Saint John: Canada’s new energy hub

The US Northeast will obtain oil, gas, and nuclear energy from projects costing $16 billion. But locals fear new initiatives will lead to pollution and negative health effects.

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    Saint John’s new Canaport LNG terminal, as seen from Mispec Beach, nears completion.
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Surrounded by forests and the Atlantic, Mispec Beach, on the outskirts of Saint John, seems distant from the troubles of modern life. Or at least it used to.

Some $16 billion in energy projects are proposed or underway in Greater Saint John, the largest city in this sparsely populated province of 750,000, which already produces far more electricity and liquid fuels than it consumes. The new energy projects are being built to supply the Northeast of the United States.

Beachgoers now look out on an industrial pier, construction cranes, and the massive tanks of the Canaport liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal. A few miles up the road, Canaport’s owners plan to build a new oil refinery, even though Saint John is already home to Canada’s largest. Twenty miles to the east, engineers are busy refurbishing the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant, where two new reactors have been proposed.

“New Englanders may not be able to site some of these energy needs, but we can,” says New Brunswick’s minister of energy, Jack Keir. “Our goal is to go from being a ‘have-not’ to a ‘have’ province, so we can contribute to the [Canadian] federation rather than take from it. The energy sector can take us there.”

Saint John, a blue-collar city, is willing to do what few communities in the Northeast would: build the ugly, dirty, and sometimes dangerous infrastructure that keeps the lights on across the Northeast. The local political and industrial class supports the projects, hoping to turn this principal port into an energy hub.

“It’s an ice-free deepwater harbor that’s within a day’s sail of many key energy entry points in the US,” says Tim Curry, president of the Atlantica Center for Energy, a regional industry association. “People around here make the connection between economic investments and jobs and growth.”

The contrast to the US Northeast is striking. LNG terminals proposed for Fall River, Mass.; and Harpswell, Perry, and Robbinston in Maine have been the subject of acrimonious debate. Maine – which demolished its only nuclear power plant after a series of maintenance problems – is focused on how to get rid of radioactive waste, not building reactors. A new oil refinery has not been built in the US since 1976.

“If you tried to start a brand-new refinery in the US, that’s going to be a long haul,” says Michelle Foss, chief energy economist at the University of Texas, Austin, who says Canada’s permitting process is more centralized and thus straightforward.

Saint John already provides a considerable amount of New England’s energy. Its oil refinery reportedly provides 60 percent of Boston’s vehicular gasoline supply. Point Lepreau’s 635-megawatt reactor was built largely to serve New England, as was the 978-megawatt Coleson Cove oil-fired plant, built here to avoid provisions of the US Clean Air Act.

“New Brunswick is an area that’s seen as being easy to get approval for these projects,” says Rob Moir, an economist at the University of New Brunswick.

Projects also proceed because the companies behind them are local. Saint John’s powerful Irving family owns the oil refinery and part of the $750 million LNG terminal. Meanwhile, NB Power, a public utility is spending $1.4 billion, including replacement fuel and energy, to refurbish its 25-year-old nuclear plant and will run a second 1,085-megawatt reactor once it has been built at a cost of $4 billion. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the cost to NB Power of refurbishing its nuclear plant.]
Citizens trust NB Power for having “one of the best run nuclear plants in the world,” says Mr. Keir, while the Irving Oil Company has invested heavily in pollution abatement. “Governments grant permits, but it’s communities that grant permission,” he adds.

But not everyone is feeling permissive. “We’re very concerned that these additional facilities are going to have negative health impacts,” says Gordon Dalzell of the Saint John Citizens’ Coalition for Clean Air. “We’re going to pay the price so that people in the northeastern US can enjoy the energy.”

David Coon, policy director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick in Fredericton, is opposed to a new refinery. “It will obliterate all our progress in meeting greenhouse-gas targets on a national level,” he says.

Saint John mayor Ivan Court insists that the projects be staged so as to avoid boom-and-bust employment cycles. “The refinery will need 10,000 people to construct, but only 1,000 on completion,” he says. “It’s vital that the projects are timed so that one follows after another, allowing the people who build them to stay in our community over the long haul.”

With Canaport and an associated gas pipeline nearing completion, Saint John is already undergoing a renaissance. “Saint John has become a community that’s beginning to feel the wind in its sails,” says Mr. Curry.”

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