Alberta Premier Alison Redford, right, and British Columbia Premier Christy Clark have reached a framework agreement on the Northern Gateway project, but even if it is eventually approved, the pipeline would face many barriers, including lawsuits, political opposition and the threat of physical blockades.
Photograph by: Canadian Press , The Province
With last week’s framework agreement between B.C. and Alberta, another step has been taken on what oil-pipeline backers call their “path to the Pacific.”
Two proposed multi-billion-dollar pipelines connecting Alberta’s oilsands to the British Columbia coast are hugely controversial and face fierce opposition.
Step by step, however, backers of the projects hope to win approval to build, starting with the $6.5-billion Northern Gateway pipeline proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge.
Marathon environmental hearings by the federal Joint Review Panel into Northern Gateway wrapped up in June, with a recommendation on the project expected next month. The panel could recommend the pipeline proceed with a long list of special conditions attached to protect the environment from accidents and oil spills.
Enbridge has launched a blitz of feel-good television ads in anticipation of a green light from the panel. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet will get the final say next year. Many observers predict the Enbridge pipeline will be approved and the project will receive a certificate to proceed from the National Energy Board.
But will it be built? That’s another question.
“I fully expect the federal government to give its approval,” said Keith Stewart, campaign co-ordinator for Greenpeace. “But the days of being handed a piece of paper by the government that says, ‘Now you get to to build this’ are long over. The Enbridge pipeline will never be built.”
The pipeline, even if approved, would still face multiple barriers, including lawsuits, political opposition, community backlash and the threat of physical blockades.
“Northern Gateway is the hill to die on in British Columbia,” said Art Sterritt, executive director of anti-pipeline Coastal First Nations.
“I already have people calling me to volunteer to lie down in front of bulldozers. It would make the Clayoquot Sound protests look like a tea party.”
More than 800 people were arrested at the anti-logging Clayoquot blockades in 1993.
But before any bulldozers are blocked, the pipeline could face an even more imposing barrier – in court.
“There’s a high probability of litigation by a number of First Nations that could delay or derail the project,” said Jessica Clogg, senior counsel at West Coast Environmental Law.
Clogg said any lawsuits against the pipeline would likely hinge on the government’s constitutional “duty to consult and accommodate” First Nations, as established in previous court decisions.
“The courts have ability to quash or set aside any unconstitutional decisions of government,” she said, meaning a judge could effectively tear up the pipeline’s approval certificate.
Could the pro-development Harper government avoid years of litigation by referring the Enbridge pipeline case directly to the Supreme Court of Canada for an expedited decision?
Unlikely, Clogg says. “These questions are highly fact-dependent and a lower court would be in a much better position to weigh evidence of whether the Crown had met its duties.”
In other words, the pipeline could be stopped dead in its tracks in court.
Then there’s the political battle. “If the pipeline was approved we would fight it in the legislature and in the court of public opinion,” said NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert.
The B.C. government is officially opposed to the Enbridge pipeline for now, but has not ruled out supporting it if Premier Christy Clark’s “five conditions” are met.
The conditions include “world-leading” environmental standards and a “fair share” of economic benefits for B.C. Enbridge says it supports Clark’s conditions and now – as a result of last week’s framework agreement – so does Alberta Premier Alison Redford.
“If Christy Clark was to turn around and support this pipeline now it would be a bigger double-cross than the HST,” Chandra Herbert said.
The environmental movement is already gearing up for one of the largest – and most expensive – battles B.C. has ever seen.
“U.S. foundations and environmental groups will escalate their opposition,” said writer and researcher Vivian Krause, who specializes in tracing foreign money pumped into B.C. environmental campaigns.
She figures the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the deep-pocketed environmental organization based in San Francisco, has already granted around $125 million to B.C. groups.
“Now that Clark and Redford have done their détente, the environmental groups will up their ante, and the funders will up their funding,” Krause said.
Of course, environmental groups that receive American funding are quick to point out that Enbridge itself is about one-quarter U.S.-owned, according to the company’s shareownership disclosure.
You can call all this the calm before the storm. With the pieces falling into place for Enbridge’s controversial pipeline to finally be approved, the battle is only just beginning to actually get it built.