Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are courting a firestorm of fury by giving the nod to Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway pipeline. Deliberately muted as the government’s long-expected announcement was, the pushback is already fierce, and growing.
New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair has denounced the project as “pure madness,” and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau calls it “discouraging.” Both have vowed to kill the pipeline if they form a government after next year’s federal election.
The Conservatives have staked their political fortunes on positioning Canada as an “energy superpower” by shipping Alberta’s crude oil to thirsty international markets. And Enbridge’s $8-billion pipeline is one way of doing it. Unfortunately for the Tories, it’s also shaping up to be the most problematic way.
A solid majority of British Columbia residents, fully 67 per cent, wanted Harper to reject the 1,177-km line from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat, B.C., or at least delay it, a recent Bloomberg/Nanos poll found. Just 29 per cent wanted it built. That could hurt the Tories’ prospects in B.C., where they hold 21 seats. People worry, with good reason, about a supertanker foundering in the treacherous coastal waters and fouling the coastline, or a calamitous pipeline rupture in some of the country’s most pristine wilderness.
Mulcair predicted that the hotly contested project will prove to be “a severe threat to social order” as groups mobilize to fight it. Unfortunately, he may be right.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark says the project still hasn’t met conditions she has laid down, including ensuring that B.C. gets a “fair share” of benefits. Residents of Kitimat, where Enbridge’s deepwater marine terminal would be located, voted No in a plebiscite earlier this year. Many First Nations groups are opposed, and are mobilizing to tie up the project in the courts. Environmentalists are also up in arms; they see the exploitation of Alberta’s oilsands as bad for climate change.
Granted, Harper would have been hard-put to nix Northern Gateway, given how hard he lobbied U.S. President Barack Obama to approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline. And Harper has declared Gateway to be of “vital interest” to this country. But that can be said of all pipelines.
After the Lac-Mégantic calamity few would dispute that Canada should be relying more on pipelines and less on rail. The exponential growth of rail traffic carrying crude and other volatile products through built-up areas has triggered real concern. Canadian policy makers and regulators have neglected our pipeline needs for years.
Enbridge isn’t insensitive to public concerns. Company president Al Monaco has acknowledged the need to continue “building trust” with stakeholders along the proposed route before construction begins, even after getting a green light. The project has also been vetted and given a conditional stamp of approval by a panel run by the National Energy Board and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
But Northern Gateway is not the only route that can ship crude from landlocked Alberta to ports, and the opposition is right in saying it shouldn’t be the priority one.
Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project to Burnaby, B.C., is a better alternative. So is TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline linking Alberta’s fields to refineries and tanker terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick. And of course, TransCanada’s Keystone XL, if approved, would link Alberta fields to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast.
All are preferable routes, given the political opposition that is coalescing against the Northern Gateway project, the perception of risk associated with it and the ecological concerns. This green light is risky and unwise.