Faced with what might seem like overwhelming resistance, one is tempted to suggest the Harper government should have abandoned its support for an oil pipeline through northern British Columbia a long time ago.
Maybe it should instead pursue the path of least resistance with a pipeline to Eastern Canada, or wait for a new American administration to approve a southern route for Alberta's landlocked resource.
That would have been a mistake.
For one thing, the opposition is not as definitive as the howls of protest would suggest. The latest poll by Angus Reid says 37 per cent of Canadians support the government’s conditional approval of the project, compared with 34 per cent opposed. In B.C., the divide is similar, with 38 per cent saying the government made the right decision and 40 per cent opposed. Some 68 per cent said they believed the pipeline would be built, regardless of their views.
The pipeline consortium led by Enbridge Inc. may eventually decide it cannot meet the 209 conditions imposed on it by the National Energy Board, or that the project is not worth pursuing because B.C.’s residents and various stakeholders will never accept it on any condition.
Unless that happens, however, the process should be allowed to unfold.
Both the proposal and the opposition need to be tested further, which can only be done if Enbridge is allowed to show how it would satisfy public concerns. The opposition’s views also need to be clarified and understood.
Presently, the opponents can be divided into several categories. 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. Some First Nations fear their ancestral lands would be destroyed in the event of a spill. Those on the coast fear a similar disaster. They are not willing to accept any risk.
The issues to be considered do not include climate change, carbon emissions or the effect of the oilsands on Alberta’s landscape. These are separate 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.
Enbridge claims it has substantial support from many aboriginal communities in B.C.’s Interior, which stand to gain jobs, skills training and an equity stake in the company. Coastal inhabitants, however, are more vigorous in their opposition to oil tankers in their waters.
The company has conducted extensive consultations with First Nations, but it has more work to do.
The federal government, however, has not engaged native communities, even though it promised to begin consultations earlier this year.
Since First Nations pose the biggest potential threat to the project, it is somewhat incomprehensible Ottawa has not been more interested in launching a dialogue.
The government has attempted to distance itself from the project by declaring it is not a done deal. It can ensure its failure, however, by ignoring aboriginal concerns.
The National Energy Board says if Enbridge fulfils its promises and meets the 209 conditions, the risk of a spill is “very low.”
Canadians already accept many risks in meeting their energy needs. Some risks, such as the rail transportation of oil through B.C., are considered more dangerous than a pipeline.
Northern Gateway may not be the only way to get Alberta’s oil to the Pacific Ocean where lucrative Asian markets are waiting. It should not be prematurely rejected by Canadians, however, before Enbridge has a chance to meet the 209 conditions and Ottawa shows it is a steward of the land as well as the economy.
» A version of this editorial ran recently in the Winnipeg Free Press.