


A note about justice

There is one way that Energy East could be considered just. That would be if one considers justice to be doing good for one’s friends and doing harm to their enemies. In the case of Energy East, that would mean doing good for wealthy white people living in or able to live in safety, and the enemies who bad is done to are everyone else in the world. This is a thoroughly rejected and inadequate definition of justice. A strong definition of justice is based around fairness, a concept innately well-understood by primates. It is this sense of fairness and of remedying situations where unfairness persists that has resulted in the widely understood image of scales of justice (often held by Lady Justice) to be balanced.



[1] A discussion about what is in the best interests of Canadians can be found elsewhere, such as the Council of Canadians siteabout the project. TransCanada’s marketing on the subject cannot yet be categorized as a discussion.

[2] The term “oil sands” is used as there are many people in Canada who will not engage with content if they see it contains the word “tar sands”. This capitulates to the brainwashing of citizens that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and various levels of government have engaged it, but it is important to try to communicate with the humans working in and actively supporting the fossil fuel industry.

[3] As per many treaty agreements, this money was to come from trust funds set up when indigenous nations agreed to allow Canadians to use their lands. Most of these treaty agreements have been broken by Canada, such as the elimination of many such trust funds. This investigative piece looks at one example.

[4] Browse through this document for more information about settler-indigenous relations in Canada with a particular focus on seeing and understanding the treaties as non-native peoples.

[5] From “What Does Indigenous Participatory Democracy Look Like? Kahnawà:ke’s Decision Making Process” by Kahente Horn-Miller in Review of Constitutional Studies. Page 115. Available at



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