Enbridge is asking environment minister George Heyman to issue an emergency order exempting the company from a key deadline.

Under B.C. law, permits for the Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission project expire next year if Enbridge isn’t ready to start construction. Company executives have requested an extension until 2029.

Heyman must now decide whether to approve an emergency override to the province’s Environmental Assessment Act. In other words, making an exception to the law for the largest pipeline company on the continent.

The ‘emergency’ of Indigenous rights

In a letter to Heyman posted last week, project president Allen Capps says Enbridge has been “engaging with Indigenous Nations” and “working with potential LNG terminal project sponsors” but “two situations have caused significant delays”. The company says these delays justify a five-year extension to its permit.

One is the Covid-19 pandemic, which triggered a provincial state of emergency for fifteen months. However, oil and gas projects were classified as an essential service and construction on other pipeline projects carried on throughout the pandemic. Office work and meetings continued online.

The other problem cited by Capps is “the pause and delay in the issuance of certain permits by the B.C. government since July 2021.” He’s referring to a short-lived moratorium on fracking development in Blueberry River First Nations territory in northeast B.C. This came after the Crown lost the Yahey court case, forcing it to stop violating Indigenous rights under Treaty 8.

For decades the province approved so many clearcuts, mines, dams, frack pads and pipelines that Blueberry members lost the ability to practice their culture in large parts of their territory. Under a new agreement with the First Nation announced last week, those industrial activities will now proceed under certain limits.

Enbridge says that 18-month pause to business as usual in part of B.C.’s gas patch “has created a situation comparable to an emergency”. Under section 46 of the Environmental Assessment Act, minister Heyman can change a project assessment timeline in response to an emergency – as long as he finds it “in the public interest”.

Lobbyists swarm Victoria

Enbridge is determined to ensure he does. The company has 17 staff members registered to lobby government officials in Victoria, including its new President and CEO Greg Ebel, who is based in Houston, Texas. Last year those lobbyists targeted 24 different B.C. government officials, some of them multiple times.

Former premier John Horgan’s chief of staff Geoff Meggs was on the list, as was Kevin Jardine, Heyman’s deputy minister in charge of environmental assessments. Ministers Bruce Ralston, Josie Osborne, Ravi Kahlon and Rob Fleming were lobbied along with senior staff in five different ministries, and northern MLAs.

Lobbying reports are vague, so we don’t know exactly what was discussed in last year’s meetings. But it’s clear the Westcoast pipeline was on the table. The lobbying registry also shows that in April, Enbridge received $5 million from the ministry of Energy and Mines – for what is unclear. The company raked in $3.7 billion in profit that quarter.

A zombie pipeline

The Westcoast Connector project was approved in 2014 under the Christy Clark government. The massive twin pipeline corridor was first proposed by Spectra Energy. Enbridge acquired WCGT (and Greg Ebel) when it bought Spectra. Why is Enbridge suddenly scrambling to extend the project permit to 2029 – 15 years after it was approved?

The short answer is war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last winter gave oil and gas companies the perfect excuse to jack up prices. Midstream companies like Enbridge are swimming in cash. And U.S. and Canadian politicians are using the war to push for new pipeline projects, despite rapid efforts in Europe to cut dependence on gas.

A decade ago Enbridge alienated B.C. communities with its Northern Gateway pipeline and oil tanker proposal. The project was approved by the Stephen Harper government, but crumbled under legal challenges by Indigenous nations, environmental groups and Unifor. For years it seemed futile to try to build a pipeline through the northwest.

Then Enbridge watched the RCMP rappel out of helicopters, point rifles at unarmed Indigenous women and lock land defenders in dog kennels. The B.C. government showed that with enough police, public money and propaganda, a pipeline like Coastal GasLink was not impossible.

In 2022, Enbridge set aside $10 million to bring the Westcoast pipeline back to life – and take another shot at punching through the Skeena watershed.

Locals sound the alarm

“Years ago industry itself said not to use the ‘Enbridge Approach’. Now here they are again. Nothing has changed in their approach nor conduct,” said Na’moks, hereditary chief of the Wet’suwet’en Tsayu, or Beaver clan. Long skeptical of oil and gas pipelines, Na’moks has been threatened with arrest for trying to monitor CGL’s construction on his territory.

“Our experience with Coastal GasLink should ring an alarm bell for all. These companies will simply destroy rivers, salmon, food sovereignty and security without having any regard for those that are directly affected,” said Na’moks.

Earlier this month, Coastal GasLink contractors were caught on camera operating excavators in a salmon spawning river without sediment or erosion control – a clear violation of the project’s permits. Federal fishery officers are investigating. But regulators have yet to halt construction or issue significant fines, despite repeat violations by CGL.

“We already have one major pipeline under construction across the Skeena watershed, and from a regulatory perspective it’s a gong show,” said Shannon McPhail, co-executive director of the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition.

“I’ve been trying for months to find out which government department is responsible for protecting salmon and steelhead habitat, and they all keep pointing fingers at each other. Meanwhile, the damage continues and the company is not held accountable.”

Enbridge's route through the Skeena watershed

Enbridge’s route through the Skeena watershed

The Westcoast Connector pipeline would avoid Wet’suwet’en territory, cutting north of Highway 16 through Gitxsan and Gitanyow territory. It would cross the Skeena river at the historic village of Kisgegas. It would then tunnel under the Kispiox river, a world-renowned steelhead fishing destination.

“We have to figure this out before even considering another pipeline under the Skeena and Kispiox rivers,” said McPhail. “The B.C. government’s regulation of the Coastal GasLink project has been a failure. That is unacceptable for our fish and the people who depend on them.”

Heyman in the hot seat

Environment minister George Heyman faces perhaps the most significant decision of his political career. Bending to Enbridge’s permit request would open the door to a pipeline system capable of exporting 64 million tonnes of liquid gas per year. That’s more than B.C.’s entire current fracking output.

Meanwhile, Royal Dutch Shell is mulling whether to build Phase 2 of its LNG Canada terminal in Kitimat. At full capacity it would be half the size of what Enbridge is proposing. Either project is enough to blow B.C.’s legislated climate targets – building both is arson.

It’s hard to imagine how Heyman could find this “in the public interest,” but Enbridge has already given him 77 pages of arguments to do just that. It’s clear the public faces an uphill battle to balance out the influence of Enbridge’s lobbyists – and convince our government to follow its own law.