CALGARY — It comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone the federal government approved construction of the contentious Northern Gateway pipeline, a vessel that would carry Alberta’s bitumen to hungry Asian markets.
These are the federal Conservatives, after all, who enjoy enduring popular support in Alberta and Saskatchewan, where healthy resource industries have almost single-handedly kept the national economy afloat while central Canadian manufacturing swoons.
Even so, approval was no cake-walk; it comes with a mind-boggling 209 conditions which, taken collectively, will make this the most regulated, environmentally sensitive and safest industrial project ever undertaken in this country.
Now things get interesting. Because we are about to find out whether a massive capital project — one that is arguably vital to the long-term economic health of the country, that has been poked and prodded and turned inside out, that has won the carefully considered stamp of approval from the independent regulator — can be forced on a city and province that have said they don’t want it.
Think this approval was a whitewash? Let’s consider a few of the facts behind the decision.
On the question of whether the people of B.C. were consulted, there have been 17,000 encounters with stakeholders and aboriginal groups, more than 400 community presentations; 80 open houses; 15 rounds of community advisory board meetings and more. Pipeline proponent Enbridge has committed to maintaining the engagement post-approval and will liaise constantly on environmental management and emergency preparedness.
On the regulator, the independent joint review panel reviewed 175,000 pages of evidence; heard from 80 expert witnesses and 1,100 Canadians. There were 180 days of hearings in 21 communities, resulting in the 209 conditions.
On environmental concerns, Northern Gateway has added $500 million in safety enhancements, including 20 per cent thicker steel for the pipe, additional isolation valves, and 24/7 staffing of remote pump stations. Nearly three-quarters of the pipeline’s route is on previously disturbed land. In terms of habitat, Northern Gateway will restore four hectares of caribou habitat for every hectare disturbed. Enbridge has committed to leaving habitat better than the way it found it. And, for the first time in Canadian history, the scope was increased to encompass marine transportation and includes mitigation measures to minimize the impact on marine mammals.
There is more, much more, to what Enbridge has committed to do. And, if you want to accuse anyone of being disingenuous, how about the B.C. government, whose "five conditions" for approval have effectively been met, but it is still unsatisfied.
Nope, logic would tell you that this project has been examined like nothing in history. Will there be some disruption? Yes, there will. But B.C., the majority of the aboriginal communities, and the country will be better off with the pipeline than without. Those are the words of the regulator, not just me.
And yet the resistance is stiffened. Why? Because this isn’t really about the pipeline at all. It’s about what the pipeline would carry — bitumen from Alberta’s "dirty" oilsands.
As Erin Flanagan, of the Pembina Institute, said in a statement condemning the approval: "Approving pipeline infrastructure that incents further oilsands expansion is not in the public interest in the absence of credible regulations to curb the growth of carbon pollution from the sector."
Couldn’t be clearer — the opposition wants to stop Northern Gateway because it’s a way to slow down the oilsands, not because the aboriginal communities don’t all agree with it or because Kitimat, B.C., is worried about tankers in Douglas Channel. Those are mere sidebars to the main story.
Which explains why Enbridge could promise a new Eden, gilded with community and social benefits that would reshape the economy of central B.C. — wait! Isn’t that what it did? — and still it wouldn’t be enough to convince the anti-oilsands warriors to lay down their arms.
And so, we’re headed to the courts. And the blockades. The next couple of years will be a powerful test of wills.
Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.