Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oil politics requires some grease

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The National Energy Board says a pipeline from Alberta's oilsands through B.C.'s mountains to the West Coast is in Canada's best interests and it has given a green light for the project to proceed, subject to some 200 conditions.

The board's ruling, however, is only the end of the beginning of a long, complicated process to get Alberta's oil to market.

The federal government has six months to respond to the decision. It says it will consult with First Nations communities, who are universally opposed because they are not prepared to accept even a minimal risk of an oil spill.

The danger to their land is too great, they say, but there is also fierce opposition to the expansion of tanker traffic along the coast.

The wall of opposition is so deep, so intransigent, the Northern Gateway project seems doomed to fail. If the government decides to proceed, it would be hit with a phalanx of lawsuits, demonstrations, civil disobedience and howls of outcry from environmentalists far and wide.

Some of the opposition is coming from those who believe the oilsands should be shut down because they are an ugly blight and contribute to climate change; others don't like pipelines of any type because they scar the terrain and interfere with wildlife, while still others believe oil is the source of all evil.

A majority of British Columbians (57 per cent) said in a poll they would support the project if it received approval from the energy board, but pipeline politics is an exercise in the rights of special interests, not democracy.

Most Canadians recognize oil is a valuable resource that adds billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the economy.

Enbridge's Northern Gateway, for example, represents a $6.5-billion investment that would create 3,000 jobs during construction and 560 permanent jobs in B.C.

First Nation bands have been offered a 10 per cent risk-free equity stake in the project, as well as skills training and job opportunities, but at this point it seems no enticement will be enough as long as there is the slightest risk of an oil spill.

Enbridge has promised the highest standards in pipeline and tanker safety, but it cannot promise that human error or equipment malfunction will never happen.

In fact, the company has had several pipeline ruptures or spills over the years, a record that has not encouraged public confidence.

Currently, 99 per cent of Alberta's bitumen is sold at discount prices to the United States because there are no other ways to move large volumes of the black gold to market. As the only major customer, the Americans have a lot of leverage in negotiating the price.

It's clearly in Canada's economic interest to diversify its markets, but every avenue -- east, west and south -- is facing challenges.

TransCanada's Keystone XL plan to expand its southern network is stalled in the United States, while TransCanada Pipelines' Energy East proposal to move Alberta's crude to eastern Canada by pipeline is still in the early stages, and there are already signs it could be in for a rough ride in parts of the country, where some First Nations have raised concerns about possible contamination of their water supplies.

The line currently moves natural gas, but oil easily ignites opposition.

The government will eventually have to find a way for Alberta's oil to be transported to market. Rail movement is not as safe or efficient, so ultimately a pipeline is the only real solution.

Whether the route is west or east, the government will eventually have to upset someone's apple cart.

The issue is not climate change, carbon emissions or the effect of the oilsands on Alberta's landscape, which are separate and unrelated matters. The real question is whether Canada is prepared to develop its natural resources and market the bounty in a responsible way for the good of all.

Surely that must be possible.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 A16

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