OTTAWA - Within weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will make a decision that could plunge the federal Conservatives into the fiercest environmental clash ever seen in Canada.
The cabinet is about to deliver a yes-or-no verdict on the hotly-contested plan to pipe 500,000 barrels a day of oilsands-derived crude from Alberta through the Rockies to the British Columbia coast for export on oil tankers.
The decision on the proposed $6.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline looms as one of the most momentous in eight years of power for Harper, whose government has given cabinet the final say on whether such projects should go ahead.
For Canadians, the fate of the pipeline looms as a crossroads in a national drama that could determine Canada’s role as an energy-rich nation in a world trying to balance rising power demands with the dangers of climate change.
Opponents of the Northern Gateway are worried about environmental damage from the proposed 1,172-kilometre pipeline, which passes through some of the most prized wilderness lands in Canada and affects 45 First Nations communities along its route. And many environmentalists are against oilsands pipelines, which they see as enabling increased greenhouse gas emissions by expanding oilsands production.
But even before regulatory hearings on the proposed Gateway pipeline began in early 2012, the government made no secret of its belief that building it was in Canada’s national interest. Opponents were tarred as foreign-financed radicals trying to “hijack” the approval process and scupper a project of benefit to Canada’s economy.
Two years later, however, opposition in British Columbia to Gateway — which would for the first time bring oil tankers to the pristine northern B.C. coast — has gathered such potent political force that some insiders expect the Harper government to approve the pipeline — but only if certain conditions are met. The added conditions might have the effect of putting off construction until after the expected 2015 federal election, long enough to protect Conservative seats in B.C., observers speculate.
“The public opposition here is just incredible, and add to that a lot of First Nations legal standing in the North and you have quite a recipe for a difficult path if you want to force this thing through,” said Hannah McKinnon, national program manager for Environmental Defence in B.C.
Those fighting against more oil pipelines on the West Coast point to the so-called War in the Woods, where 800 people were arrested in 1993 in a successful campaign to prevent clear-cut logging in Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island. That, environmentalists say, would only be a preview of the civil disobedience Enbridge Inc. would face if it tries to build Gateway.
Of those opposed to the planned pipeline to the northern B.C. coast, McKinnon says, “They are willing to go to great lengths, and I mean, anyone who has visited any of that pipeline route plus the tanker route that is being proposed, they don’t need to be convinced that that is a recipe for disaster.”
In its current deliberations, the Harper cabinet represents the final step in the approval process after the National Energy Board (NEB) announced preliminary approval of Gateway in December.
While declining to touch on details of Gateway, Harper has left little doubt where he stands on pipeline development. In January, for instance, discussing aboriginal concerns surrounding these projects, he went so far as to say natural resources development may be the last chance for First Nations to have access to the funds needed to address their social issues.
“If handled correctly, this is an unprecedented opportunity for aboriginal people and their communities to join the mainstream of the Canadian economy — without which, in my judgment, we won’t make progress on all of the other things, the social issues, that we need to make progress on in those communities,” Harper told a Vancouver business audience.
While welcomed by the industry, the NEB’s provisional approval of Gateway, which followed months of hearings dominated by those who oppose the project, only whipped up more controversy over Enbridge’s plans.
In recognition of the public mood in B.C., Enbridge chief executive Al Monaco said on May 7 that the company would not move ahead with construction of the pipeline right away even if Ottawa grants final approval. He said the company has to do more to address opposition to the project from “some of the aboriginal groups and stakeholders along the right of way.”
Pipeline politics have been an eye-opener for all involved recently. And many observers on all sides of the debate over these projects agree the corporate sponsors and the federal government failed to realize the importance of building social licence among the public.
“Oil tried to change the culture — not only of B.C., but of this country,” Coastal First Nations executive director Art Sterrit said in an interview. “People had a lot of pride in our environmental laws and industry was able to work within them. But to absolutely turn around and pave the road for these pipelines, as opposed to making them earn their social licence, people are not going to accept that,” he said.
“You’ve reached a point in B.C. right now where people are saying, ‘The federal government doesn’t have a licence to do whatever it wants,’ ” Sterrit remarked. “This is still a democracy and a majority of British Columbians are against Northern Gateway.”
Besides dozens of First Nations, the forces aligned against Enbridge’s planned line to the West Coast include environmentalists, local governments and the British Columbia government, which has set out a number of conditions — including world-class tanker safety and spill cleanup provisions and a revenue stream for B.C. from Gateway — that the project must meet.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said recently she doesn’t know if the project will get built or not.
“The five conditions are in place,” she told reporters during a visit to Ottawa. B.C. demands are meant to ensure the province is protected environmentally and receives some financial benefits in exchange for the risks of the pipeline through the province, she said, adding “it’s hard for me to predict the outcome” of the Gateway proposal.
Enbridge spokesperson Ivan Giesbrecht said the company is aware it has work to do to move ahead with the pipeline even if Ottawa gives it a thumbs-up. “Government approval is one thing, but you know, I think Enbridge and its partners have made it clear they understand that engaging with First Nations is a priority,” he told the Star.
For the Harper government, which has built its economic policy around expanding the oilsands and increasing petroleum exports, Gateway has taken on more urgency than ever. That’s because the planned $5.4-billion Keystone XL pipeline into the United States, proposed by Calgary-based TransCanada Corp., remains very much in limbo.
Over the years, Harper has tried everything to force a decision on Keystone. The federal Conservatives once informed U.S. President Barack Obama that approval was a “no-brainer,” later implored him to decide regardless of the outcome and more recently accused him of ducking a decision on the highly controversial project for political reasons. But Keystone remains bogged down, with no decision expected any time soon.
Besides raising the stakes for Gateway, the holdup with Keystone has increased focus on the proposed $5.4-billion expansion of Texas-based Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain line to carry oilsands-derived crude from Alberta to a port near Vancouver.
But Trans Mountain has also touched off intense protests and opposition. It faces tough scrutiny about spill prevention, accident cleanups, socio-economic impacts and possible climate change impacts from the B.C. government, the city of Vancouver and other municipalities worried about the risks associated with oilsands-derived crude and more tanker arrivals.
Much attention has thus turned to another proposal, TransCanada’s planned $12-billion Energy East pipeline. The 4,600-kilometre line would carry 1.1 million barrels of oil a day from Alberta to export terminals and refineries in Eastern Canada. Much of it would be done by converting an existing natural gas conduit.
Public opposition, in varying degrees, has grown up around all these potential lines, and there is a widespread conviction that Ottawa and the industry must work considerably harder to address public concerns.
“We need sensible environmental policies, as well as recognizing the fundamental need for balance between growth and sustainability,” former prime minister Brian Mulroney said in a recent speech.
“Most of all, we need a principled partnership with First Nations and between Ottawa and the provinces that moves beyond past grievances toward future opportunities,” Mulroney added. “Without these partners’ active involvement and enthusiastic co-operation, Canada’s natural resources will just remain in the ground.”
The Harper government has changed its tune since the days when then-natural resources minister Joe Oliver was disparaging opponents of pipelines.
Trying to ready the way for possible projects in B.C., Ottawa has recently announced tougher rules for pipelines and tanker operators, as well as opening a federal office in B.C. meant to co-ordinate development discussions with industry and natives.
“Aboriginal Peoples must be a partner in everything we do,” Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford says. “From ensuring the safety of our pipeline systems, protecting our marine environment from incidents and sharing in benefits of resource development, we are willing to walk with them on this journey.”
But B.C. First Nations by all accounts remain overwhelmingly opposed to this and similar projects.
Chief Vern Jacks of the Tsecum First Nation on Vancouver Island says aboriginals are determined to block any pipeline that brings more oil tankers.
“It only takes one accident,” he told the Star. “Look at Alaska, they’re still affected today,” he added in a reference to ongoing efforts to deal with the pollution from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. “This is what we don’t want. We’re preventing it from happening.”