What if the major policy initiative of Stephen Harper’s majority mandate is a non-starter?
This will take some explaining. Let’s begin with a pop quiz. You’re in charge of a big pipe that carries liquid a long distance. One day you notice the pressure inside the pipe is dropping. What on Earth could be making the pressure in your pipe fall?
If it takes you less than 17 hours to answer, “hole in the pipe,” then you would have been much too clever to work for Enbridge in July 2010, when more than three million litres of diluted bitumen gushed out of that company’s pipeline and into the wetlands and rivers near Marshall, Mich. That’s an amount of ethical oil roughly equivalent to the amount of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The oil kept spilling for 17 hours after the initial alarm. By Enbridge’s own rules, the response to a pressure drop should have been to shut the line down until the cause was known, but, you know, whoopsie.
“While there have been larger onshore oil spills, in this case, Enbridge Incorporated is responsible for the release that has been the most expensive to clean up,” said Debbie Hersman, the chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Bureau. “According to a recent Enbridge SEC filing and the EPA, the total cleanup cost, so far, is more than $800 million. That is already more than five times the next most-costly onshore oil spill.”
We bring you this news because the good people of British Columbia are deciding how excited they should be about the prospect of the Northern Gateway project—twin Enbridge pipelines, chock full of oil and lessons learned—running across the province from northern Alberta to the ports at Kitimat.
Adrian Dix, the province’s opposition NDP leader, is seriously not excited. “Under the Enbridge proposal, British Columbia would assume almost all the project’s risk, yet would see only a fraction of the benefits,” Dix said as his caucus sent a protest letter to the National Energy Board’s joint review panel a few weeks ago. “By any measure, such a high-risk, low-return approach simply isn’t in B.C.’s interests.”
Of course, despite a string of encouraging polls, Dix isn’t the premier of British Columbia. The B.C. Liberals’ Christy Clark still is, but while she makes a show of reserving judgment on Gateway, Clark’s language is much like Dix’s. “When it comes to risk and benefit, compared to the opportunity that liquefied natural gas represents, the Enbridge pipeline is actually quite small on the benefit side but quite large on the risk side,” Clark told Maclean’s a couple of weeks ago.
So Enbridge, or its protectors in the Alberta government, will be tempted to sweeten the pot for British Columbians by offering royalties or jobs in return for political support. And that probably won’t help. As Vaughn Palmer pointed out in the Vancouver Sun, British Columbians have a long history of blocking resource-development projects whose entire benefit would have stayed in the province: “The Windy Craggy copper property in the northwest. The Kemano II expansion on the coast. Uranium mining in the southern interior. Coal bed methane anywhere. Logging in any number of forest tracts. The BC Hydro gas-fired generating station on Vancouver Island. All killed, in large measure by environmental concerns.”
Which brings us back, at last, to Stephen Harper. His government kicked off the new year by declaring that diversifying Canada’s energy exports—basically, away from the United States and toward China—was a top government priority. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver kicked off the festivities by releasing a temper tantrum of an open letter. “Unfortunately, there are environmental and other radical groups that would seek to block this opportunity to diversify our trade,” Oliver wrote, or somebody wrote over his signature. “These groups threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda. They attract jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world to lecture Canadians not to develop our natural resources.” Then Harper flew to China, the spring budget turned out to contain a bunch of measures designed to clip environmental groups’ wings, and everyone whirled into a perfect tizzy.
But now it’s July and the Gateway hearings are still going on and absolutely nobody has been mollified by all the huffing and puffing from Ottawa. Oliver’s harrumphing letter “didn’t go down well in Calgary,” one oil-industry lobbyist told our reporter Chris Sorensen last week. Even bank executive Jim Prentice, who used to be the Petroleum Club’s best friend in Harper’s cabinet, is urging a softer touch. “The constitutional obligation to consult with First Nations is not a corporate obligation,” he wrote in the Vancouver Sun. “It is the federal government’s responsibility.”
Of course the oil patch will still sell oil if Enbridge doesn’t find a route to Kitimat. But last October a lot of Conservatives were wondering what they’d won a majority to do. In January, Harper told them, “This.” These days, “this” isn’t amounting to much. Time for a new agenda? The third since he won re-election 14 months ago?