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.