The Enbridge pipeline: Northern Gateway to what?

Conflating the interests of the shareholders and investors of energy giants such as Enbridge with those of the Canadian people has become the central talking point for the promoters of Alberta's tar sands.

Conflating the interests of the shareholders and investors of energy giants such as Enbridge with those of the Canadian people has become the central talking point for the promoters of Alberta’s tar sands. That deliberate conflation is all about generating public support for the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, which would see a twinned pipeline constructed from the tar sands to British Columbia and then the subsequent transport of what many have called the world’s dirtiest oil by supertanker from B.C.’s north coast to offshore markets.

Echoing Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has asserted that Northern Gateway is in the “national interest.” Oliver’s pronouncement serves to placate Alberta Energy minister Ron Liepert’s call for the Canadian government to “expedite” approval of the Enbridge proposal. Even more concerning than mollifying Liepert’s stridency, Minister Oliver’s endorsement, intended or not, serves to undermine the National Energy Board’s assessment process and the federal Joint Review Panel (JRP) hearings on the highly controversial project before they have even commenced. As an intervener in the aforementioned review process, Raincoast Conservation Foundation is concerned how the federal minister’s unqualified expression of support for the Enbridge pipeline could compromise the Northern Gateway JRP.

If the energy industry, as well as provincial and federal governments, are so concerned with the national interest, why are they in a headlong rush to ship diluted bitumen to Asian and American markets? Even the chief administrative officer for the town of Bruderheim, the site of the proposed Northern Gateway terminal in Alberta, has voiced reservations about Enbridge’s plan on the basis that shipping unrefined tar sands crude out of Canada translates into lost jobs for Canadians.

One could also argue that the tar sands are a strategic resource that Canada will need to bridge the gap during the inevitable, and likely difficult, transition to fossil fuel alternatives. Canada exports approximately 2.5 million barrels a day of oil to the United States, yet simultaneously imports 1.2 million barrels a day. So why the intense push to export even more of our critical and limited natural resources to foreign interests? In addition, what price to Canada’s future energy security will be exacted as a result of this short-term thinking?

In a January 2011 media interview, Enbridge spokesperson Michele Perret provided her company’s rationalization: “We have a fantastic lifestyle in Canada… and the only reason we have that is because we export more than we consume of the natural resources we have.”

In contradiction to those who contend that the Enbridge pipeline is of “national economic significance” for Canada, the company has indicated in its own application to the National Energy Board that Northern Gateway is not of national or provincial economic significance, stating that “despite the magnitude and duration of project effects on GDP and employment, the effects on the provincial and national economies are considered not significant relative to the overall size of these economies.”

Parenthetically, even if Northern Gateway is approved, a significant amount of tar sands crude will continue to be shipped to the United States, in this case by supertanker to ports in California. Dr. Gerald Graham, a marine policy analyst who has been closely examining the Northern Gateway proposal, has discovered the following:

“From an in-depth analysis of the company’s application filed with the National Energy Board and Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, almost all the tankers to be loaded with tar sands oil would, once the project comes on stream in 2016 or later (assuming it is approved), be destined for West coast ports — not Asian ones. Elsewhere in the application West Coast is narrowed down to United States West Coast.”

Given Dr. Graham’s discovery of where much of the Northern Gateway crude is actually headed, the argument that the primary need for the Enbridge pipeline is to open new markets throughout Asia would seem suspiciously disingenuous.

The recent chatter from energy industry spokespersons and their political analogues at all levels of government about the need to formulate a national energy strategy is simply code for developing an export strategy for Alberta’s tar sands. And despite industry and government protestations to the contrary, that export strategy will be designed with the intention of running roughshod over provinces like B.C., where Alberta and the energy industry want to impose their pipelines and oil tankers against the will of a clear majority of British Columbians.

A version of this article previously ran in the Vancouver Sun, and in The Huffington Post on August 16, 2011.

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