Two decades ago, deep within British Columbia’s coastal old-growth forests, a fierce battle was waged and won to preserve Clayoquot Sound from large-scale clearcutting.
The legendary clash between environmentalists and industry in Canada’s westernmost province sparked a new kind of eco-activism – and the biggest fight since is poised to play out in the months ahead, as the country moves closer towards approving a controversial oil pipeline to the Pacific coast.
Last month, project proponent Enbridge Inc received a substantial boost through a federally commissioned report, which recommended approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline – subject to a host of environmental and administrative conditions. Advocates say the pipeline, which would whisk more than 500,000 barrels of oil daily from the Albertan tar sands to supertankers in Kitimat, BC, would benefit the country by opening Canada’s oil industry to growing Asian and Pacific Rim markets. But environmental and aboriginal groups, whose lands the pipeline would cross, maintain it would threaten some of the country’s most precious natural resources.
While the federal Conservatives – who have vowed no project will be approved unless it is “safe for Canadians and safe for the environment” – have until July to consider the report and come to a final decision, it is widely expected the government will green-light the Northern Gateway. And once that happens, Chief Martin Louie of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation says aboriginal groups will swiftly launch court action.
“That’s the only avenue that we have to try to protect our rights,” Louie told Al Jazeera, speaking on behalf of a group of aboriginal bands known as the Yinka Dene Alliance, who have banned Enbridge’s pipeline from their territories under indigenous law. “Beautiful British Columbia – that’s what it should be for our kids too. The way I grew up enjoying the land and everything, I want my children and grandchildren to do too.”
Stamp of approval
The Northern Gateway twin pipeline would stretch 1,177km between Bruderheim in northern Alberta and the deep-water port of Kitimat, BC. The westward line would have the capacity to transport 525,000 barrels per day of oil for export, while the eastward line would carry up to 193,000 barrels per day of condensate, a product used to thin oil for pipeline transport.
We remain hopeful that we can work to address all concerns that our opponents have in a mutual spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
The $8bn project has been years in the making; in 2009, Enbridge announced it was seeking regulatory approval, setting off a public and governmental review process that will culminate with this summer’s final decision.
A major part of that process was the independent joint review panel, mandated by the Environment Ministry and the National Energy Board, which delivered its final report last month.
Tasked with assessing the environmental, social and economic impacts of the pipeline, along with the effects of tanker traffic within Canadian territorial waters, the panel ultimately recommended approval of the project subject to 209 separate conditions. “We have concluded that the project would be in the public interest,” the panel noted in its final report. “We find that the project’s potential benefits for Canada and Canadians outweigh the potential burdens and risks.”
Enbridge has said it will work to meet all of the panel’s 209 conditions – which range from developing a marine mammal protection plan to researching the behaviour and cleanup of heavy oils – along with a broader set of five criteria, including addressing aboriginal land rights, for heavy oil pipeline development set out by the BC government.
“We remain hopeful that we can work to address all concerns that our opponents have in a mutual spirit of cooperation and collaboration,” Enbridge spokesperson Ivan Giesbrecht told Al Jazeera, calling the December report “just one important step in a long process”.
The company contends the Northern Gateway will deliver more than $270bn in GDP to Canada over 30 years, along with $300m in employment and contracts for aboriginal communities and billions more in tax revenue and labour-related income during construction. Enbridge and other advocates, including the Alberta government, have described the pipeline as key to diversifying Canadian crude oil exports to markets beyond the United States.
“Access to ocean ports for Alberta’s abundant resources is important to not just Alberta’s but Canada’s economic future,” Alberta Energy Minister Diana McQueen said, noting resource developers get a lower price in the North American market than they could globally. The situation is compounded by the stalled Canada-US Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which has been awaiting US government approval amid years of debate over its route and environmental impacts.
Opponents, meanwhile, question Enbridge’s employment numbers and suggest the pipeline’s economic benefits have been overstated. The Northern Gateway has generated a wall of opposition from aboriginals and environmental activists who cite the risk of an Exxon-Valdez-level oil spill in BC’s pristine coastal waters. Dozens of aboriginal bands have signed a declaration against the project, pledging to refuse Enbridge access to their lands and watersheds, including the salmon-stocked Fraser River.
In addition to the risk of spillage from the pipeline itself, Greenpeace Canada – which has criticised Enbridge’s history of spills and leaks – points out that the oil-loaded, Asia-bound supertankers would have to navigate “one of the trickiest marine routes in Canada”, passing by a series of small islands in the Douglas Channel. More than a year ago, Enbridge came under fire for releasing promotional materials in which the islands had apparently been erased from a rendering of the channel, in what critics called an effort to downplay the risks.
“Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline would stream the world’s dirtiest oil from northern Alberta to the BC coast and would be the catalyst for unbridled exploitation and potentially calamitous disturbance of our land, air, freshwater and marine environment,” said Chris Genovali, executive director of the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Sidney, BC. Industrial activities accompanying the transportation of oil could destroy habitats for caribou, wolves, whales and wild salmon, he added.
Opposition House Leader Nathan Cullen, the federal New Democratic MP for BC’s Skeena-Bulkley Valley, believes a major spill from either the pipeline or tankers over the 50-plus-year lifespan of the project is a certainty. “The ability to clean up bitumen in the water is virtually nil,” Cullen told Al Jazeera.
The Northern Gateway proposal faces an additional hurdle from BC’s provincial government, which has refused to lend support to the pipeline until Enbridge proves it will employ “world-leading practices” on oil-spill prevention and response, respect aboriginal rights and ensure the province gets a fair slice of the economic pie. “Enbridge hasn’t met any of the conditions yet,” government spokesperson Sam Oliphant said.
Legal fight ahead
Enbridge points out that it has already incorporated input from British Columbians and aboriginal communities, resulting in almost two dozen changes to the pipeline route and other alterations, such as thicker-walled pipes and an increased capability to respond to marine spills. In addition, the federal panel found Enbridge had taken steps to minimise the chances of a large spill “through its precautionary design approach and its commitments to use innovative and redundant safety systems”.
Given the overwhelming First Nations and public opposition here, I believe the pipeline will likely never happen.
None of this is enough for the project’s opponents, who maintain the Northern Gateway will be a pivotal issue in the 2015 federal election – and set the stage for a landmark court fight.
The expected avalanche of legal cases upon the pipeline’s approval will tie it up for years, said Keith Stewart, climate and energy coordinator for Greenpeace Canada. And if the government tries to proceed regardless, he said, thousands of people have pledged to engage in peaceful civil disobedience, just as protesters did decades ago in Clayoquot Sound – using blockades and peaceful demonstrations to achieve their environmental goals.
The question of land ownership, meanwhile, is a complex one. Aboriginal rights are protected under section 35 of Canada’s constitution, but proving aboriginal title requires proof of use and occupation, said lawyer Drew Mildon, who works for a BC-based firm planning to represent aboriginals in the anticipated Northern Gateway court battle. While many aboriginal groups living along the pipeline route assert title and rights, they have not yet gone to court to prove them, Mildon told Al Jazeera.
“I have no doubt the governments will try to ram through the pipeline regardless of First Nations objections,” he said. “As a lawyer working for First Nations in BC, and given the overwhelming First Nations and public opposition here, I believe the pipeline will likely never happen.”
Stewart agreed, citing a failure on the part of Enbridge and the federal government to shore up public support for the pipeline.
“Without that support,” he said, “it won’t be built.”
Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole