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Mix of cautious optimism and skepticism greets B.C. government announcement on Northern Gateway pipeline

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The newly re-elected government of British Columbia has called a 'timeout' in one plank of its pro-fossil fuel platform -- its backing of Enbridge company's Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal that would transport tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the B.C. coast at Kitimat.

In its final written submission to the Northern Gateway Pipeline Joint Review Panel, the government says the project has so far failed to meet the "environmental conditions" (sic) that it set last year in its "five conditions" [1] for approval of the line.

The province's considerable sway over the final decision on the line would seem to indicate that the project is dead. That's the conclusion that many environmentalists are drawing. Not so fast. No one in the government is saying anything remotely similar. The "five conditions" are still on the table. And the operative word from the government is that it opposes the project "at this time."

"All doors have not been shut," former cabinet minister John Les told CBC Radio on June 3.

That said, there is reason to celebrate, albeit cautiously. It would be "full steam ahead" on the pipeline were it not for the significant opposition -- call it a wall of opposition -- to the project. Northern Gateway has received such widespread opposition and condemnation that there was not a chance in hell the proposal would win approval in its current form. From the government and industry perspective, a timeout and retooling of their proposal was called for.

Who will decide?

The Joint Review Panel has been conducting public hearings in B.C. and Alberta on the proposed line. These will conclude this month. A report and recommendation is expected by the end of 2013. The Panel was established by the National Energy Board, a federal regulatory agency whose recommendation weighs heavily in any decision. A "no" would all but kill it; a "yes" will be a rallying cry for opponents to redouble their efforts.

Ultimately, it is the federal government that has jurisdiction over inter-provincial pipelines, as part of its constitutional authority over interprovincial transportation. But it's a grey area legally, and an even more uncertain area politically. Without doubt, a provincial government could wield a combination of political prerogative and popular opinion to stop any such project it chooses to oppose.

But that's not the course of the Liberal Party government of Premier Christy Clark. This is a government that has never seen a fossil fuel project it did not embrace.

It is premature to treat the government's announcement as anything definitive. After all, this is a party and government that wholeheartedly support the other tar sands pipeline proposed for B.C. -- expansion of the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline of Kinder Morgan company. Ditto for expansion (doubling) of coal exports through the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert. (Read a report here on how the proponents of coal exports are hoping to bypass any serious public review of their plans.)

Even more noteworthy is the government's role in promoting natural gas fracking, liquefaction and export from the gas fields in the northeast of the province. Five, multi-billion dollar proposals -- and counting -- will obliterate any past and future pretension by the government to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only is natural gas extraction and burning a highly damaging fossil fuel industry, the proposed liquefaction for export of much of the product will require massive amounts of new electricity. This will either turn the province's existing electricity production on its head, by requiring major expansion of hydro-electric production, or it will contribute to even larger greenhouse gas emissions if the option of burning natural gas is chosen.

So utterly devoted is this government to expansion of climate-destroying natural gas projects that it is newly creating an entire ministry of natural gas!

An informative analysis of the government announcement on Northern Gateway by the Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative argues, "Anything but a strong NO to Enbridge would have raised the ire of northern First Nations and communities – those whom she quickly needs to appease to fast track her LNG plans. Simply put, a YES to Enbridge would have … unleashed a backlash of civil disobedience unprecedented in our province’s history."

Two published news reports are reflective of differing nuances and views of the government announcement. A report in the online The Tyee cites favorable reactions of some leading environmentalists across the province.

A skeptic's view is penned by a seasoned reporter and columnist in the Times-Colonist daily in Victoria. He calls the government announcement an example of doublespeak and "stuff of genius."

Going forward, we will see changes in language and bafflegab on the part of industry and government. Lots of cold, hard cash will be paid out to try and appease affected communities and sell the project to a suspicious, if not hostile, population across the province and the country.

So while defenders of Mother Earth can celebrate a small victory, we have new and important obstacles to confront in stopping this and other madhouse, fossil fuel projects. The setback in the May 14 provincial election only complicates matters.

Postscript: Canada's Transportation Safety Board reports today on its investigation into a 2012 gas pipeline rupture in northern B.C. that sparked a forest fire and caused the rupture of another, nearby gas pipeline.

Notes:

[1] The five conditions that the BC government says must be met before it will approve the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline are:

  • Completing the environmental review process. In the case of Enbridge, that would mean a recommendation by the National Energy Board Joint Review Panel that the project proceed.
  • Deploying “world-leading” marine oil-spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.'s coastline and ocean to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines and shipments.
  • Using “world-leading” practices for land oil-spill prevention, response and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines.
  • Addressing legal requirements regarding aboriginal and treaty rights, and ensuring First Nations provided with the opportunities, information and resources necessary to participate in and benefit from a heavy-oil project.
  • Ensuring British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy oil project that reflects the level, degree and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers.

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