Northern Gateway fights for its lifeHappy New Year! When January comes around my thoughts turn to where we stand with various pipeline projects in terms of progress. So to Canada, where Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal has received approval from regulators, albeit with some 200 or so conditions. An independent panel of the National Energy Board (NEB) confirmed in December that it considered the project of benefit to the Canadian people. After this greenlight, you’d think I would be predicting the Cdn$ 6.5 billion Northern Gateway project as a definite Go! in 2014 (as now all that remains is approval from pro-pipeline Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet) but some serious obstacles remain.
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Going West is a problem, for starters. Linking Alberta’s oilsands all the way to the B.C. port of Kitimat in order to ship tankers to Asia would require 1177 km of newly-built pipeline crossing Canada east to west. The route includes traditional Aboriginal territories and has garnered fierce opposition from First Nations communities.
Geography is a key stumbling block for this project and what must be avoided is environmental trench warfare over issues of land and, tagged onto that, climate change and carbon emissions (see Keystone XL). As we have seen with KXL: the argument over carbon emissions is not about the method of transport, but about the extraction of the resource in the first place. The oilsands will be exploited regardless of whether Northern Gateway is built: therefore the carbon footprint argument is null. Admittedly, Harper’s government would do well to shift the lazy reputation it holds with regard to environmental issues, but this should not damage Enbridge’s project.
Another flashpoint is safety, with critics highlighting the risk of pipeline or tanker spills. From Kitimat, the bitumen is to be shipped down the Douglas Channel by tanker, to the ocean. The pipeline would transport 525 000 bpd, which would translate to an extra 220 tankers per year.
NEB conditions include a marine mammal protection plan and research into heavy oil cleanup. They also include the setting aside of Cdn$ 950 million in liability coverage. In addition, Enbridge has announced that it will now use an independent verifier for its pipeline integrity, leak detection and public safety reporting, starting with its 2013 data. An independent verifier will ensure Enbridge’s existing risk management plan is transparent and effective. Enbridge President and CEO Al Monaco stated in a news release: “We are being challenged to achieve unprecedented levels of performance in safety and environmental protection.”
Enbridge has already promised to make the Northern Gateway pipeline safer than any other new built pipeline, with Cdn$ 500 million worth of spill-prevention technologies, including thicker pipe at river crossings and staffing pump stations 24 hours a day. At sea, Enbridge is employing land-based radar, double-hulled tankers, and a rule that every tanker is escorted by two tugs (one tethered) to lessen the risk of a vessel running aground, and piloted by two captains.
Finally, let’s turn to political motivations. Northern Gateway has the support of the Conservatives and, to quote Chantal Hebert, National Affairs writer for the Toronto Star: “a federal government that has earned the well-deserved reputation of never having met a pipeline that it did not want to embrace.”1 Liberal and New Democrat opposition, bolstered by that of a coalition of environmentalist and First Nations groups, will presumably grow in the run up to the 2015 federal election. New Democrat Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair has predicted that the project will never be completed. Opponents are calling for legal, political and direct action to stop the pipeline.
The federal government has about five months left in which to make its decision. It is gearing up for an intense few months of consultation with aboriginal communities to try to win their support, or face a likely First Nations court challenge: