Science, Tech & Environment

Canada approves a new plan for a pipeline to bring oil from Alberta's tar sands to British Columbia

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Oil pumped out of the Alberta tar sands needs a route to markets and refineries.

The Canadian government has approved a plan to build a new pipeline to carry oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Canadian west coast — and the contentious issue has aroused new passions on both sides of the issue.

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The proposed Northern Gateway Enbridge pipeline would pump diluted bitumen from Alberta, across British Columbia to ports on the Pacific Ocean. If the plan moves forward, it would undercut the argument of opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, who say blocking Keystone would protect the climate by keeping large amounts of tar sands off the market.

But the new pipeline is not a sure thing.

Shawn McCarthy, global energy reporter for The Globe and Mail, based in Ottawa, says it is no surprise that the project got federal approval, but it still faces big hurdles.

The review panel that recommended federal government approval put 209 conditions on it, all of which Enbridge says it can meet, but it faces huge political opposition, both from First Nations and non-aboriginal local residents in British Columbia and along the pipeline route.

McCarthy says the argument from the provinces is: “We're taking the risks ... with pipeline breaks and spills and with the tanker traffic. Where is the reward for the taxpayers of British Columbia?”

Under the Canadian provincial structure, British Columbia does not have the power to approve or disprove an interprovincial pipeline; but the province does have “a great amount of moral suasion and political clout,” McCarthy adds.

He doesn’t think BC will actively oppose the pipeline, but the ministers have made it clear their conditions have not been met. The BC premier has said that until they are, BC “will not provide support or encouragement to the pipeline.”

Opposition from the First Nations complicates matters further. McCarthy says there are two groups that oppose the project: the communities that live along the pipeline route — which goes from Edmonton in central Alberta, through the Rockies to the coast — and the communities that live along the coast. This second group is the more “difficult constituency” for the government, according to McCarthy.

“They make a good living from the sea,” he explains. “They fish, there’s lots of harvesting of seaweed and other marine flora and fauna that is not just part of their economic survival, but their cultural survival — and they have said, ‘No way.’ They are not prepared to see a pipeline and all the increase in tanker traffic that that will entail.”

Complicating this even more, McCarthy says, is that, unlike in the rest of Canada and most of the United States, these First Nations have not signed treaties and have not ceded sovereignty of their land to the government. They say they need not only to be consulted, but they must give their OK before the pipeline gets built.

“The issues go way beyond the pipeline — and good luck to Enbridge to try to cut this Gordian knot,” McCarthy says.

The First Nations have already begun launching legal challenges, and they “have done pretty well by Canadian courts,” McCarthy notes. “Their rights have been enshrined and protected and expanded, in some cases, by the courts.” In fact, the Canadian Supreme Court just ruled that the Tsilhqot'in First Nation has title to 650 square miles of land in western British Columbia. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his administration argue that the oil sands in Alberta are an important national asset, not just for Alberta, but for the country. Right now, Canada exports oil only to the US.

The government claims it is vital to expand access to Asian markets, which, McCarthy explains, “are eager for that new supply, and will pay world prices, instead of the discounted prices that producers are getting in the US market.”

“Right now the oil sands is producing two million barrels a day,” McCarthy continues. “The projections are for five million barrels a day in 15 years or so. If they're going to get that kind of growth, Keystone XL alone is not enough.”

Government and industry want at least two, if not three, more pipelines, he says, so for them Keystone and Northern Gateways are not an either-or choice. “That being said,” McCarthy adds, “the Keystone Pipeline is a key market, and the Canadians would love to get it. They are hopeful, I think, that the idea that Canada has options will put additional pressure on the US to approve Keystone.”

This story is based on a report from PRI's environmental news magazine, Living on Earth

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