Prime Minister Stephen Harper looks increasingly desperate to find ways for expanding the Tar Sands. While his government wants to ramp up bitumen production dramatically in Alberta, it faces export challenges at every turn.
This has led to some erratic and questionable moves by Team Harper in recent months – from a sudden u-turn for its aboriginal relations on the pipeline file, to aggressive US lobbying over the controversial Keystone XL project, to today’s news that it has been mulling an unprecedented plan to move massive quantities of bitumen to BC’s coast by rail.
Half a million barrels a day…by rail?
On that last point, we learned today from internal memos pried loose by Greenpeace that the Harper Government and Chinese-owned Nexen sought out CN to explore moving a similar quantity of oil to the embattled Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.
Oil is moved by rail today, but in relatively small volumes – though that trend is changing, particularly in the US with the Bakken shale in North Dakota. This has had dangerous consequences, as we saw with the catastrophic derailment in Lac-Mégantic of a train carrying highly combustible shale oil. Even with oil-by-rail shipments on the rise around North America, this Prince Rupert plan is unprecedented in its scale and risks.
While the now-defunct operator behind the Lac-Mégantic disaster – the Montreal, Main and Atlantic Railway – moved half a million barrels of Bakken oil a month, CN would be doing that on a daily basis. The company would send seven trains a day, with over a hundred cars each, carrying bitumen to the Port of Prince Rupert.
The trains would travel along Canada’s second largest salmon river, the Skeena – a derailment would be a catastrophe waiting to happen. Pipeline proponents – especially since Lac-Mégantic – have long held up rail as a straw man to persuade the public of the relative safety of pipelines, making this alternative proposal all the more baffling. Unless, of course, it’s intended to frighten British Columbians back into embracing Enbridge.
Memo blacked out
Who can say what Harper and co. are really thinking here, especially since the section of the rail memo discussing the Department of Natural Resources’ views on the matter was entirely blacked out.
The undated memo was allegedly written prior to Lac-Mégantic, so it’s difficult to say to what degree it’s being taken seriously today. Any way you slice it, this is a crazy plan, coming from a government that looks like it’s flailing around for a lifeline, amid the increasingly troubled waters for Tar Sands expansion.
This desperation has played out in Harper’s erratic attempts to win over President Obama on the controversial, proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to refineries on the US Gulf Coast. With Obama’s apparent conversion on the climate file, Harper looks lost.
When trouble first began brewing for Keystone, he sent his pitbull, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, to Washington, DC for some pipeline diplomacy. The only thing missing was the diplomacy, as Oliver’s brutish antics only served to insult his hosts and provoke ridicule from more enlightened political and media observers around the world.
Harper’s draconian gutting of environmental regulation and muzzling of scientists to protect his oil agenda is drawing widespread condemnation – visible everywhere from prestigious international journals to a recent New York Times editorial.
Following Obama’s bold climate speech this summer, Harper radically changed his tack, offering to commit to US carbon emissions targets in exchange for giving Keystone a pass. The jury’s out on how effective this tactic will prove, but it can hardly look like anything other than disingenuous, johnny-come-lately political maneuvering to Obama.
Mixed signals to First Nations
Finally, there’s Harper’s dramatic swings in his approach to First Nations on pipelines. Over the past year, he and Oliver have gone from alternately ignoring First Nations’ concerns to vilifying them as “radical” opponents of Canada’s national interest.
Then, out of the blue, we learned recently that Harper and a caravan of federal ministers would be venturing out to our hinterland west of the Rockies to get First Nations onside with the proposed Enbridge and Kinder Morgan pipelines.
If this apparent reversal wasn’t baffling enough for aboriginal leaders like Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, the ministers’ attitude at the table took it to another level. Describing separate meetings with Oliver and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Velcourt to the Vancouver Observer, Phillip says the ministers made little effort to win him over:
Pipelines’ uncertain future
Whatever thinking is motivating Harper’s about-face with First Nations, if he continues down this path, his government’s actions will do little to mollify his agenda’s most powerful opponents.
It remains to be seen where Obama goes on Keystone and whether Harper gets any traction on Enbridge, Kinder Morgan – or new plans to pump bitumen East through Enbridge and TransCanada pipelines – but the more he fumbles for “radical” solutions to his pipeline predicament, the more unsure, vulnerable and desperate he shows himself to be.