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North Gateway pipeline: Another notch in Canada's poor environmental record

Despite opposition from the public and environmentalists, the government appears to be moving ahead with the project.

Last updated: 18 Jan 2014 12:48
Kait Bolongaro

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.
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A myriad of groups are opposed to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline [AP]

"Canada and Canadians would be better off with the Enbridge Northern Gateway project than without," a Canadian federal review panel concluded. The Joint Review Panel announced its recommendation that the Canadian federal government approve the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline, which would bring 525,000 barrels of oil each day through British Columbia, the country's western province.

The decision shocked many British Columbia residents as the province's review board rejected the same project in May 2013 for environmental concerns. The closed community hearings faced protests at every turn, as Canadians refused to barter pristine wildlife for minuscule economic interests. Enbridge promises only 560 long-term jobs and $1.2bn in tax revenues over 30 years. According to a study by the University of British Columbia, the cost of a major tanker spill is estimated at $9.6bn, the brunt of it to be born by British Columbia, wiping out any expected benefits. The province's Premier Christy Clark said in an interview that Canada is "woefully under-resourced" to deal with the costs of such devastation.

Now, what is missing is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's signature, a formality expected to arrive before the July 2014 deadline set by the panel. Enbridge has already announced the expected government support to come in 2014, with construction beginning in 2015, to allow time for legal appeals; oil is set to flow by 2018. This is a rather confident statement for a proposed project, one for which Harper has been a strong advocate, despite the stiff opposition of Canadians - First Nations, environmental groups, and scientists are among the project's strongest opponents.

No First Nation buy in

Colonial-era treaties signed between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian government ensures Aboriginal sovereignty and consultation on land use. The proposed pipeline route cuts through many traditional territories, leaving Northern Gateway's success dependent on First Nations and Metis approval. The company is trying to attract their support for the pipeline by offering a 10 percent ownership stake. So far, most aren't interested: Over 130 representatives from Aboriginal nations signed the Save the Fraser declaration against the pipeline and presented it to the Joint Review Board. Many bands are already planning legal action and a constitutional challenge if Harper approves the pipeline.

Canada-US pipeline project meets resistance

"British Columbians have spoken. Will Harper listen?" asks a video released by the Coastal First Nations. The clip reminds the audience of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989. History may repeat itself if the Northern Gateway is approved - an oil spill is more than 90 percent likely, according to a spill risk assessment published by Simon Fraser University. First Nations action is critical to prevent the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline. All Canadians would be impacted by an oil spill, but it is the Aboriginal peoples who stand to lose the most: millennia-old food supply, economy, culture and way of life.

Environmental groups, organised by ordinary citizens, are proving to be another thorn in Enbridge and Harper's sides. The government is so frightened of environmental groups that they were subject to monitoring by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police prior to Northern Gateway hearings as potential terrorist threats.

Canadian scientists have also spoken out against the Northern Gateway pipeline. British Columbia's two leading universities released reports scrutinising the environmental risks. Not surprisingly, Enbridge challenged the validity of both studies. Environment Canada scientists would most likely agree with their university colleagues. However, they are not allowed to speak to the media under a gag order by the government. A recent survey released by the Professional Institute of Public Service Canada reported that 90 percent of federal government scientists report being not free to speak to the media and nearly half acknowledge actual cases where information was suppressed leading to incomplete, inaccurate or misleading impressions by the public, industry and other government officials. Furthermore, 71 percent believe that political interference has compromised Canada's ability to develop policy, law and programmes based on scientific evidence.

Dismal record

In the 20th century, Canada prided itself on its international reputation as an environmental leader. It was a key supporter of the Kyoto Protocol and other initiatives to combat climate change. Unfortunately, times have changed. The Northern Gateway pipeline is only one example of the poor state of Canadian environmental policy. 

Environment Canada has faced unprecedented cuts to its annual budget, undermining its ability to conduct scientific research. The number of national agencies responsible for the environmental review of resource development proposals has been reduced from 40 to three, a complete gutting of Canada's once-thorough review process, in an effort to speed up approval times. Unprecedented alterations to many of Canada's strongest environmental protection laws in the form of two omnibus bills is an effort to avoid debating each proposition. Details were released to the public only after it was recklessly pushed through Parliament.

Canada is a stumbling block to creating a new international treaty and recently rejected a Commonwealth climate change fund intended to help poorer member states deal with the effects of global warming.

Internationally, Canada isn't performing any better. In 2011, Canada walked away from the Kyoto Protocol citing unfair burden on the highest emitters and facing $14bn in fines for treaty violations. Canada is a stumbling block to creating a new international treaty and recently rejected a Commonwealth climate change fund intended to help poorer member states deal with the effects of global warming.

Canada is also the new chair of the Arctic Council meeting with Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq serving as its representative. Instead of affirming Canada's support to tackle climate change that is severely impacting Arctic communities, Aglukkaq announced Canada's goal to promote resource development in the region and the launch of a circumpolar business forum. When the environment minister is pushing for resource development - responsible or not - it is a clear conflict of interest.

2013 marked Canada's greatest environmental achievement yet: a special Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award, presented by the Climate Action Network at the United Nations Climate Change summit in Warsaw, Poland. The distinction came after winning six fossil awards in a row since Harper's ascension to power in 2006, for the government's continual promotion of Alberta's oil sands.

Just before Canada was bestowed this honour, it was ranked among the worst on the Climate Change Performance Index with no intention of combating climate change. The government didn't earn a single point in the policy category and it ranked 58th among 61 nations in its progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Only Iran, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia scored lower. An earlier report echoed these findings, ranking Canadian 27th out of the world's 27 wealthiest nations.

Dollars over democracy

Harper is the architect of this decline, and in doing so, is undermining the entire democratic process with his willingness to plunder Canada's environment to sell its natural resources to the highest bidder, regardless of what Canadians think.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 9,500 Canadians wrote to the Joint Review Board to express their opinion on the Northern Gateway Pipeline; 96 percent opposed it. Over 1,000 people spoke to the panel, many against the project. The federal review board approved it, regardless.

The panel claimed that its job was to assess public interest of the project, without taking into consideration the demonstrations of public opposition or support. However, how can a body determine public interest, without listening to what citizens are saying about the proposal? This process is undemocratic and doesn't properly represent the interests or will of the Canadian people.

"In the bottom of my heart I'm convinced now, and I think a lot of people share this feeling, that our government and its processes no longer belong to the people. They belong to the big oil companies, who have bought and paid for the changes that have been made very recently," Gerald Amos, former chief of the Haisla nation said at a press conference after the announcement. While I hope Mr Amos is wrong, I have a strong feeling that he is right.

Kait Bolongaro is a journalist, photographer and a Master's student of Journalism and Political Science. Her research interests include politics, environmental issues, migration and education.

Follow her on Twitter: @kbolongaro

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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