Opinion

Fletcher: Posturing over pipeline across northern B.C. won’t help

The B.C. Liberal government is taking its new hard-line approach to federal environmental hearings on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in September.

Environment Minister Terry Lake has filed the B.C. government’s notice to cross-examine Enbridge, one of the world’s biggest pipeline operators. Lake outlined the “tough questions” B.C. representatives will ask about spill response capacity on land and sea, tanker escort tugboats, pipe wall thickness, and Enbridge’s sluggish response to a pipeline rupture in Michigan.

That’s all fine, and to be expected after Premier Christy Clark’s high-profile confrontation with Alberta Premier Alison Redford going into the recent premiers’ meeting in Halifax.

Clark’s demands for “world-leading” safety and spill response, as well as meeting the constitutional obligation to consult and accommodate aboriginal groups along the route, are mostly a statement of the obvious. Her call for a “fair share” of proceeds from exported oil to reflect B.C.’s risk has been assaulted from all sides.

Pipeline opponents seized on Clark’s suggestion that a major oil spill might be tolerable if there was enough money in it for B.C. NDP leader Adrian Dix picked up the theme as he conducted his own belated tour of the proposed route to reiterate his opposition.

There had been earlier hints from Alberta that B.C. might need further rewards for the risk. But when Clark made the “fair share” demand public, Redford was moved to channel Margaret Thatcher, declaring: “The Premier of Alberta is not going to blink on royalties.” The lady’s not for blinking, but neither is B.C.’s Iron Snowbird, as Preston Manning dubbed Clark this spring.

All this political theatre doesn’t amount to much. I’ll stand by my January prediction that the Enbridge proposal is unlikely to proceed, mainly due to the tangled state of aboriginal claims. Wealthy U.S. foundations that view the B.C. North Coast as their 500-year eco-experiment will be happy to help fund a decade of legal challenges, while continuing the media-spinning and protest support they are doing now.

Even if some way can be found to levy a B.C. tax on revenues from the Northern Gateway pipeline, it’s no solution. For one thing, it would confer an advantage to the Trans-Mountain pipeline that has been shipping Alberta oil to Burnaby and the U.S. for more than 60 years.

The competing expansion proposal by Trans-Mountain’s current owner, Kinder Morgan, shows the inconsistency of opposition to pipelines. Does anyone really believe that a new pipeline built to the highest standards ever would be too dangerous, while a 60-year-old pipeline is acceptable?

Protesters have an easy target in Kinder Morgan. With a tenfold increase to 25 tankers a month proposed to sail under the Lions Gate bridge, a heavy oil spill from Second Narrows to Stanley Park would be catastrophic to Vancouver’s environment and economy. Tankers have made that trip safely for nearly 100 years, but the congested modern shipping lane offers more threat of collision, and clearing Burrard Inlet for near-daily tanker transits would disrupt the rest of B.C.’s shipping trade.

An Angus Reid poll last week showed as many as half of respondents remain open-minded about the costs and benefits of new oil pipelines across B.C. Unlike B.C. politicians, they seem interested in learning more before making up their minds.

Dix and the NDP ran to the front of the anti-pipeline parade early, as they did with the carbon tax and other issues. Clark began the Northern Gateway discussion with a principled position to wait for the result of the federal review, but that’s apparently out the window with an election looming.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press.

tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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