OTTAWA - Years of social disruptions by environmentalists and First Nations, lengthy court battles and a possible stand-off between Ottawa and British Columbia lie ahead after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approval of the fiercely contested Northern Gateway pipeline.
The long-awaited decision, which is in keeping with the Conservatives’ plan to expand Canada’s role as a global energy exporter, has lit the fuse on an unprecedented political clash between opponents of Northern Gateway and its backers.
Opposition to the proposed $7.9-billion conduit to carry oilsands-derived crude from Alberta across the Rockies to an export terminal in Kitimat, B.C., where it would be loaded on supertankers, has been gathering force for years.
Polls have found a majority of B.C. residents oppose Northern Gateway and both environmental organizations and First Nations are mounting legal challenges to Northern Gateway. Failing that, opponents of the pipeline say there is no shortage of people willing to engage in civil disobedience to block construction.
“You have every right to feel anger and frustration with the federal decision, but do not let that immobilize you,” Kelsey Mech, director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, said in a message to supporters. “Many options remain to stop these pipeline projects in their tracks, including public pressure, corporate campaigns, community resistance and creative direct action.”
“We will do whatever is necessary” to stop Northern Gateway, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, head of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, told CBC-TV when asked if aboriginals would personally try to halt construction. Phillip pointed out that protests against Harper’s greenlighting of the pipeline were scheduled to start right away in Vancouver.
The decision by the federal cabinet, which in 2012 took on the power to make final rulings on energy projects, was announced by Natural Resource Minister Greg Rickford.
“Today constitutes another step in the process” of developing the pipeline, Rickford said in a statement. But “the proponent clearly has more work to do in order to fulfill the public commitment it has made to engage with aboriginal groups and local communities along the route.”
Enbridge will also have to obtain regulatory permits and authorizations from federal and provincial governments, Rickford said.
“Moving forward, the proponent (Enbridge) must demonstrate to the independent regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB), how it will meet the 209 conditions,” he said. In December, when the NEB gave tentative approval for the pipeline, it issued a long list of conditions with which Enbridge must comply.
Reaction to the decision was heated. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair said proceeding with Northern Gateway is risking political turmoil. “We’re talking about a severe threat to social order, social peace, not only within British Columbia but across Canada,” he said.
“(Harper) has eviscerated environmental legislation in Canada and he’s going to pay the price socially.”
He predicted the Tories could also pay a political price when B.C. residents show their anger at the polls next year.
“This is already an election issue in British Columbia,” Mulcair said, adding that the 21 Conservative MPs from the province are “hiding under desks.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took aim at the NEB review of the project, saying the regulatory approval process has become “politicized” by Harper and that instead of acting as an impartial arbiter, the Conservative government had been pushing the project for years.
“This current government has been nothing but a cheerleader for this pipeline from the very beginning when Canadians needed a referee,” he said.
Mulcair and Trudeau promised an NDP or Liberal government would nullify Harper’s go-ahead for Northern Gateway.
Opponents of the pipeline worry about environmental damage along the 1,172-km pipeline route, which passes through some of the most pristine wilderness in Canada, and the risk of an oil spill on the northern B.C. coast. And many environmentalists are against oilsands pipelines, which they see as enabling extra greenhouse gas emissions. Besides First Nations and environmentalist, the pipeline has run into opposition from municipalities and the B.C. government.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said, “This project is not going ahead; it will be stopped by British Columbians.”
In the Commons earlier Tuesday, Harper brushed aside calls for the government to reject Northern Gateway.
“The process we have in our government, in terms of environmental evaluations, we establish independent expert panels that follow a public and scientific process,” Harper said. “We’ve received a report from that process and we will make a decision, obviously, based on the facts.”
Enbridge CEO Al Monaco issued a statement welcoming the decision. But he said, “We have more work ahead of us” to meet the conditions set out by the NEB and the B.C. government and to engage with aboriginal communities along the pipeline right-of-way.