Northern Gateway-The unlikely pipeline

Northern Gateway: The unlikely pipeline

Northern Gateway-The unlikely pipeline
The 3-member panel for the Northern Gateway pipeline overruled 98% opposition to the proposal

The approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline by the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel (JRP) landed with a dismal and predictable thud. It is a view that needs to be reviewed, an assessment that needs to be reassessed, a decision that still needs multiple other decisions. “After weighing the evidence,” the JRP announced with an unconvincing finality, “we concluded that Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Northern Gateway Project than without it.”

[quote]Of 1,179 oral submissions, 1,159 were opposed to the pipeline and the resulting supertankers.[/quote]

98% opposition ignored

The pronouncement is filled with ambiguities, uncertainties and deficiencies. What evidence was weighed that supported the JRP’s conclusion? Of 1,179 oral submissions, 1,159 were opposed to the pipeline and the resulting supertankers. As noted by Stephen Hume in The Vancouver Sun, “Scientists and environmentalists who wanted to address the hearings were excluded from the process by NEB fiat.” The hearings did not consider “upstream” or “downstream” effects, except as economic factors — but even these were only conjectural or “likely”.

As for being beneficial to “Canada”, it is a land mass, a geographical territory endowed with natural features that don’t need scarring by pipelines, inevitable oil spills, threats to species and ecologies, wholesale removal of a non-renewable resource, massive environmental trauma from the tar sands development, not to mention additional greenhouse gases that are exacerbating climate change.

“National Interest”

As for the benefit of the Northern Gateway pipeline to “Canadians”, this is both conjectural and questionable. The evolution of Canadians toward oil as their single, dominant, economic driver moves us toward the status of a petro-state with all the accompanying financial instabilities, budgetary uncertainties and democratic corrosion.

Although the JRP finds that “the project, if constructed, would likely deliver economic benefits by expanding and diversifying the markets available for western Canadian crude oil exports”, it also acknowledges that it is “difficult to determine, with certainty, the effect the Northern Gateway Project may have on broader market prices once it is placed in service…”. In other words, the addition of Alberta dilbit to the international market may lower the price of oil, reduce Canadian royalties, and challenge the viability of the pipeline itself.

Enbridge could leave Canadians paying more for their own oil

Alternately, “new pipelines connecting producing regions with consuming regions change market dynamics in ways that cannot easily be predicted”, so “if constructed, the project would significantly expand and diversify the market options for western Canadian crude oil supply which would contribute to the realization of full market value pricing over the long term.” This translates to mean that Canadians could pay more for their own oil.

Canada alienating itself from global community

All these uncertainties are compounded in a country that has no coherent energy policy, is producing dilbit by furiously burning limited supplies of natural gas, is still importing “unethical” oil for its eastern needs, and is alienating itself from a global community becoming increasingly desperate to wrestle down carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, as the world’s climate situation continues to worsens during the next decades, the pressure to reduce oil production and consumption will only intensify.

A global tax on carbon is almost inevitable, “dirty” oil from the tar sands will almost certainly be subject to increasing censure, and Canada could even be confronted with trade sanctions as it promotes a product that is deemed unacceptable by international judgment.

The dilbit wildcard

And this doesn’t even address another profoundly important environmental issue. The JRP acknowledges that no studies have been done to assess the impact of dilbit on river or marine ecologies. Nonetheless, in a leap of blind faith and an expression of amazing understatement — despite finding “there is some uncertainty regarding the behaviour of dilbit spilled in water — the Panel finds that the weight of evidence indicates that dilbit is no more likely to sink to the bottom than other heavier oils with similar physical and chemical properties.” So, uncertainty about the impact of dilbit on marine ecologies is dismissed by the Panel as inconsequential because it may not be worse than any other spill of “similar” crude.

To reassure everyone that all will be well if the Northern Gateway is built, the Panel recommends “a scientific advisory committee to study what happens to diluted bitumen when released into the environment.” Good idea. But this is essential information, required before the pipeline is approved, not after.

Besides, the Panel’s adroit use of words focuses attention on the bitumen and not the environment — surely the issue is not “what happens to the diluted bitumen” but its impact on ecologies into which it is spilled.

The JRP’s Orwellian language

But this evasive language is common in the JRP’s Report. Uncertain environmental impacts are disguised in verbal obscurity. Consider the following sentence:

[quote]The type and duration of effects would be highly variable and would depend on the type and volume of product spilled, location of the spill, exposure of living and non-living ecosystem components to the product spilled, and environmental conditions.[/quote]

This is a wonderful example of linguistic nonsense. It simply admits, that given a spill of “product” — a much more benign term than diluted bitumen — neither the Panel nor anyone else knows what will happen. Nonetheless, despite the long-term damage to Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez disaster more than 20 years ago, the Panel is able to conclude from no substantial information or studies “that the adverse [environmental] effects would not be permanent and widespread.”

Environmental reviews become a mere formality

Approval of the Northern Gateway by the JRP is little more than a routine formality wrapped in a symbolic gesture. Recent legislation passed by the federal government has radically altered the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the National Energy Board Act, transferring decision-making power to the federal cabinet.

Given its political, economic and environmental ideology, final approval of the Northern Gateway is inevitable. But a host of other obstructions lie between approval and completion. Building the actual pipeline is more unlikely than it seems.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

7 thoughts on “Northern Gateway: The unlikely pipeline

  1. Ray Grigg is concise , as usual. I still wonder about the strategic element: it never seems to get much attention but seems to me to be of at least significant, if not critical importance to the feasibility of the proposed pipeline. Here we have the most powerful strategic player in history, our longtime ally and protector (the contiguity of our neighbouring countries place us under the American umbrella of vital strategic interests), being told by this apparently unappreciative pipsqueak that it intends to bid up the price of heavy crude by introducing competition from China, the Americans’ main economic and strategic rival. Strip away for a moment the growing political firestorm flaring up in the US over Keystone, the pipeline that would send Albetar’s main product to Texan refineries, and one has to wonder how the Americans could ever condone Northern Gateway on either economic or strategic terms. American voters are speaking out with increasing determination against tar sand development on a strictly environmental basis, well and good, but with a tendency to obscure other issues around risky butimindustry. The strategic aspect is at the back of the line, behind first the environment, next (in Canada) the Constitutional obligations to First Nations which look like they can swamp the process in many, lengthy court actions, then public safety, then the economy. Perhaps, Canada’s West Coast being bookended by Alaska and the Lower 48, Americans are confident they could easily stem strategic fuel supply to China if needs be. I just can’t see how the US can be happy about an important strategic resource—really, one of the most vital—situated within their sphere of influence, contributing to the steady strengthening of its main rival…never mind higher crude prices American consumers would have to bear.

  2. We must collectively stand up against the insanity of this project. Time to do whatever it takes. This will be a long hard battle but the generations to follow will always be thankfull that we fought the good fight.

  3. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we’re going to have to leave the comfort of our snug homes and head north to fight this thing. Our First Nations plan to fight it before the courts, a fight that could drag out for years. The CPC3 (Conservative Party of Canada, Calgary Petroleum Club and Communist Party of China) have a problem in that the Harper government’s days may be numbered. A different government could readily ‘de-rig’ the review process by ordering the process reformed and restarted. This fight is only just starting.

    1. There are thousands of us who have promised to head north if they approve this thing. We are all ages and walks of life, not just the stereotypical dreadlocked kids on bongos. We are the ones who beat the HST and we can beat Harper and his phoney pre-packaged review panel.

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