A couple of Alberta ministers have been keeping us incredibly entertained for the past few weeks with their non-stop pressure on the feds to support Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which would bring hundreds of oil supertankers to B.C.’s north coast each year to export raw bitumen to Asia.

Alberta Energy Minister Ron Liepert got things started when he called for the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to go ahead during a speech at an oilsands conference in Edmonton.  He told the conference that Chinese investors have “difficulty understanding why we don’t just plow a line to the West Coast and start shipping more products by tanker tomorrow.”

Alberta is accustomed to plowing pipelines on the back of political will. Former energy minister Murray Smith once said, “I never met a pipeline I didn’t like.” What these ministers might not realize is that politics are different on this side of the Rockies. Opposition to oil pipelines in B.C. is massive and diverse. And statements like Liepert’s just get people fired up even more.

Next up, Alberta Finance & Enterprise Minister Lloyd Snelgrove fed the grist mill when he told the Edmonton Journal the province expected the feds to clearly express support for Enbridge’s pipeline project.

“Unfortunately the buzz [from the Harper government] is kind of just a hum right now. We sure don’t feel that Ottawa is coming here saying, ‘Let’s get to work on this, let’s move,’ ” Snelgrove said.

Meanwhile, Enbridge’s proposal is wending its way through an environmental review process that government officials love to hold up as “credible,” “comprehensive,” and “fair.” Needless to say, the feds quickly reminded Liepert and Snelgrove to settle down on the political talk and hold up the review process as the neutral arbiter.

Liepert was singing a different tune by the next week.

“The vibe that I’m getting is that Northern Gateway actually is a priority [for the Harper government]. You have to understand there is a process with the NEB (National Energy Board) and we respect that,” he told the Edmonton Journal.

“Until the process runs its course, I don’t think you’re going to see federal officials saying much more, and that’s understandable,” he said.  ” . . . If they come out in advance of letting the NEB hearing take place, what’s the point of having the NEB hearing?”

Good question. What exactly is the point of having a NEB hearing when the decision is ultimately political?

B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have both been deferring to the review process when the reality is that it is not equipped to make this kind of decision. The question of whether or not Canada plows a pipeline to the West Coast to increase oil exports to China is entirely a political one.

Even if we continue to plod through the environmental review process for several years, in the end, the government of the day can decide to accept or reject the panel’s recommendations willy-nilly. This is exactly what happened last year in the case of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. Of 115 recommendations aimed at the federal and Northwest Territories governments, the governments fully accepted just 10 of those recommendations. The panel blasted the governments, but the project was approved anyway.

There’s a place for environmental reviews, and they need to be strengthened, but the magnitude and nature of risk posed by Northern Gateway necessitates an upfront decision about whether it’s worth considering at all.

This is a time for our politicians to lead, not a time for politicians to point to a deeply flawed review process.  Clark would be smart to acknowledge this fact and take a position before she comes up for election. Given that 75 per cent of British Columbians don’t want more oil tankers on their coast, there’s only one smart move for a B.C. premier to make.


Image courtesy of Dave Heidebrecht.



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