Another Oil Pipeline Runs into Political Debate in Canada

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Hi. I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. The U.S. battle over that proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas isn't over. Congressional Republicans say they'll keep pushing the Obama administration to approve the Keystone project, but the administration says a plan for a new, more environmentally sensitive route has to be submitted first. Foreign Minister John Baird expressed the Canadian government's disappointment with the White House decision not to approve the project for now.

John Baird: Obviously, this whole episode underlines the importance of diversifying our market. We can't have only one customer.

Werman: That's where another proposed pipeline comes in and another political battle, this one within Canada. This pipeline would go west from Alberta, through a remote wilderness area to an isolated stretch of coast in British Columbia. Freelance reporter Peter Fairley is following the story in Victoria, British Columbia. He says the proposed Northern Gateway project is broadly opposed by environmental groups and by the native peoples whose territory the pipeline would cross.

Peter Fairley: Essentially, the opposition is" ¦ I would say it's similar to that which has stalled the Keystone pipeline. We're talking about impacts on climate from the production of crude oil in the oil sands, but also, and I think probably more so in this case, we're talking about concerns over oil spills. Kitimat, where this pipeline will end up, is along this storied inside passage, a beautiful site, and it's also a sensitive salmon habitat, bear habitat, whale habitat. So the thought of mega-tankers coming in and out of there is quite disturbing to many Canadians, I think.

Werman: Well, the Northern Gateway pipeline is big news in Canada, and Canada's Nature Resources Minister, Joe Oliver issued an open letter last week in which he rails against foreign special interest and, quote, "jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world." These are the people he says have upended their tar sands plan. Who is he talking about, and how have those comments gone down in Canada?

Fairley: [laughs] They're not going down very well. He's painting a pretty broad brush. And when he talks about jet-setting celebrities, I think the poster child would be Robert Redford, who was up in Vancouver a couple months ago shooting a film, and while there, published an op-ed in The Globe and Mail, Canada's biggest newspaper, railing against both the Keystone pipeline and the Northern Gateway. So Oliver went on to say that U.S. funds were flowing to Canadian environmental groups that are on the front lines of opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, and essentially you know, he's saying that, you know, Canada's economic interests are being upended by outside influences.

Werman: Is anyone saying that Joe Oliver has a point?

Fairley: If it sells anywhere, it's in Alberta, where there's certainly a lot of economic interest, and jobs are focused on the industry there. But I don't think it's selling broadly. People are quite incensed that their concerns are being belittled, and that they're essentially being called traitors for being concerned about water quality, for example.

Werman: So Canada has this enormously valuable resource in Alberta. They'd like to get it to the U.S. gulf, and ports on the U.S. west coast, and to British Columbia, and they'd also like to sell to China. What is the big picture here? Are the Canadian oil industry and the Canadian government partnered on getting Alberta oil to anywhere in the world?

Fairley: They absolutely are partnered. The Harper Conservative government has made exporting oil sands products a priority for the government. They see this as one of Canada's big economic opportunities, and they want it to continue. The pipeline to the west coast has a strategic advantage over something like Keystone in that right now, all of Canada's oil essentially goes to the U.S. via pipelines, and that means that we're captive to U.S. buyers. By putting a pipeline out to the west coast, Canadian oil producers would be in a position to play Asian buyers off of American buyers.

Werman: Peter, how will the Northern Gateway pipeline actually be decided? Is it headed for a major showdown, as Keystone XL has, here in the U.S.?

Fairley: I think it is. The hearings began this month, and the panel that's conducting the hearings will make a decision sometime, maybe eighteen months from now, but the government can override that. I think the Harper government would be tempted to do that, and there you have a real political showdown.

Werman: Reporter Peter Fairley in Victoria, British Columbia. Thank you for your time.

Fairley: It's been a pleasure.