What do the Northern Gateway Project and the NEP have in common?
I think everybody in Canada has heard of the NEP. In essence, Pierre Trudeau dreamed up a scheme which suppressed crude oil prices paid to producers in Alberta, in order to subsidise energy costs to central Canada. It was an arbitrary, and naked attempt to seize the resource riches of Alberta. When questioned by reporters on how it affected Alberta’s interests (the energy industry), PET essentially shrugged his shoulders and responded that he did not care, Albertans didn’t vote for him….The NEP has remained a cause celebre in Alberta. I suspect that mothers must raise their children on stories of the big bad Liberals, and that if the kids don’t behave, the NEP is gonna get them. The mythic proportions continue to this day, despite the fact that the NEP was repealed with a stroke of a pen 3 decades ago. And that was the key to the power of the NEP legend. It was uni-lateral, it had a profound impact on Alberta’s flagship industry, and it gifted one region at the expense of another. For the Conservatives, it has been the gift that keeps on giving, essentially cementing their control of Alberta in place for two generations (and counting).
Fast forward thirty years, and history is in the process of repeating itself. Enbridge`s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline to a new Kitimat Oil Tanker Terminal has all the ingredients of the NEP, with the added insult that no stroke of a pen will be able to reverse it once the pipeline and tanker terminal are constructed. The pipeline and terminal will create several thousand jobs during the construction period, and subsequently a few hundred permanent local jobs to operate said pipeline and terminal. Those are the benefits to British Columbia, and they are pretty meagre. The lions share of the benefits will be felt for a few years at most, and those construction jobs will be long forgotten when the costs to BC start rising over time.
As far as British Columbians are concerned, those benefits need to be contrasted to the risks. The obvious and predictable risk is that there will be ongoing leaks and spills along the course of the Northern Gateway pipeline itself. I don’t think that there is any doubt that there will be breakages and spills over the years. As recent events have demonstrated, leaks like yesterdays Red Deer river spill, or last weeks muskeg spill in Alberta, happen all the time. These examples are in far less challenging environments than a pipeline through the Rocky Mountains with the attendant risks of seismic activity, falling rocks, avalanches etc. According to a number of different sources, the proposed pipeline route crosses approximately 1,000 streams and rivers, which aggravates the risks dramatically. You see, streams and rivers are a natural conduit to spread oil spills, and the rapidly spreading oil can cause irreparable damage to local eco-systems that centre around fresh running water.
Then there is the risk of a Tanker accident, with the potential to utterly destroy fisheries, tourism, and extinguish life along hundreds of kilometers of shoreline of the fjords leading to Kitimat. We have heard about just how wonderfully safe modern Tankers are, but it would take a hell of a sales job to convince me that manoeuvering a massive tanker through shoals, tides, and hairpin turns for hundreds of kilometers is safe. With half a million barrels per day being shipped, there will be a number of Oil tankers navigating the sound at any given time, whatever the state of the weather and tides. There are numerous sources for finely reasoned arguments about the dangers, but the most telling challenge came in the form of a narrative Op-Ed piece in the Vancouver Sun. Op-ed: Pipeline thoughts from an old Sea Captain.
SO back to my theme and title, Will the project be the Conservatives NEP style gift to British Columbia? The ingredients are all there. The omnibus ‘budget bill’ C-38 contains provisions designed to stifle opponents to the proposed Pipeline Environmental assessments. The direct economic and health risks of any catastrophe will be borne by all coastal inhabitants in BC. The Canadian Taxpayer will be on the hook for literally tens of billions of cleanup costs in the event of a worst case tanker accident. Criticism of the proposal, and the revised environmental approval hearings will be limited to people who are directly in the path of the pipeline, or those whose economic interests are ‘directly affected’, which determination is to be made by the Harper Cabinet. This is a transparent ploy to reduce the number of people who need to be co-opted in the approval. The main beneficiary of the pipeline is not Enbridge, it is the Tar Sands producers and the province of Alberta. They will add approximately $50 million per day in additional export capacity, but more importantly to them, it will enhance their bargaining position with US refiners of Tar Sands crude. As at this moment, their US customers pay a big discount for Alberta`s bitumen products. The second Alberta has an alternative customer, they can re-direct the flow of bitumen to Asian markets if the American refiners will not meet a world market price. If Alberta can secure market prices for their synthetic crude, it will add tens of billions of dollars in NET profits annually to bitumen exporters, and government coffers. It will be apparent to British Columbians that Alberta benefitted enormously, while they bore the risks. More to the point for politicians, the risks will almost certainly be driven home again and again over the years. Every time there is a pipeline leak, or a release at the terminal, there will be graphic reminders of the costs. People up and down the coast will become, and remain embittered for the rest of their lives. In the event that there were a catastrophic tanker accident, the public reaction will be epic. I think that the fall-out from the NEP would pale by comparison. Can you imagine British Columbia`s reaction should the entire economy, and coastal ecology of BC be destroyed to serve the economic interests of Alberta, and big foreign-owned oil companies?
There are certain to be court challenges to this proposal at every stage. There are going to be a whole lot of protests, and they will be getting bigger and more vocal as we get closer to a cabinet decision on the Northern Gateway. Make no mistake, this will be bitterly contested and will go on for a long, long time. If the Conservatives continue to follow their chosen course, I find it likely that they will be obliterated in British Columbia in the near term, (the 2015 election), and if the Pipeline and Tanker terminal are constructed, they may face a permanent shutout in British Columbia.