Northern Gateway: Now the PR War Begins

Natural Resources | BCBusiness
Kitimat, terminus site of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline

Expect a decision-by-polling from the B.C. Liberals, while the federal government has just six months to convince the country it has both consulted with and accommodated First Nations

As expected, the National Energy Board’s environmental review panel gave a conditional green light to Enbridge Inc.’s $6.5-billion crude oil pipeline designed to carry 525,000 barrels of crude oil a day from Alberta to a shipping terminal in Kitimat. The federal government now has six months to decide whether or not to give the project its ultimate approval.
Also as expected, the rising crescendo of opposition to this project—from environmental organizations and some First Nations groups—ratcheted into high gear within hours of the announcement. High profile B.C. residents, from First Nations leaders to municipal politicians, are already threatening to lie down in front of the bulldozers.
This kind of overblown rhetoric can be expected (one wonders how much of it was orchestrated long before the actual decision was announced) in the wake of a negative decision. Talk of massive protests and legal challenges is already capturing headlines and talk-show topics, and will continue to do so for a while yet.
And of course, lurking in the weeds here (or sitting on the fence if you prefer) is Premier Christy Clark with her government’s five conditions for support still unmet—although there has been significant progress apparently. The cynic in me suspects that furious public polling will be conducted over the next few weeks to help the premier decide whether or not her conditions have actually been met.
The next six months promise to bring one of the most interesting political cat fights the country has seen, as each side in this dispute attempts to argue that it speaks for the majority of people in B.C. Neither side will ever be able to prove conclusively that it does, but it won’t stop either one of them from claiming it.
Without any doubt, the most serious opposition to this project—the kind that could indeed stop it in its tracks—comes from First Nations. How much of the First Nations opposition comes from environmental concerns, and how much is rooted in a desire to resolve land claim issues and participate more fully in the economic benefits, is hard to gauge. First Nations leaders are just as capable of being duplicitous about their real goals as are the senior government representatives they deal with.
But they do hold the hammer. While court rulings have reinforced the notion that First Nations do not have a veto, they have also reinforced the notion that serious consultation AND accommodation must take place.
Can Stephen Harper the control freak handle that? It’s clear the Harper government has not properly engaged First Nations on this issue, and it’s equally clear that it now has six months to make up for lost time. If it can’t do it, any federal approval of Northern Gateway will indeed end up in court.
And that would be unfortunate. Anyone who thinks that First Nations and environmental opposition can keep Alberta oil bottled up in the province needs some lessons in realpolitik. The oil will get to offshore markets one way or another. It would be tragic indeed if Northern Gateway—perhaps the best option to do that—dies because Ottawa couldn’t (or wouldn’t) adequately deal with First Nations.


 Don Whiteley is a natural resources writer based in North Vancouver.