Titanic clash looms over proposed Northern Gateway pipeline

Toronto Star January 9, 2012

The Enbridge proposal involves 1,177 kilometers of pipeline across northern BC

OTTAWA—A biologist, an energy lawyer and an aboriginal geologist will sit down Tuesday in a recreation centre in the wilderness of northern British Columbia to initiate what could be the fiercest environmental standoff ever seen in Canada.

Before the hearings in B.C. and Alberta are completed next year, more than 4,000 people are expected to appear before the three-member panel vetting the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta through the Rockies to the B.C. coast.

Like the now-stalled Keystone XL project in the United States, the planned pipeline to carry tarsands-derived crude oil across the mountains to a new supertanker port in northern B.C. is shaping up as a titanic clash of economic and environmental imperatives.

Read more: Harper government steps up attack on environmentalists over pipeline issue

Fear of pipeline leaks or a tanker spill that would foul some of the world’s most pristine forests and coastal areas has already galvanized unprecedented concern in the green movement, with some groups calling it the “defining environmental battle” of modern times. The army of opponents includes environmentalists from around North America, more than 100 aboriginal groups and thousands of other B.C. citizens. Star power will also be brought into play from the likes of Robert Redford and Leonardo DiCaprio.

On the other side of the issue stand powerful oil interests touting such a pipeline as a crucial nation-building project that will enable Canada to cash in on its tarsands reserves by gaining access to energy-hungry China. Among its supporters, the industry counts none other than Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has staked much of his government’s energy strategy on finding new markets for oilsands crude.

Beginning Tuesday in the Haisla First Nation of Kitamaat village near the B.C. coast, the independent federal review panel — biologist Sheila Legget, energy lawyer Kenneth Bateman and aboriginal geologist Hans Matthews — will amass evidence to give a yes or no verdict on the pipeline. The review will decide if the $5.5 billion project is in Canada’s public interest and whether it meets federal environmental safety regulations, with a report expected in late 2013.

That’s a year later than the Harper government would have liked, but the panel had to make time to hear from the thousands of people who asked to present their views.

This outpouring of interest in the hearings was partly facilitated by green activists, who used social media to help sign up people to testify. The Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative alone takes credit for facilitating testimony by 1,600 of the 4,000-plus people who are stepping forward to comment on the proposed pipeline.

“It’s all kinds of people,” explains Eric Swanson, who heads the Dogwood Initiative’s campaign to keep oil supertankers away from B.C.’s northern coast. “Ever since we started on this campaign, we’ve had people of all political stripes and backgrounds supporting our proposals to protect the coast from oil tankers.”

“For most British Columbians, this is about the coast, about oil tankers and about spills, emotionally and politically,” he said in an interview. More than 68,000 people have signed a petition to ban tankers from the province’s northern ports, Swanson added. “How big a fight does Stephen Harper want to pick?”

Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway is designed to carry 500,000 barrels a day of oil sands-derived crude from a terminal near Edmonton across the Rockies to Kitimat on the B.C. coast, where about 200 supertankers annually would dock to take on the petroleum for export to the U.S. and Asia.

The 1,172-kilometre line, which would cross hundreds of rivers and streams and pass through a region renowned for its salmon, wolves, bears and other wildlife, is seen as a threat to the environment and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. It has sparked an eruption of opposition among aboriginals, who maintain the project must be stopped at almost any cost.

“The Enbridge pipeline would risk an oil spill into our rivers and lands that would destroy our food supply, our livelihoods and our cultures,” said Chief Larry Nooski of Nadleh Whut’en First Nation in B.C. “Our laws do not permit crude oil pipelines into our territories. This project isn’t going anywhere.”

Asked in an interview if he would resort to civil disobedience if necessary, he said, “There are options such as going out on the land and standing in front of the graders and things like that and court is obviously another consideration.”

But for the moment, Nooski said natives opposed to Northern Gateway see the federal review process as a possible way to block the project. “We’re hoping with the participation of other First Nations in the review process, it would convince the regulators to really seriously consider the options and finally say no to something that could be devastating to B.C. and Canada.”

In December, 130 aboriginal groups in B.C. said they were joining forces to use “whatever means necessary” to stop the project.

While environmentalists say nothing alarms British Columbians like the prospect of giant oil tankers plying the water of the province’s northern coast, Enbridge cites a recent Ipsos Reid poll as proof that the public sees the benefits of the project.

Forty-eight per cent of those polled said they support or “strongly” support the Northern Gateway proposal, with 32 per cent of respondents opposing it.

“British Columbians are much more open-minded on the project than our opponents would have people believe, and I think that’s good context going into the public hearings,” Enbridge spokesman Paul Stanway said.

The company says the project would provide extensive benefits in B.C., including 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term positions, plus $1.2 billion in provincial revenues over 30 years. Enbridge has also offered native communities an estimated $380 million in revenues over the life of the project through an ownership stake and contributions to a community trust fund.

The industry sees the pipeline as a way to open up vital new markets for Canada’s energy products. Lack of more competitive options is costing producers billions of dollars a year in lost revenues, analysts say. And the delay of the Keystone pipeline to carry oil sands-derived crude to U.S. markets has underscored the need for diversification, particularly to Asia, says Brenda Kenny, head of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association.

“Up until now, Canadian energy resources have flowed just to Canadian markets or U.S. markets,” she said in an interview. “And there’s always an advantage to any country if they can enhance their trade relations with a broader and more diverse group of trading nations. The Keystone XL delay certainly put a sharp point on the perils of having just one trading partner.”

Harper fully agrees and has stepped up his support for a pipeline to access Asian buyers since U.S. President Barack Obama put the Keystone project on hold.

Besides Northern Gateway, Kinder Morgan Canada is considering providing expanded access for oilsands crude to overseas shipment by enlarging its existing Trans Mountain pipeline, which currently stretches 1,150 kilometres from Alberta to Burnaby, B.C.

In the global context, the issue pits industry and the Harper government, which says exploiting Canada’s abundant oil sands is vital for prosperity, against environmentalists who argue projects like Northern Gateway enable more production of “dirty oil.”

“There is an effort in both Canada and the U.S. to make sure there is a good public understanding of the many problems with tar sands oil and the pipelines that would transport tar sands oil,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a director of the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

“This is a high priority and we’re very concerned about any major tar sands pipeline proposal, whether it’s in Canada or the U.S.,” she said.

The NRDC has 1.3 million members including Redford, who wrote an opinion piece for a Canadian newspaper in November telling Canadians that American green activists will “stand by you” to fight Northern Gateway.

Harper said Friday his government respects the independence of the Northern Gateway regulatory review. But, noting the holdup by Obama of the Keystone proposal, Harper said, “I think it is particularly essential for this country that, over time, we have the capacity to sell our energy products into the growing markets of Asia.”

A long and bitter fight lies ahead before a decision is reached by the joint review panel on whether Enbridge’s proposed pipeline should go ahead. Canadians got a taste of the controversy to come when Harper accused environmentalists supported by “foreign money” of trying to hijack the regulatory hearings on Northern Gateway. His stance reflects the position taken by a pro-industry website, EthicalOil.org, which has mounted a campaign to have what it calls the “puppets” of foreign environmental interests blocked from testifying at the Northern Gateway review.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver reinforced the message Sunday. Asked on CTV’sQuestion Period about the use of Hollywood star power to challenge pipeline proposals, Oliver said the government is concerned “that people from the U.S. are coming here with very large environmental footprints to lecture Canadians on what we should do with our resources.”

Referring to EthicalOil.org, Greenpeace Canada climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema responded, “No one should be fooled by this well-orchestrated campaign by multinational oil companies, their phony front group and the Harper government to silence the opposition to these pipelines and the expansion of the tarsands that they enable.

“The oil industry’s own polling shows that there are millions of Canadians opposed to this new tarsands pipeline,” Hudema said, “and they have a right to be heard, not disenfranchised by some kind of U.S. Republican-style smear campaign.

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