Northern Gateway: A Plea for the Future

The Joint Review Panel (JRP) was established by the National Energy Board (NEB) and the Minister of the Environment in December, 2009 to evaluate the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project (NGP). The three member panel was mandated to conduct a review of the environmental effects of the project and to determine if it was in the public interest. As part of the process, the JRP was required to consider comments from the public as well as groups with intervenor status, such as First Nations’ communities, government participants and the Northern Gateway consortium.

The panelists refer to the pipeline project in their report as the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project because Enbridge has formed a limited partnership to develop and operate the project. Enbridge is the only partner with an equity stake at this stage. There are 10 other corporate funding partners who have contributed financially to the pre-development work and have the option of becoming equity partners. Only 6 of the funding partners have chosen to divulge their participation, 3 are Canadian while the others are foreign owned companies. The names and the nationalities of the other 4 companies are not known.

The NGP involves building two pipelines between Bruderheim, AB and Kitimat, BC, a distance of 1,177 kms. The larger pipeline flowing west from Alberta would carry over 500,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen. The smaller line from Kitimat flowing east would carry imported condensate, a lighter petroleum product needed to dilute the viscous bitumen for easier transit. The two pipelines would cross one thousand streams and rivers en route to the coast. In most cases the pipelines would be buried beneath the water courses but in a few instances the lines would pass overhead. In addition, two tunnels would be drilled through the mountains for the passage of the pipelines.

The diluted bitumen (“dilbit”) would be loaded on to large tankers at the Kitimat terminal which would have to traverse the 90 kms long tortuous Douglas Channel, cross the inside passage and follow the narrow inside coastal water route north or south before emerging in the shallow, turbulent Hecate Strait. The tankers would then have to navigate either the northern or southern route around Haida Gwai before finally reaching open water and heading across the Pacific to Asian ports.

On 19th December, 2013 after extensive hearings, the JRP recommended approval of the NGP subject to 209 conditions. The panel concluded that the Enbridge project would be in the public interest and that the potential benefits for the country outweigh the burdens and the risks. Supporting reasons for the decision and details of the conditions were laid out in two large illustrated volumes, entitled Connections and Considerations.

The decision to approve the recommendations of the JRP or to reject the NGP will be made by the federal Cabinet in June, 2014. Before the passage of Omnibus Bill C-38 in 2012, the decision in a project of this nature would be made by the NEB. But the outcome is no longer determined by an impartial board, it is now a political decision that will be made without the approval of Parliament. The fundamental question is whether a government representing a minority of voters and facing an election in fifteen months has the moral authority to approve a project of such magnitude with such potentially damaging long term environmental consequences without even a parliamentary discussion.

The JRP was a creation of the NEB which has environmental protection as a prime focus and the Department of the Environment which has the health of our environment as its main focus. The Agreement setting up the JRP required that the review process follow the stipulations of the NEB Act which refers specifically to the importance of the “present and future public interest.” This raises the question why the JRP did not address the “future public interest” in its evaluation of the NGP. There were a few fleeting references in the report as to whether future generations would be better off with or without the pipeline project but there was no in-depth analysis of the potential impact on unborn generations. Are they not part of the “public interest”? Are the unborn not stakeholders in a future Canada? It is our offspring who will inherit the burdens, not the benefits, of this risky project.

The importance of the environment in the evaluation of the NGP was emphasized as the central feature of the original JRP Agreement. In a revised agreement published in 2012 after the passage of Bill C-38 that decimated Canadian environmental legislation, the central role of environmental protection was reemphasized. References, such as “The Minister of the Environment and the Chairman of the National Energy Board establish a Joint Review Panel to conduct the environmental assessment of the project,” abound throughout the Agreement.

The panelists themselves acknowledged in Considerations that their “purpose was to assess the environmental effects of the proposed project.” The focus of the “proposed project” – the Northern Gateway Project – they also clearly delineated in the report as the two pipelines, the inland terminal at Bruderheim, the ocean terminal at Kitimat and tanker traffic in Canadian territorial waters.

The panelists defined certain issues that they decided were outside their mandate, such as “upstream” concerns (e.g. oil sands developments and greenhouse gas emissions) and “downstream” matters (e.g. refining and the use of products shipped from Kitimat). The focus of the JRP’s evaluation then was obviously the “midstream” issues (e.g. pipelines, terminals and tankers) and the application of a range of environmental criteria as required by the NEB Act to ensure that the “public interest” is protected.

Economic Issues

If the focus of the NGP assessment was on the environmental safety of piping and shipping dilbit and condensate, why did the economic benefits of the project receive so much attention? If the “downstream” issues were intentionally excluded from the evaluation, why did Pacific Basin markets figure so prominently in the final report? How can the report promote short term “robust economic benefits,” such as GDP growth, increased government revenues and job spin-offs but ignore long term negative factors, such as greenhouse gas emissions? Most of the purported economic benefits flow from the tar sands. If these upstream benefits were taken into consideration, then why were the associated tar sands emissions intentionally excluded from the review as an “upstream” issue?

The JRP Agreement, including the Terms of Reference, focuses on the environmental aspects of the NGP; it does not include the economic benefits. This raises troubling questions about the nature of the mandate of the review and the relative importance assigned by the panel to the short-term economic factors and the long-term environmental aspects of the NGP.

The driving force behind the final report and the recommendations of the JRP appears to be the expedited and exponential expansion of the tar sands. The Northern Gateway pipelines and tar sands bitumen are inextricably linked; they are conjoined twins. The imported condensate from Asia in one pipeline will dilute the outgoing bitumen from Alberta in the adjacent pipeline for export to Asia. Twins within twins.

We must uncouple the Pacific pipelines from the tar sands and abandon the Enbridge project for the sake of future generations. There are no compelling reasons – economic, environmental or ethical – for building the NGP. A much more compelling argument can be made for a more measured development of the tar sands without building the Northern Gateway pipelines.

Even the most ardent environmentalist must acknowledge that there will be a continuing demand for fossil fuels and that tar sands bitumen will be part of the mix. Our task must be to slow down the frenetic pace of tar sands expansion and maximize the economic benefits for Canadians while minimizing the environmental impact and at the same time fostering social stability in Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities. Above all, development of the tar sands must be driven by concern for the future. “Prosperity for posterity” – both ecologically and economically – must be our rallying cry.

By a fluke of nature, Canada has inherited a bitumen bonanza. It is our responsibility to safeguard it and to develop it prudently, partly out of self-interest. Liquidating a non-renewable resource in a frenzy of stripmining is economic madness. For Alberta, in league with the tar sands companies, to slay the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs – covered in bitumen unfortunately – is short-sighted policy.

David Hughes, a geologist with over thirty years experience at Natural Resources Canada, emphasized this point in his presentation to the JRP. “We are compromising the energy security of future Canadians,” he argued. As a so-called “energy superpower” we don’t even have a national energy strategy. Extract the bitumen and sell it as fast as possible appears to be the present corporate and government strategy. But the longer we can keep the bitumen buried, the more valuable it will be for succeeding generations.

Unfortunately, the exploitation of the tar sands has progressed so far so fast that the richest surface deposits are rapidly disappearing. The remaining eighty percent of the reserves are increasingly difficult and expensive to mine, requiring subterranean steam extraction methods that involve huge quantities of natural gas and water. The fossil fuel companies have skimmed off the easy pickings and pocketed the profits, leaving a depreciated asset as our legacy to the future.

“Energy Returned on Energy Invested” (EROI) is the term that measures the amount of energy needed to extract a barrel of oil. Five barrels of bitumen oil now require the energy equivalent of one barrel of conventional oil to process and this ratio is predicted to drop soon to 3:1. As a result, the financial returns on tar sands bitumen are plummeting, raising the spectre of investment shortfalls, stock collapses, increased government subsidies, corporate bankruptcies and a shortage of dilbit to fill the Pacific pipeline.

When the concept of EROI is extended to apply to the full dilbit cycle – importing condensate from Asia, extracting bitumen from the tar sands, shipping dilbit to Asia and then upgrading it for refining – the ratio is staggering. Two engineers from BC, Christopher Peter and Norman Jacob, in their presentation to the JRP calculated the full cycle EROI for the NGP at 2.41:1. We have to burn one barrel of oil to get less than two and a half barrels of crude – this is bordering on economic and environmental lunacy.

Although other types of Albertan oils can also be shipped along the pipeline, their production rates are declining. The NGP is financially dependent on transporting tar sands bitumen to Pacific markets. The economics don’t make sense. Why do we not upgrade the bitumen and refine it in Canada as the late Peter Lougheed suggested for years? There are more long term jobs in developing refining capacity in Alberta than short term jobs building and maintaining a pipeline. We can control the supply, we get energy security, we receive increased taxes and royalties and we create employment opportunities for the future. We also eliminate the need for imported condensate. Above all, the pressure for a pipeline to the Pacific disappears.

The dilutent or condensate for moving bitumen is in short supply in Alberta and the bulk of it is imported from the US at present which is then mixed with bitumen for export back to the US.  Once again, the economics don’t make sense. Upgrading and refining bitumen in Alberta will allow us to ship value added petroleum products to the US. Dilbit demand won’t disappear in the US, however, because many refineries across the mid west and down to the Gulf Coast are built to process heavy tar sands crude. The reduction in dilbit exports to the US will reduce the demand for condensate which can then be supplied domestically from the Duvernay field that is coming on stream in Alberta.

It is common knowledge that both the federal and the Albertan governments, as well as the oil industry, have been urging new outlets to Asian markets for expanded tar sands production for years. (Are government and industry another set of twins in the NGP saga?) The thrust of their argument is two-fold: depending solely on the US market is risky and the present pipeline capacity to the US is limited.

The argument is baseless because the premise is false. The US will always be our most stable and secure market and there are enough pipelines criss-crossing the border to supply the US with petroleum products indefinitely. Enbridge is planning to upgrade its present pipeline from Alberta to Chicago. Jeffrey Jones wrote in the Globe and Mail recently that exports of tar sands bitumen to the US have actually increased by a third over the past five years using the existing pipeline network.

The claim by some energy commentators that the US will no longer need our oil because of growing sources of domestic reserves is debatable. “Energy independence” in the US is an illusion because the new sources of oil and gas, primarily shale deposits exploited by hydraulic fracturing or frakking, such as the Bakken field, have high depletion rates and production levels decline rapidly. Like North Sea and Alaskan oil, these shale resources have a limited lifespan and they are not likely to satisfy the insatiable demand for petroleum in the US for long.

Enbridge announced at the beginning of April that it has been given a US government licence to export Canadian oil from American seaports to foreign markets through its existing pipeline system originating in Alberta. The US has banned exports of its own oil since the Arab embargo of the mid 1970s. The conditions permitting the re-export of Canadian crude clearly stipulate that it must be separated from US oil; even the condensate must be Canadian.

An outlet for Albertan crude to the Pacific already exists. The Trans Mountain Pipeline operated by Kinder Morgan has been shipping tar sands products, both dilbit as well as refined oils, from Edmonton to Burnaby for years. The petroleum products are loaded on to freighters and barges at the Burnaby terminal for shipment through the port of Vancouver to the US west coast and Asian markets.

Slowing down expansion of the tar sands and ensuring an adequate fuel supply to meet our own needs as well as continuing to service the US demand and having access to overseas markets through American ports and the Trans Mountain system eliminates the need for another major export pipeline. The proposal to build the Enbridge Northern Gateway to diversify oil markets is a political red herring and an economic no-brainer.

The umbilical cord linking the NGP to ballooning bitumen production in the tar sands will entrench us in our traditional role as resource suppliers. The Staples Theory, first developed by Harold Innis, suggests that the export of raw materials, such as fur, fish, lumber, wheat and, more recently, minerals and oil has locked us into a state of economic dependency. As a consequence, the development of renewable energy, technological innovation, advanced engineering and sustainable manufacturing is stunted in Canada. Creativity and intellectual initiative, not fossil fuel development, drives the modern economy.

Tar sands crude already comprises over 50 percent of Canadian oil production and it is increasing steadily. Daily output in the tar sands is about two million barrels at present and industry forecasts the growth to more than double by 2030 when it will supply roughly 70 percent of national production. An economy trapped in tar sands carbon offers a dead-end future.

Environmental Factors

Restraining the growth of the tar sands and, thereby, eliminating the need for the NGP makes good economic sense. It makes even better environmental sense.

Canada committed at Copenhagen in 2009 to assist the international effort to restrict global temperature increases to 2 degrees C this century. As part of this commitment, our Government promised to emulate US environmental policy and reduce our greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions by 2020 to a level 17 percent below the 2005 total. In its latest annual reporting to the UN on Canada’s climate change progress, Environment Canada estimates that we will be 20 percent over, not 17 percent below, our target.

The tar sands are the biggest driver of ghg emissions in Canada. The Pembina Institute estimates that carbon pollution from the tar sands will quadruple between 2005 and 2030. Government regulations aimed at curbing fossil fuel emissions have been delayed yet again as our politicians keep procrastinating, hoping to catch a ride on the coat tails of US climate policy and, thereby, free them from domestic political fall-out.  Even Alberta – which is not meeting its ghg targets either – is impatient with the federal government on its lack of policy direction.

The most effective regulation to curb the rapid growth of ghgs in Canada would be to reject the Enbridge proposal to build the Northern Gateway pipelines to the Pacific. We have a moral obligation to reduce ghg emissions generated by fossil fuel production and combustion. Tar sands emissions have international repercussions, they know no boundaries. Our planet has only one atmosphere where heat trapping gases are increasing in ever greater concentrations, portending serious climate consequences for the future.

A timely warning has been issued by the UN. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second part of its fifth report on the state of climate science at the end of March. The IPCC assessment is circumspect and conservative as usual because scientists tend to be cautious in their conclusions and because governments always censor the contents of the final document. Nevertheless, the risks to the planet from global warming are frightening as ghgs continue their inexorable rise. According to The Guardian, the word “risk” is used 230 times in the IPCC report.

The latest report discusses in great detail the major problems facing global society: food and water scarcity, biodiversity loss and species extinction, starvation and health issues, humanitarian crises and mass migrations, international tensions and resource wars, social breakdown and civil unrest. The worst impacts of climate change will be felt by the weak, the poor and the elderly primarily in the developing world – is that why we are so indifferent in North America?

The third part of the IPCC’s latest assessment report was released in mid April. It demonstrates how fossil fuel driven ghg emissions have risen to unprecedented levels and why it will take unprecedented efforts to reduce them in order to restrict global temperature increases to 2 degrees C. The IPCC message is clear and unequivocal: divest from fossil fuels and move to renewable energy sources immediately. Equally clear is the ethical imperative: stop building pipelines that transport polluting oil.

In addition to exacerbating ghg levels, the tar sands also have an immense surface footprint. The volume of natural gas and water needed to fuel the steaming process, the toxic waste water stagnating in ponds and contaminating both the groundwater and the Athabasca River, the air pollutants affecting nearby communities and the desecration of the boreal forests are staggering. The carbon footprint of the extracted bitumen measured by ghg emissions per barrel is 17 percent higher than conventional crude oil production in North America and this figure will increase as the deeper deposits are mined.

Andrew Nikiforuk, one of Canada’s preeminent energy commentators, reported in TheTyee that major bitumen seepages have been occurring in the tar sands for years without public knowledge. The surface seeping appears to be caused by the steam injection methods used to release the subterranean bitumen deposits. The intense pressure created by the steam has cracked the protective caprock creating fissures through which bitumen and waste water emerge polluting the groundwater and wetlands. The underground pressure also raises the surrounding surface and as the bitumen is extracted, it subsides unevenly playing havoc with the natural forest cover.

The Alberta Energy Regulator, which is funded entirely by the fossil fuel industry, has imposed a “no steaming” order in parts of the tar sands. This is a significant development because eighty percent of the remaining bitumen is buried and can only be extracted by steaming. Therefore, if the ban on steaming becomes more widespread in the tar sands to protect sensitive ecosystems, bitumen extraction would grind to a halt dooming the NGP. No dilbit, no need for a pipeline to the Pacific.

The JRP report spells out 209 conditions that Enbridge must meet in building the NGP. But as David Anderson, a former Minister of the Environment, explained in an article in the Times Colonist, laying out the conditions is easy – will they be implemented is another question. The NEB has the responsibility for enforcing some of these conditions although the Cabinet can request that the Board modify its decisions. More disconcerting, however, are the powers the Government has arrogated to itself as part of Omnibus Bill C-38. The Environmental Assessment Act was gutted in C-38 providing opportunities for politicians to override many of the JRP’s protective conditions for building the Northern Gateway pipelines.

Dilbit is mixed in a ratio of roughly one barrel of condensate to three barrels of bitumen. It is acidic and toxic and it is highly unlikely that during the fifty year lifespan of the pipeline, the metal can withstand the corrosive qualities of dilbit. Our rivers are no longer protected from resource development. Because the pipelines will run through rugged terrain that is isolated and often inaccessible, a rupture under a river bed would see a wave of poisonous molasses halfway to the Pacific, wreaking havoc in its path, before the valves could be turned off. Building pipelines through the mountains is infinitely more complex than laying lines across the prairies.

Enbridge has experienced hundreds of spills on its North American pipeline network in the past fifteen years. The most notorious was the dilbit leak in wetlands adjacent to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. Clean-up operations have cost one billion dollars and are still not completed. The biggest problem has been the bitumen that sank to the bottom and has settled into the sediment, perhaps permanently. Most of the condensate evaporated before the dilbit sank but not before sickening many local residents. Enbridge received a scathing rebuke from the US Environmental Protection Agency about its handling of the Kalamazoo spill in a letter written just a month before the JRP delivered its approval of the NGP.

An alarming possibility is an earthquake along the pipeline route. In another article in The Tyee, Andrew Nikiforuk describes the increasing incidence of seismic activity around the world, including Alberta, that has been caused by frakking. The route through the mountains is especially vulnerable to earthquakes and landslides because, besides being a zone of major fault lines, it is also an area where extensive shale gas frakking is taking place. Inexplicably, no geotechnical studies have been done to assess the potential impact of earthquakes on pipelines carrying toxic dilbit and flammable condensate.

Likewise, the link between tsunamis and seismic instability in BC coastal waters received short shrift in the report. Government hydrographic charts show that the Douglas Channel follows a substantial fault line. In the past, at least two major underwater landslides have occurred in the channel. The stability of surrounding land forms merits far more scrutiny in determining the safety of a project of this nature than the JRP was prepared to countenance.

The danger of dilbit spills don’t end at the pipeline terminal at Kitimat. Supertankers loaded with dilbit will have to traverse the narrow Douglas Channel to open water while condensate tankers from Asia will sail up the waterway to unload compressed gas at the Kitimat terminal. The channel is a busy shipping route already plied by freighters, bulk resource carriers, ferries, tankers and cruise liners. In the past dozen years there have been five major accidents on the waterway, including the sinking of the BC ferry, Queen of the North. The NGP would add at least one large tanker a day to traffic on the Douglas Channel.

The BC government is ramping up the development of the liquid natural gas (LNG) industry in the interior of the coastal region and Kitimat is designated to become a major LNG terminal. Hundreds of pressurized LNG tankers headed for Asia will add even more pressure to a crowded waterway. An armada of tugboats cannot assure the safety of tankers in the foggy waters of the Douglas Channel. If a dilbit supertanker ever rammed an LNG tanker, the inferno would dwarf the Halifax explosion of 1917.

Once the dilbit is loaded on to tankers at Kitimat, the Enbridge consortium will be free of any liability for damages and compensation from oil spills. The owners of the tankers take on that liability. The problem is that the insurance coverage and the compensation funds are so limited and the expenses for cleaning up a tanker spill are so enormous that the federal government will be responsible for the shortfall that could amount to billions of dollars. Our government underwrites the risks, future taxpayers are saddled with the costs and corporations bank the profits.

Despite assurances from the JRP and Enbridge, there is no ultimate protection from a spill and no methods to clean it up effectively. Dilbit floats initially while it destroys the shoreline and once the condensate evaporates, the bitumen sinks. The debate around whether dilbit sinks was laid to rest by an Environment Canada report released at the time of the JRP recommendations. Unlike lighter oils that will biodegrade within a few years, heavy oils like dilbit tend to sink. They then usually resurface as tar balls and sink again taking decades, if not centuries, to biodegrade.  Dredging for dilbit is a futile exercise.

A tanker spill would be an environmental catastrophe and, for BC, an economic disaster. Damage to the provincial commercial and sport fishing industry and to eco-tourism would be irreparable. It is inconceivable that the BC government is considering reversing its opposition to the NGP if it receives a cut of the profits. What have we learned from the Exxon Valdez spill and the Gulf of Mexico blowout? Would future British Columbians ever forgive the politicians for trading a few dollars for an ecological nightmare that destroyed their future?

The last stages of the pipelines are planned to pass through the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the few remaining temperate rain forests in the world. But a bigger threat to the Great Bear is tanker traffic both in the Douglas Channel, which runs through the centre of the Rainforest, and in the coastal waters that lap the forests. An oil spill would devastate the sensitive ecosystem, a sanctuary for the rare spirit bear, woodland caribou, grizzlies and a wide variety of marine and land birds. The coastal waters also provide a habitat for humpback whales, orcas, seals, sea otters, salmon and shellfish. A number of these are threatened species.

The federal government has increased funding for aerial surveillance to spot oil spills along the BC coast. Is this a belated attempt to allay voter concerns about the NGP? Aerial detection is expensive and ineffective because by the time the spill is spotted, it is too late – the damage is done. Clean-up methods are also ineffective and the chemicals used are almost as toxic as the dilbit. Ecosystems may never recover from an oil spill. The herring population of Prince William Sound is still struggling 25 years after the Exxon Valdez crisis. The most effective method of controlling oil spills along one of the most pristine coastlines in Canada is to reject the NGP and keep dilbit tankers out of BC coastal waters permanently.

First Nations                   

Nobody speaks with more moral authority about the importance of the environment and the future of the west than our Aboriginal peoples. They have lived in harmony with nature for thousands of years; they are rooted in the region. Their commitment to community, like all First Nations peoples across Canada, is summed up by the Iroquois maxim that all decisions have to protect the welfare of their descendants for seven generations into the future. No Canadians better exemplify the link between the past and the future that our First Nations.

The presentations of the Aboriginal speakers at the JRP hearings highlight the vast chasm between them and contemporary urban society. “Hearings” is an inappropriate term because it is unlikely that they were really “heard.” Aboriginal speakers couched their concerns in a “language” largely incomprehensible to a society focused on competitive self-interest and unending economic growth. The “language” of our Indigenous peoples is the language of inclusion not isolation and of nurture not exploitation. Because their livelihood, culture and values are so intimately bound up with their surroundings, they honour and respect nature. They are the true stewards and custodians of our common wealth.

Native Canadians have a deep spiritual connection with the land and a wisdom developed over many centuries. Sadly, we have ignored both their collective wisdom and their code of values as well as their belief in the indivisibility of the natural and spiritual world. Txeemsim, one of the mythological chiefs of the West Coast nations, counselled his people that selfish behaviour is destructive for both self and society and he urged them to regard every action or decision as a moral choice. The Northern Gateway Project is a moral choice for them.

In an attempt to involve the Aboriginal communities along the proposed route in the project, the consortium is setting aside 10 percent of the equity for Aboriginal partners. The money for the purchase price will be advanced by the consortium and then repaid later by the communities out of revenues earned from the operation of the pipelines. There is no mention of down payments as part of a stake in the NGP. As another concession, Aboriginal partners, unlike other stakeholders, would not be subject to any potential liabilities associated with the project.

According to a National Post article by Andrew Mayeda recently, the Government is offering loan guarantees for Aboriginal communities to buy into resource projects, such as the NGP. “Responsible resource development” is a key feature of the Government’s widely publicized Economic Action plan. But how responsible – and even ethical – is it to risk taxpayers’ money to encourage and assist Aboriginal groups to buy into corporate ventures that may be inimical to the future environmental and social stability of their own communities?

News broke at the beginning of March that a prominent banker and former politician had been engaged by Enbridge to build trust with the Aboriginal communities along the route and to “broker a deal” with those opposed to the NGP. Why do the communities need this type of pressure to negotiate under deadlines imposed by industry and government? Is it just for a signature so the construction equipment can move in? Our Indigenous people have a long tradition of making communal decisions through consultations with their own members; they do not need outsiders interfering. And as for trust . . . well, it may just be too late.

Favourable corporate concessions backed by government financial guarantees and an emissary from the banking industry prepared to offer compromises – the optics are not good.

Government financial support for Aboriginal investments in joint ventures with national and multi-national resource companies on community lands is a highly contentious issue, especially where treaty rights have not yet been settled.  Promised deals and broken treaties are part of the bitter lessons of history that are seared into the DNA of our Indigenous people. How tragic it would be for the unity of BC and Alberta First Nations if some communities agreed to accept the offer of equity participation, pitting one community against another. It sounds eerily reminiscent of the 19th century practice of “divide and rule” that the European imperial powers used so effectively to control their colonies.

If the optics of incentives to buy into the NPG are bad, the actual investments might be far worse. Borrowing money to invest in an asset that will rust away in fifty years is perhaps not a wise venture. In addition, a potential shortage of tar sands dilbit to fill the pipeline which needs 60 percent capacity to be profitable and the expense of pipeline leaks could spell financial ruin for investors. A tanker spill would close down operations of the Northern Gateway indefinitely further eroding the value of the company.

If the UN initiates a “carbon budget” to control escalating ghg emissions and global temperature increases, Canada will be morally obliged to leave 80 percent of its fossil energy resources buried. The stock market valuations of most energy and resource companies are partly based on the assumption that their fossil fuel assets will eventually be developed. However, if an international “carbon budget” is implemented to slow climate change and investment is shifted to renewable energy, corporate fossil fuel reserves could become stranded assets sending company stock prices tumbling. Economists term this potential scenario a “carbon bubble.”

Another threat for investors is the fossil fuel divestment initiative – not dissimilar to the anti-apartheid boycott of the 1980s – that is taking root in the US and Canada. Throw in speculation in oil futures and we could have mayhem in the energy markets. Investments in the Northern Gateway project may evaporate faster than condensate escaping from a ruptured pipeline.

How unfortunate it would be for those First Nations communities who bought in to the NGP if the energy market imploded and they were unable to repay their equity purchase that had been financed by the consortium. What will the consortium demand as collateral for an equity stake? Can a First Nations community declare bankruptcy?  Would corporate rights override ancestral rights? The future financial viability, like ecological sustainability, of our Indigenous communities is essential for their cultural survival and independence.

Investing for the long term is usually sound advice. Why trade security then for a risky investment? First Nations communities may well be advised to concentrate on their existing equity in land and water – both permanent natural resources that have sustained them for centuries and will sustain their descendants for generations too. There is no better way of highlighting the issue than the way a group of First Nations’ women summed up the pipeline project when they met with Jodi Williams and the Nobel Women’s Initiative: You can’t drink the oil, you can’t eat the money.

Our Indigenous people represent the moral high ground in the battle against the NGP. It is their birthright that is at stake. It is their lands and waters and communities that stand to be ravaged – they will bear the costs and suffer the damage while the benefits and profits will go elsewhere. They are the frontline in the struggle against the pipelines; the least we can do is stand in solidarity with them.


The JRP claims in both volumes of their report, Connections and Considerations, that their assessment is science-based and precautionary in approach. But ignoring the Species at Risk Act and downplaying the problems of dilbit in saltwater and minimizing the dangers of seismic activity is hardly sound science. The panelists admitted that a large spill, although they suggested it was unlikely, would have adverse effects on ecosystems initially but that scientific evidence suggests the environment would recover to its natural state “in weeks and months.” In contrast to the rigorous scientific assessment of the IPCC reports, this sounds like junk science.

The “precautionary principle” states that in the case of a major policy initiative or project proposal the burden of proof shifts to the proponents to demonstrate unequivocally, supported by conclusive scientific consensus, that society will suffer no harm both now and in the future. What is the potential for harm is the key question that legislators must consider. An ethically responsible and mature society ensures that its present actions impose no harm on the future. The precautionary principle has its origin in the Seventh Generation precept of the Iroquois.

The frequent use of the term “precaution” – as opposed to the precautionary principle – in the report is disingenuous because, unless backed by concrete action, it is such a nebulous notion. It is understandable – but never acceptable – why the precautionary principle was not adopted as the standard for evaluating the NGP. This project is so fraught with environmental problems and the potential for harm is so pervasive that it could never have withstood the exacting critical analysis demanded by the application of the precautionary principle.

The report acknowledged, for example, that there would be adverse environmental effects from the construction and operation of the pipelines but argued that they would be “temporary.” Disturbingly, the panelists admitted that some of the effects “may not be fully mitigated” and that in certain circumstances some “significant adverse environmental effects are justified.” These are startling statements in an assessment of a major project where the focus was on environmental protection. This is decidedly not the language of authoritative science embedded, supposedly, in “precaution” – it sounds like the language of the marketing industry.

The JRP had many examples of the application of the precautionary principle to emulate because every major international environmental treaty in the last 30 years has incorporated the precautionary principle, including the UN World Charter for Nature in 1982, the Montreal Protocol in 1987, the Rio Declaration in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. It is to the unending detriment of future Canadians that the panel chose not to apply the universal standards of precaution and protection in approving the NGP.

In the concluding section in Connections, entitled Balancing burdens, benefits and risks, the JRP supported their recommendations for Cabinet approval of the NGP by arguing:

  • The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project would meet an economic need by diversifying Canada’s oil markets and condensate supply
  • The Project would produce economic and social benefits for Canadians
  • Enbridge Northern Gateway’s proposed measures would reduce, eliminate or offset the potential negative environmental effects
  • Other negative effects would be addressed by the conditions imposed and regulatory oversight of the project.

There is an obvious mismatch between these supporting reasons for building the NGP and the environmental focus of the original Agreement and Terms of Reference. Even the order of the reasons above implies a secondary role for the environmental concerns and a rather nonchalant approach to the safeguards. There is also a disconnect with the acknowledgement by the panel, quoted earlier, that their “purpose was to assess the environmental effects of the proposed project.” It raises the question whether the purpose of the review changed its focus during the course of the proceedings.

The “fundamental question” to be addressed is now spelled out in the introduction of Connections as: “Would Canada and Canadians be better or worse off if the project goes ahead?” There is a shift from the environmental emphasis of the original and the amended Agreement centred on protection and precaution to a focus on contemporary economic and social benefits. The modified mandate is both mystifying and troubling and, more importantly, it raises the question again whether the recommendations of the JRP exceed the statutory limitations of the review process.

It is incongruous, in the face of the near certainty of the IPCC and national scientific academies around the world that climate change is the result of fossil fuel generated ghg emissions driven by economic expansion, that the panel would recommend constructing a polluting petroleum project on the basis that it promotes GDP growth and offers positive economic benefits for Canada.

Designating volume 1 of the report as Connections is ironic. Our two fundamental “connections” are to nature as the sole source and sustenance of our existence as a species on this planet and to the future that belongs, not to us, but to our offspring. Environmental assessments are by their nature long term in their vision and that is why the NEB Act specifies the importance of the “future public interest.” The NGP was  assessed solely through the prism of the present. Sadly, the review of the Northern Gateway pipelines has failed the future.

The final decision on the fate of the pipelines rests with the Cabinet. Although the federal government came out in favour of the NGP during the review process and it has also assumed wide-ranging powers to speed up decisions on resource projects, it must surely abide by the spirit of the Joint Agreement. A clause in the Agreement stipulates that the Cabinet “will make the decision on the environmental assessment (whether the project is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects and if so, whether such effects are justified in the circumstances).”

No matter the “circumstances,” attempting to justify the “environmental effects” of building and operating the NGP that are so obviously “adverse” would be ethically and ecologically indefensible by any standards. Governments have an obligation not just to their supporters and to the electorate in the short term, they also have a commitment to consider the well-being of future societies. All governments are bound by a moral covenant with unborn generations, summed up succinctly in the Great Law of the Iroquois:

Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.

It is our responsibility as Canadians to use every democratic means to persuade our Government to say NO to the pipelines. We know the dangers of fossil fuel emissions; we can no longer plead ignorance. We owe it to our offspring to oppose this perilous project. As voters, we hold the proxy votes for future generations and we dare not break trust with them. We act as the custodians of their birthright and the real test of our humanity and our spirituality is the state of the world that we bequeath to them.

Northern Gateway should not be an issue driven by economic ideology and partisan politics; it is an issue of ethics, equity and social justice focused on the needs of the future. The decision on the merits of the Northern Gateway pipelines is not a political decision or an economic decision – it is a moral decision.

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6 thoughts on “Northern Gateway: A Plea for the Future”

  1. Wow. Great write up, Hugh. I learned a number of things reading this piece and will recommend it as a primer for those looking for more information. I agree with all your points; the three that have always been most compelling to me are:
    1) the discounting of the future (our society seems to fundamentally struggle with this notion of considering the wellbeing of those who will come after us)
    2)the lack of full cost accounting (the free market system is clearly failing if project liability is completely incommensurate with the level of potential impacts. Same goes for any regard for climate impacts. In reviewing Canada’s latest National Inventory Report it’s clear that the expansion of fossil fuel extraction is undermining a lot of the progress we’re seeing in other provinces)
    3) the quick sale of natural resources without maximizing their benefit to Canadians.

  2. Federal and Provincial Opposition parties please unite now to produce a farsighted national energy program, one capable of providing our kids a future, breathable space, safe food and unpolluted drinking water.

  3. To draw attention to the seriousness of this coming huge problem, the Opposition parties Liberals, NDP and Quebec parties should unite to spend the $$ to distribute the essence of this statement to an anxious public distracted by harsh weather problems and lack of jobs for our youth.

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