On January 9, 2012, Canadian Minister of Natural Resource Joe Oliver suggested that Canada is faced with “an historic choice … regarding our energy policies.” He clearly indicated his government’s commitment to “expand our trade with the fast-growing Asian economies.” He, however, suggested this vital “national economic interest” was under threat by “environmentalists and other radical groups.” Oliver argued that these radicals “hijack our regulatory system” by “stacking public hearings with bodies,” thus causing project delays. Further, Oliver claimed that these radicals “use funding from foreign special-interest groups to undermine Canada’s national economic interest.”

These comments were contentious, made on the eve of the beginning of review hearings by the federally-appointed Joint Review Panel into a proposed pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to a Kitimat terminal for overseas export. The Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, as the pipeline is known, is proposed to transport 525,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen daily to port.

On January 11, the second day of the review panel, these comments from the Conservative government remained a central contention for local interveners. Cheryl Brown, a member of the local environmental group Douglas Channel Watch, spoke of her “dismay that the federal government has in recent days taken to … intimidation and bullying.”

Brown expressed her disgust that government leaders “are calling well-intentioned people ‘radical ideologists.'” She denounced the government’s insinuation that local citizens speaking to their concerns constituted “an interference in the process.” Many other local residents, as well as the Haisla speakers the previous day, echoed Brown’s concerns.

It is dismaying that the government is prioritizing its own rendering of the national interest over public concerns. Certainly public reviews need to consider the concerns of local communities that would be most impacted by development. However, this is not simply a competition between local people and the national interest. Nor is it an issue of national interests against international concerns.

While the Enbridge corporation would be well served by the government approving their pipeline, this project cannot simply be assumed to serve the national interest. While Enbridge Inc. is indeed a Canadian company, based in Calgary, it is a multinational corporation without simple national allegiances. It owns a U.S.-based subsidiary of the Canadian company, and controls a network of oil and gas pipelines in the United States. (A pipeline system that has been prone to leaks, prominently spilling oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and most recently natural gas into the Gulf of Mexico.)

While the government raised the spectre of foreign environmental interests having undue influence over the review process, similar questions haunt the financing of the development of the tar sands and its related pipeline infrastructure. Half of Enbridge’s own board of directors is American (the remainder being based in Canada), and currently a quarter of its shares are reported as foreign owned. Two of the five companies providing early-stage funding of $100 million for the Enbridge pipeline proposal are foreign (Total is French and Sinopec is Chinese).

But this is only a small fraction of the billions of foreign dollars underwriting the course of tar sands development. The Chinese state-owned Sinopec spent $4.65 billion in April 2010 on a stake in Syncrude. In May, the Chinese Investment Corporation contributed $817 million to form a joint venture with Penn West Energy Trust to develop Canadian bitumen assets. To cement this relationship, the Chinese state-owned fund also purchased a five per cent stake in Penn West for $435 million. The Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation snapped up Opti Canada for $2.1 billion last summer. Last month on the eve of Christmas, Sinopec purchased Daylight Energy for $2.2 billion. Only last week, PetroChina spent $680 million to became the sole owner of the MacKay River tar sands project after buying out the remaining 40 per cent owned by the Calgary-based Athabasca Oil Sands Corp.

Certainly the question of foreign influence around the tar sands seems a pertinent question. The federally-appointed Joint Review Panel will weigh the question of the Canadian national interests, as is standard with National Energy Board process, in rendering its decision. The problem here is that the government, and one must suspect also the regulatory bodies that continue to approve tar sands development, continue to mistake particular investors’ interests in developing the tar sands and its related export infrastructure for the Canadian national interest. The interests of multinational corporations cannot simply be assumed to be synonymous with Canadian interests.

While the National Energy Board indicates that it determines the public interest based on consideration of social, environmental, and economic factors, Minister Oliver’s excessive stress on the necessity of advancing “Canada’s national economic interest” highlights a particular Conservative rendering of the meaning of national interests. Indeed the minister’s comments about “foreign special interest groups” indicate that, from the perspective of this government, environmentalists are special interests distinct from the interests of the broader nation. Indeed the tone of his remarks would suggest that environmentalism is not only distinct from but also a threat to Canadian interests.

Fortunately the terms of reference that the Canadian government has given the review panel for the Enbridge pipeline help save Canada from considering very un-Canadian concerns about the environment. While the review panel necessarily incorporates the economic value of enabling further tar sands development into its decision-making, the panel is instructed to elide the environmental questions associated with tar sands development. This means the panel does not consider the impact of the increased tar sands development that would be required to fill the Enbridge pipeline with bitumen on First Nations communities in northern Alberta. It also means that the panel does consider the devastating impacts of tar sands on the world’s climate.

Respecting the interests of future generations of Canadians requires that concerns about the climate and the pollution of watersheds be included in our decision-making, as well as concerns specific to the Enbridge project, such as pipeline leaks and tanker spills. If such concerns are integrated and respected in our decision-making, it is possible to recognize that the Enbridge pipeline undermines the long-term sustainability of Canada. Correcting Joe Oliver’s inverted logic, the Enbridge pipeline is a threat to Canadian interests.

However, it is not simply a threat to Canadian interests. People across the world are concerned about the sustainability of the planet we all share. The protection of internationally significant sites of biodiversity, such as the north coast of British Columbia, and the issue of climate change are global concerns. As Enbridge endangers both globally significant places and the broader global ecosystem, we should not be surprised to find international opposition.

If local concerns about the safety of the Enbridge pipeline find resonance in communities in the United States or the Maldives, Britain or Bolivia, Europe or Africa, perhaps we should pause to consider the global significance of the risk the federal Conservatives are willing to take. Then, we should consider what we can do to stop them.

Tyler Shandro during a June 25 news briefing. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

Tyler McCreary

Tyler McCreary is an Indigenous solidarity activist based in northern British Columbia. He is also currently working towards his PhD in geography at York University.