Dirty Oil – Pipeline Politics

The New Year has begun, but if you’ve been reading the newspapers, 2005 looks like more of the same from our Canadian governments, particularly BC and Alberta. We’re seeing even more shameless promotion of all kinds of fossil fuels projects, regardless of their impact on the climate crisis or on lands and people.

Over the last few years, BC has joined Alberta as a cheerleader for all kinds of fossil fuel projects. The Campbell government is giddy over spiking gas and oil revenues, and is trying to fast-track coal, coal-fired electricity generation, coalbed methane, pipelines and off-shore drilling despite growing local opposition.

The latest proposal to hit the news is Enbridge’s Gateway pipeline. This project aims to move oil from Alberta’s tar sands to either Prince Rupert or Kitimat on BC’s central coast.

This week Enbridge announced it is finalizing negotiations with Chinese purchasers to buy crude oil transported from Alberta’s tar sands to Edmonton then via the Gateway pipeline to tankers on the BC coast. Terasen, formerly BC Gas, has a competing proposal that would follow a similar route.

With these competing proposals, BC is now entering the wacky world of dirty oil and pipeline politics. Companies like Enbridge and Terasen are lining up to make money off the tar sands (and the massive government subsidies supporting it), but little public discussion has occurred about the local or global impacts of the project.

Locally, the tar sands are leaving a devastating footprint. The oil-rich sand is removed from the ground through a giant mining operation that leaves huge holes and toxic tailing ponds that you can see from the moon. The oil is then essentially baked out of the tar-laced sand. This baking uses toxic chemicals and burns vast amounts of (increasingly scarce) natural gas to create the necessary heat.

The irony of subsidizing relatively clean-burning natural gas to synthesize low-quality, low-BTU tar into oil seems to have been lost on tar sands boosters like Paul Martin. While Martin mouths platitudes on Kyoto, he shows the hollowness of his words by handing out more subsidies to promote ditry oil from the tar sands.

That brings us to back to BC. It is not surprising that the BC government has sent positive signals to Enbridge and Terasen about their tar-sands pipeline proposals. Remember, this is a government that objects to Kyoto and is promoting virtually every fossil fuel project that its energy, logging and minig corporate donors can dream up: offshore drilling, coal-fired electricity generation, co-generation with wood waste, expanded coal mining, and coalbed methane.

His record makes one wonder: has Gordon Campbell ever seen an energy project he didn’t like?

However, the support of Messrs Campbell, Klein and (perhaps) Martin, along with multinational corporations and the Chinese government, doesn’t guarantee the project will get built. Formidable obstacles exist:

  • 1. Ongoing disputes about jurisdiction and land use (the “land question”) with BC’s First Nations, whose territory the pipeline will need to cross.
  • 2. The growing competition between US and China over oil and its impact on global energy security.

First Nation Issues
Both Terasen’s and Enbridge’s proposed pipelines face opposition from First Nations. A few months ago, Enbridge presented its proposal to the Wet’suwet’en chiefs, who were less than impressed. Last week I met with Treaty 8 leaders, and they were not enthusiastic either.

The recent Haida ruling by the Supreme Court of Canadamade moving forward in BC without First Nations support very difficult if not impossible. The ruling held that First Nations have to be involved in “strategic decisions” like licensing decisions.

Last fall Terasen’s CEO, Rick Ballentyne, acknowledged the “uncertainty” resulting from the Crown’s failure to engage with First Nations and resolve land title issues. Highlighting potential obstacles to Terasen’s BC pipeline he said, “In British Columbia, it’s all First Nations territory, the whole province has never been ceded. So it’s all subject to unsettled land claims….”

US Energy Security
As pointed out in a blog by Conservation Voters of BC, the tar sands pipelines will bring BC into “the big leagues of petroleum politics” in opposition to US strategic energy interests.

The US is the world’s biggest energy hog (per capita, Canada is the bigger oinker). As unrest in oil-rich Nigeria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela increases, America’s energy security risks rise. The U.S. has increasingly been looking to Canada to expand exports to feed the US energy addiction.

Last year, with little fanfare, Canada became the United States’s biggest oil and gas supplier, and Bush is looking to Canada’s tar sands to feed their addiction for many years to come. That’s why the tar sands were recently reclassified by the US as the second largest deposit outside of Saudi Arabia.

It is also why the tar sands pipeline proposals may not be popular in the US. In fact, reports that two Chinese companies are competing to lock down future tars sands supply must be making Bush’s backers downright jittery.

It’s simple. By facilitating oil export to the growing energy hog China, the pipeline would end America’s exclusive access to the tar sands. And as we know, despite the free-market rhetoric, the U.S. doesn’t like to have to compete for its energy.

So big obstacles are on the horizon for the competing tar sands pipelines. BC may have a significant role to play in global energy politics, but to date there has been no public process to discuss what role we may want to play in the world’s energy future.

Isn’t it about time that BC and Canada create a real energy plan? Isn’t it about time that our governments engage with us — particularly communities and First Nations affected by fossil fuel projects — about long-term plans to support our domestic and export energy needs?

Until that time, Dogwood Initiative will be working with communities and First Nations to help them change the balance of power and promote their long-term health and prosperity.

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