The federally appointed Joint Review Panel conducting the Environmental and National Energy Board review of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Project released a decision today, January 19, 2011, indicating that the project application was not yet ready for review. The Panel had held hearings in Whitecourt, Alberta, and Kitimat and Prince George, B.C.. After hearing from dozens of First Nations representatives, environmentalists, fishermen, and citizens concerned about the impacts of the construction of the Northern Gateway tar sands oil pipeline and marine terminal, the panel determined that Enbridge had not in fact provided adequate consideration of the project-specific challenges and risks. Enbridge must now provide additional information before assessment of their proposal can go forward.

Specifically, there was inadequate consideration of the unique challenges associated with the mountainous route of the pipeline and the substantial impacts the pipeline could pose to the communities along the route who continue to depend on the land as a source of subsistence and the heart of their culture. The pipeline route crosses the Rocky and Coastal Mountains, including areas prone to avalanches and slides, and requires two tunnels. These are harsh and yet fragile ecosystems through which Enbridge proposes to transport high volumes of tar sands oil as well as condensate (a fluid used to dilute oil for pipeline transport). According to the Panel, Enbridge needed to provide more information on its plans to negotiate these engineering and risk management challenges.

The Panel further broadened the scope of its assessment, including further consideration of the environmental, socioeconomic, and cultural impacts of the project. The Panel also suggested these impacts needed to be considered in the context of the cumulative impacts of the other related developments. Public concerns about the consultation process associated with the project will also receive greater scrutiny, and the Panel extended its list of issues to address in greater detail the project engineering and proponent’s risk preparedness.

However, against the expressed concerns of many members of public, the Panel will not consider the impacts of oil sands development on the project, and will only consider how Canadian commitments to address climate change bear directly on the pipeline itself. Similarly, the consumption of oil in destination markets remains largely out of the scope of the review. Thus, the Panel has abstracted the pipeline from the larger geographies of oil extraction and consumption, and minimized consideration of how a tar sands pipeline infrastructure contributes to the expansion of the climatic catastrophe that is tar sands development.

Further, the Panel dismissed concerns from numerous Aboriginal governments that First Nations jurisdiction over their territories was being disrespected in the review process. In line with international principles around Indigenous rights to free, prior, and informed consent to projects that impact their traditions and territories, First Nations have been demanding involvement in the decision-making process. However, the Panel continues to ignore this demand, arguning that their authority derives from their status as a public panel and does not infringe upon the established rights and title of Aboriginal.

Further representatives of the Wet’suwet’en, Coastal First Nations, and the Carrier Sekani were explicit that they believed that First Nations concerns and knowledge should fundamental to the review process and had been inadequately considered by Enbridge. While the Panel agreed that increased work needed to be done on the Aboriginal Traditional Knowledge studies for the review process, they accepted Enbridge’s commitment to continue this work as the assessment advances as adequate. The panel simply failed to consider the possibility that Aboriginal knowledge should centrally inform the review process and its approach. The Panel misunderstood the value of Aboriginal knowledge for their work, treating it as merely supplemental, something to be tacked on the already existing proposal and added late into the discussions.

Thus, while the Panel’s decision today challenged some of the gaps in Enbridge’s proposal, its reasoning continued to perpetuate a problematic approach to governance. The review process continues to disrespect both local knowledge and the full extent of our global responsibilities. While we can applaud its decision to foist additional demands upon Enbridge before reviewing its proposal, we must also be critical of the continued shortcomings of this process. The restrained terms of this public process remain suspect and community members must remain skeptical to the potential of this government appointed panel to protect their interests, as well as the long-term interests of our world.

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.