Old environmental, First Nations battles echo behind pipeline approval

The Northern Gateway decision and old lessons not quite learned

What’s important to note isn’t so much the decision, writes John Geddes, as how Harper frames the epic challenge still facing Enbridge

Darryl Dyck/CP

Darryl Dyck/CP

It’s no surprise that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet has, this afternoon, approved the Northern Gateway pipeline, subject to Enbridge Inc. fulfilling 209 conditions set out late last year by a joint review panel appointed by the National Energy Board and the federal environment minister.

What’s important to note about today’s announcement isn’t so much the decision itself as how Harper frames the epic challenge still facing Enbridge if it means to press ahead with building the pipeline from Bruderheim, Alta., across British Columbia, to a new Pacific port at Kitimat, B.C.

Here’s some key wording in the federal news release, which went out under the auspices of Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford: “The proponent clearly has more work to do in order to fulfill the public commitment it has made to engage with Aboriginal groups and local communities along the route.”

That’s putting it awfully mildly. Opposition from B.C. First Nations groups is fierce and entrenched. Equally worrisome for Enbridge have to be the resistance of the B.C. government and the province’s famously well-organized and well-motivated conglomeration of environmental groups. On Premier Christy Clark’s ultimate sway over the project—some would call it a veto—Rickford’s release alludes with deceptive blandness to Enbridge’s need to “apply for regulatory permits and authorizations from federal and provincial governments.”


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There is a great deal of reporting to be done on this story, and no doubt a lot of informed comment will pour out today. A major question is the degree to which the federal government means to engage directly in the work ahead, or leave the heavy lifting pretty much up to Enbridge. Through everything to come, two historical background points are worth keeping in mind.

Firstly, it’s bizarre that any major resource project in British Columbia, of all places, would be embarked upon without early, assiduous attention to the imperative of building broad support among First Nations and, as much as possible, environmentalists. This is the province, in case anyone really needs reminding, where protests against logging plans in Clayoquot Sound reached a crescendo of civil disobedience in 1993, which, at the time, seemed to have permanently redefined how corporations have no choice but to bring sophistication and sensitivity to big natural resource projects.

Secondly, it’s odd that the pipeline sector, especially, wouldn’t yet have cultivated a deeply ingrained wariness of the public opinion pitfalls of their particular sort of development—fully four decades after the appointment of Judge Thomas Berger to conduct his seminal commission into the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Berger’s report led to that project being shelved and, more importantly, it hammered home the need—one would have thought indelibly—for pipeline proponents to settle First Nations issues first.

So the remarkable thing about the sense that today’s cabinet approval is basically the start of the hard work for Enbridge, rather than the conclusion of it, stems from the fact that the Northern Gateway story is shot through with a feeling of old lessons having to be painfully relearned.


The Northern Gateway decision and old lessons not quite learned

  1. ‘No justice, no peace’

  2. C’mon John, catch up to the play, you’re lagging behind a bit there! The Berger Commission isn’t some seminal lesson that this govt or the pipeline industry might have absorbed by now – it is pure kryptonite to these guys. They still regard it as a crime against the country, or more properly their right to exploit it as and how they wish. In a generation these guys have barely learned how to to tie their shoe laces in social contract terms, leave alone learn from the past.
    Did you see the Globe article today on Eyford?[sp] It seems even Harper’s hand picked go to guy blames him for the mess. If they keep pushing on this there will be hell to pay in BC. Anyone with a smidgin of back ground knowledge about the province knows this is true. Unless they can drive a wedge between the enviros and the FNs the end game is a given. And on this file there is no wedge to drive. FNs have chosen gas development over oil sands[ at least on this part of the coast] Apparently no one has clued Harper into this fact yet.

    • Then by railway it is, either way the oil is going to get to market. All the angst over pipelines is moot. 350,000 barrels a day through the Fraser Valley, all the while the “first nations” will gripe and barricade and continue to wallow in self pity about their “condition” even as the environmentalists fulminate and post banners. Pathetic.

      • You can’t sail a railway car to china buddy. If you think FNs on the coast can’t prevent the facilities for loading tanker being built ( or stop the tankers themselves) you’re dreaming.

      • That’s exactly the attitude which will delay Gateway for years or even kill it. One of 4 remaining conditions the BC government has is that the treaty rights of the First Nations must be respected. Without the agreement of BC, there won’t be any Gateway.

        • “Without the agreement of BC, there won’t be any Gateway”

          BC has no constitutional grounds to stand on to oppose Gateway and, unlike FN, isn’t likely to try to litigate the thing to death. Clark’s conditions are pure political posturing – the Feds/AB/Enbridge will throw a few tokens at her and she’ll go away.

          FNs, on the other hand, are confident they can legally kill this project on the basis of the duty the courts say they are owed when something might intrude upon their traditional lands. That duty is limited to a duty to “meaningfully consult”. In the course of the hearings conducted over the last three years, hundreds of FN groups were consulted and were afforded thousands of hours and tens of thousands of pages of submissions. It would be helpful if someone could reference an affected FN group that wasn’t consulted or describe a FN argument against the pipeline that wasn’t presented. Then, once that is done, offer an explanation as to how that one missed FN group or argument would have made one wit of difference.

          I have no doubt whatsoever the FN groups -egged on by the enviro-zealots and press acolytes – will continue to pursue their scorched earth litigation approach, dress up in camo and blockade a few roads, etc. etc. and they might delay things a year or two, but the pipeline is inevitable and the more prescient among them would be well advised to get what they’re going to get out of Enbridge/Feds now and move on to their next grievance.

          • The conditions placed by BC may be political, but this may come as surprise to you, the BC government has to please the voters in the province unless the Liberal Party wants to be wiped out. The tourism industry beings in over a billion dollars to BC every year which would end if there were an oil spill and Enbridge is offering just $19 billion in taxes over 30 years. The days are long gone when a few glass beads, trinkets and empty promises were enough to buy off the First Nations or any province.

            The crown, which is the government of Canada must conduct “meaningful consultation” with the First Nations, The NEB is not the government of Canada nor is there any definition of the term “meaningful consultation” which leaves it wide open to constitutional challenge which could last for years.

            You attitude, along with that of the original poster and Harper’s dismissive one towards the First Nations provides plenty of motivation for the them to fight this. Apparently you haven’t a clue what the FN land in northern BC is like or the last thing you would call it is “scorched earth” but whatever it’s like, it is their land, not yours , not Enbridges and not Stephen Harpers and they can damn well do what they like with it.

            BTW What makes you so sure that Harper will be the PM in a couple of years or that the CPC will be the governing party?


  3. Not only does Enbridge have a lot of work to do with its 209 condition from the NEB and BC’s 4 still on the table, the feds must also consult with the First Nations. It’s not going to be easy as the FN are more than angry that the Harper gang gave their approval for Gateway before giving them so much as the time of day.

    By the time Gateway is under way, Tony Abbott, Harper’s new best friend will be mining the shale oil and gas from the field which is reported to be larger than Canada’s, in Australia and shipping it to China.