After the U.S. delayed its decision on whether to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that would carry oil sands bitumen from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quick to stress his government’s renewed enthusiasm for exporting more oil to Asia. He called it “an important priority” for Ottawa.
With those words, the heated pipeline fight shifted from Keystone to the Northern Gateway project in British Columbia, where Calgary-based Enbridge Inc., hopes to lay a 1,172-km oil sands pipeline to the port town of Kitimat. For environmentalists, the economic benefits—estimated by Enbridge to add $270 billion to Canada’s GDP over 30 years—don’t outweigh the risk of an oil spill, something Enbridge experienced with much publicity in July 2010, when one of its pipes burst into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Nathan Lemphers, a Pembina Institute analyst, says Northern Gateway’s route leaves it vulnerable to landslides and avalanches, increasing odds of a rupture. He also points to the B.C. coastline, where an oil tanker spill could devastate salmon stocks and wipe out the region’s orcas, according to a 2010 report by the Raincoast Conservation Society. Alongside such disquiet are concerns over Aboriginal land rights.
The $5.5-billion proposal began its review process with public hearings in Kitimat on Jan. 10. Among its supporters is the Kitimat Terrace Industrial Development Society, which expects the project to create 150 to 200 jobs in the community. “We feel confident this project can be done to the highest standards,” says executive director Alexander Pietralla. Oil companies are also supportive, with several putting up $10 million to back Enbridge during the regulatory process.
Alberta’s pro-industry EthicalOil.org website recently attacked environmental groups, accusing them of accepting funds from “foreign special interest groups.” Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver echoed that sentiment when he wrote in an open letter that foreign environmentalists “threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological ends.” With rhetoric like this, the Northern Gateway fracas might make the Keystone seem like child’s play.