Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Opinion: Northern Gateway approval poses environmental and political risks

By Darin Nesbitt
Chair of Political Science
Douglas College

Dr. Darin Nesbitt.
The Northern Gateway pipeline is one of the most ambitious, controversial, and potentially dangerous projects ever proposed in Canada. The 1,177-kilometre twin pipeline, which will carry diluted bitumen from Bruderheim, Alberta to Kitimat, B.C., will traverse some of B.C.’s most remote, pristine, and geologically unstable terrain. The federal government, as widely expected, approved its construction this week—yet it is a decision almost as risky politically as it is environmentally.

Supporters led by Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., the pipeline’s designer and builder, claim it will generate billions of dollars in economic activity. Opponents are concerned about the environmental damage of in-land and coastal spills that could cost billions to clean up—if bitumen released in coastal waters can even be captured. While the media often describes the pipeline’s main adversaries as “environmentalists and First Nations,” polling numbers reveal most British Columbians oppose it.

A clear and decisive majority—between 60 to 65 per cent—disapprove of the pipeline. Opposition rises higher when British Columbians are further asked their views of shipping bitumen by supertankers through the Douglas Channel. The level of opposition is noteworthy given the extraordinary public relations efforts by Enbridge and other influential pipeline advocates.

Enbridge saturated B.C. with television, newspaper, and internet advocacy—in addition to lobbying regional, municipal, and First Nations governments in central B.C.—to counter public opinion. The energy and resource industries extolled the economic benefits of extracting and selling Canada’s natural resources through extensive national media campaigns. The federal government itself is singularly committed as a matter of policy to Canada becoming an “energy superpower.” Some ministers revealed the federal cabinet’s support of the pipeline while the National Energy Board’s Joint Review Panel was still assessing the proposal.

In spite of these forceful actors and decision-makers, opposition to the pipeline in B.C. remains deep and widespread. Kitimat rejected the pipeline in a local plebiscite even though the town would be the main beneficiary of the B.C. jobs generated by it. The Yinka Dene Alliance of five First Nations posted public notices and warnings to Enbridge employees not to trespass on their lands. There is even an effort to launch a provincial initiative—the same plebiscitary device that forced the B.C. provincial government to repeal the despised harmonized sales tax.

Governments frequently (and frustratingly) defy the public will, but there are electoral consequences doing so. The proposed pipeline is not—as often so with natural resource projects—dividing rural and urban British Columbians. The issue also transcends political party affiliation for voters, which means the federal government’s decision may alienate its own supporters in B.C.

The Harper government currently represents 21 of the 36 B.C. federal ridings. How British Columbians voted in the last federal election was the difference between Mr. Harper and the federal Conservatives leading a majority or a minority government. B.C. will have 42 seats in the next national election—an increase of six based on population growth over the past 10 years. If approving an unpopular pipeline festers like an open wound amongst British Columbians—as did the HST—Mr. Harper’s government may pay a steep political price for its decision.

Opinions expressed in this story are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Douglas College.