Northern Gateway Pipeline: A Clash of Civilizations?


The Great Bear Forest:  soon be home to Northern Gateway. Photo by Markus Mauthe, Greenpeace
The Great Bear Forest: soon to be home to Northern Gateway. Photo by Markus Mauthe, Greenpeace

So, Stephen Harper hopped on his tricycle, beetled straight to the wall and toppled over. Will he rise again? It’s up to us.

That’s in the mind’s eye watching the outrage build over the prime minister’s recent approval of the reckless Northern Gateway pipeline project, designed to unlock Alberta’s tar sands for overseas markets.

Citizens from First Nations, scientific and environmental leaders, and opposition politicians are speaking in unison: the Edmonton-to-Shanghai tar sands funnel is a no go.

And the Supreme Court of Canada land claims decision in favor of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia will further bolster the case for aboriginal groups fighting Enbridge’s Gateway project.

The determination of Canada’s native groups will also help all of Canada in the fight to save the country from the clutches of Big Oil. Mitchell Anderson summed it up well in his column, “Tsilhqot’in Nation Gives Canada a New Chance to Do It Right:”

‘The sweeping decision by the Supreme Court granting aboriginal land title to the Tsilhqot’in Nation means First Nations will be in the driver’s seat for virtually all forestry, mining or pipeline projects on their unceded traditional territories. This matters because people with an ancient cultural connection to a particular piece of land have a different level of determination to control and protect it.”

So this exhausting leader of this exhausted Conservative government may have reached a significant barrier. With all the strategic genius of General Custer, Harper is surrounded by dead end energy policies of his own making.

keystone pipeline protestorsThe most favored Keystone pipeline that promises to send rivers of Alberta bitumen to Texas is stalled. It could ultimately be cancelled by U.S. President Obama, who is finally taking tough action to battle global warming. Obama also owes nothing to Harper who largely treated the president with disdain as he tried to talk up the project.

Seeing the writing on the wall about Keystone, Harper has turned to Gateway, a particularly hideous project.  If this fails to unlock Alberta’s crude riches, there are, alas, other projects in the works, including the Energy East Pipeline. (A bit more on that later).  But the industry is increasingly under pressure. 

Alberta Bitumen is a Bitch

Gateway mapFirst let’s take a look at the Gateway project. The 1,172 kilometer pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast would traverse farm land, remote mountains, valleys, and untamed waterways. All in all, it would cross 785 rivers and streams, home to countless, thriving fish habitats, according to a major study by the Pembina Institute, Natural Resources Defence Council and the Living Oceans Society.

The pipeline will be managed by Enbridge which was responsible for the biggest pipeline disaster in U.S. history in Michigan in 2010. The company, which is promising top notch spill prevention technology for Gateway, was lambasted by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board for a “complete breakdown of safety” in Michigan, Predictably, fights have since broke about the long clean up process amongst the company, regulators and distraught residents on the ground.

“It just really frustrates me, that our federal government allows a company to put a product through [a pipeline] where they don’t know the effects and don’t know how to clean it up,” one local resident was quoted as saying.

Wait a minute. We don’t know what we are shoving thorugh these pipelines? Well, not really but thanks to the Michigan spill we do know one thing: Alberta bitumen is a bitch.

Bitumen is more toxic than regular crude oil and it’s more likely to be corrosive to pipelines. When it spills it doesn’t float on the surface like regular crude but sinks to the bottom, which makes the cleanup difficult if not impossible.

And here is another fun fact —  to move bitumen through pipes it needs to be mixed with volatile, dangerous chemicals, using high pressure.

Despite this, the Harper-defanged National Energy Board treats bitumen as if it were that same as crude oil. “Neither industry nor government regulators have investigated whether diluted bitumen can safely flow through pipelines,” according the major study mentioned previously.

Exxon Valdez Redux?

As if the concern over both the product and the pipeline weren’t enough, we still have the small matter of the massive oil tankers lurching in an around Canada’s achingly beautiful Pacific coast. A bull in a china shop comes to mind.

The massive ocean going tankers would call at Kitimat, B.C. where a tank ‘farm’ would be built to hold all the bitumen gushing in from Alberta. The vessels would stock up with the goo and then set off to navigate (nimbly?) through 185 kilometers of dangerous and unpredictable inner coastal waters before reaching open ocean. Feel inspired by all this?

“There is a reason that large oil supertankers have not used these waters in the past: the route poses many navigational challenges for large vessels, even under ideal conditions,” the report found

For all the risks there must be big pay offs, right? Wrong. The people up and down the line get crumbs. Big Oil, potentially, make off like bandits should oil prices stay high and because they have a sweetheart tax deal in Canada. If the whole thing goes tits up, well, hey it’s a writeoff.

Enbridge supporters, eerily echoing boosters of the Keystone pipeline, say the project will create “thousands” of jobs and mean big money to B.C. But the company’s own bumf says it will create only 3,000 temporary jobs and 500 permanent. That’s barely crumbs.

Ottawa will collect more in royalties from the added production that the pipeline would encourage. But will they spend the extra cash in B.C. which is shouldering so much of the risk? No guarantee there. And a big spill on the pipeline or by one of the tankers would do untold damage to the province’s livelihood.

Even though environmental concerns are paramount, there are at least three other sound reasons why the project must be nixed:

*The pipeline would provide an incentive to expand the tar sands project at a time when Canada does not have a plan to manage carbon pollution. Really stupid.

*It keeps the country hurtling down the unsustainable economic path of fossil fuels, an industry faltering worldwide.

*Gateway will undermine the country’s standing with the rest of the world as it sees Canada is not doing its part to tackle global warming.

The Big Gateway Piss Off 

Pipeline protest in Toronto. Photo by Mark Blinch
Pipeline protest in Toronto. Photo by Mark Blinch

If there comes a time in the affairs of men to do the right thing and the man at the top is clearly not, then it is definitely time for a whole whack of people (men and women) to unite and do the sensible thing – protest. And that’s one good thing about the Gateway decision: it has pissed off a lot of people.

Understandably, the loudest voices against Northern Gateway can be heard from  British Columbia, as they so have much at stake. The always trenchant David Suzuki, who hails from B.C., penned an impassioned plea, saying the project should “never” go ahead:

Rapid tar sands expansion, increasing reliance on dirty fossil fuels and more infrastructure that ties us to them for decades contravene the need to protect the environment, human health, global climate systems and even economic resilience. 

Northern Gateway has received qualified government approval. The decision will now face First Nations court challenges and backlash from the majority of British Columbians and Canadians whose voices have so far been ignored. For the sake of our communities and the future of our children, let’s hope democracy prevails. 

Andrew Nikiforuk, who wrote the damning but well researched book “Tar Sands,” foresees huge protests against the pipeline:  “I predict there will be a momentous clash of civilizations over this pipeline and its many cousins.”

Some also believe the Harper government, with a hefty 21 seats in British Columbia,  effectively lost the province after approving the pipeline. A loss of a significant number of seats could cost Harper its parliamentary majority, if not more, in the election expected next year.

Next up: Energy East

The next crucial step in the new awakening is to see if eastern Canada will stand up to the next environmental challenge: TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline  which would ship Alberta bitumen to the Atlantic coast and points beyond.

Once again it’s a risky project that benefits a small group of people and the additional jobs for the folks are paltry. But aboriginal groups and environmentalists  are also starting to mass against this project.

As we know, crude’s time is drawing nigh. We are seeing problems around the world as the industry struggles with soaring costs extracting oil from hard to reach places. Meanwhile the cost for renewable energy, led by solar power, is falling sharply. That sector is booming because, hey, people can still do the math.

In Alberta the massive tar sands projects are under huge cost pressures. Total, the big French oil company, has cancelled the Joslyn tar sands project because it can’t see how to make a profit. Sunshine Oilsands stock was cratering on the market because of cost concerns about its tarry plans, unnerving its Chinese backers.

Landlocked Alberta oil companies need more pipelines so they can maintain there breakneck pace and costly developments.

That’s what they need. What everyone else needs is something much different. Alberta is over inflated and enjoying its unsustainable measure of growth. The rest of the country is barely keeping afloat. There is no “trickle over” economic benefits for the rest of the country, despite claims to the contrary.

Harper in Arctic. Looks like a big trike.
Harper in Arctic. Looks like a big trike.

What Canada needs is a realistic price on carbon to cap tar sands production and an economic policy that works for the whole country.  So let’s not allow Harper back on his trike. Let’s dismantle the damn thing.

Canada, #it’s time.

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