Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's time B.C. took a deep breath of pipeline issue

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British Columbians have legitimate concerns about the Northern Gateway proposal. But they shouldn't altogether reject the idea of transporting oil to the coast.

Right now, any such discussion is complicated by a provincial election slated for next May, with Liberal Premier Christy Clark and New Democratic Party Leader Adrian Dix playing politics with the issue.

Just as a U.S. election is delaying a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, so any debate about transporting oil to the West Coast should be shelved until spring.

That would provide a badly needed "time out" in the fight over Northern Gateway.

I can recall living in Newfoundland during the 1980s when everyone was debating the prospect of offshore oil development.

Some argued vehemently a petroleum industry would destroy Newfoundland's fish stocks, the lifeblood of the local economy.

As it turned out, it was fishermen, not oil workers, who destroyed the cod stocks. Oil development has been a godsend for the province and did not harm the fishery.

Are British Columbians similarly being too pessimistic about Northern Gateway?

Maybe. But it appears Enbridge is promoting a route and tanker port that's most cost-effective instead of being most environmentally sound or most respectful of aboriginal concerns.

And based on Enbridge testimony delivered to a federal review panel in Prince George last week, the project lacks the oversight, cleanup and insurance components sufficient to give comfort to a nervous B.C. public.

Meanwhile, Ottawa is being criticized for failing to properly consult with affected aboriginal groups in a process separate and apart from the federal review.

No one should expect B.C. to rubber-stamp a project it views as high-risk and of modest benefit.

But there are reasons why the province should keep an open mind about transporting bitumen to the Pacific.

The fact is, transshipment of resources across provinces is a part of doing business in any country.

B.C. certainly covets its right to ship its own resources east, across Alberta.

The province also should recognize the national importance of getting oilsands product to a port on the coast -- something that would enable Canada to access world prices for a depleting resource.

The oilsands, located in a landlocked province, benefit not just Alberta.

B.C. has received, and stands to gain in future, six per cent of all oilsands employment -- 112,000 jobs today, growing to 500,000 over the next 25 years.

According to a July report by the Canadian Energy Research Institute, the pipeline project to the coast would generate for B.C. incremental GDP of $5.1 billion. B.C. could use the economic activity.

A report last week from the Bank of Montreal Financial Group warns that B.C.'s housing market "has finally shown evidence of a real slowdown. ... There's no longer any doubt that a correction is underway in Vancouver."

And prospects are dimming in B.C.'s natural gas sector. These things will have an impact on the province's economy.

Nationally, economic growth has been led by the Western provinces -- no surprise, largely because of the resource sector.

None of which is to say British Columbians should embrace the Enbridge project. The company has done a poor job of convincing B.C. residents the pipeline is in their interest.

The best starting point next spring for a renewed debate about transporting oil across B.C. would be an open-minded consideration of routes that would be the least damaging and disruptive (and ways to incentivize companies to propose such routes).

We also need a discussion of mechanisms and safeguards that could be put in place to ensure the safest possible transport options.

So far, this hasn't been tried.

Barbara Yaffe is a columnist for the Vancouver Sun.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 17, 2012 A13

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