When Enbridge’s Northern Gateway oil tanker and pipeline proposal was first announced in 2012, B.C. Premier Christy Clark did a lot of tough talking. But the closer the final decision by the National Energy Board comes (it is expected today) the more she has fallen silent.
Has she changed her mind? Or is she merely biding her time before mounting the barricades on behalf of her province and people?
Certainly, her initial blistering rhetoric was of the “no holds barred” variety:
“I don’t see any appetite for it,” she said in an interview with the Globe and Mail in the fall of 2012. “Heaven forbid, it would be a national political crisis. Whether or not people supported the pipeline, they would band together to fight the federal government if they decided to intrude into British Columbia without our consent,” she continued.
Clark acknowledged that if Ottawa wants to play hardball, it could use the federal power of disallowance to override provincial opposition. In theory, disallowance gives the federal government the authority to unilaterally revoke provincial statutes. However, it has not been used since 1943.
“Ted Morton [former Alberta energy minister] has talked about this,” Ms. Clark said. “The reason [disallowance] is so rarely used is because citizens and provinces will no longer tolerate that kind of intrusion into provincial decisions. The thing is, this project can only go ahead if it has the social licence to do so,” she continued. “It can only get the social licence from the citizens of British Columbia. And that’s what I’m representing as Premier.”
In a later speech at the University of Calgary, Clark, a staunch federal Liberal, spelled out just some of the ways her government could spike both Ottawa’s and Enbridge’s guns. Among them is its ability to withhold 60 different permits and refuse to connect pumping stations to the province’s electrical grid.
“The thing is if British Columbia doesn’t give its consent to this, there is no way the federal government or anyone else in the country is going to be able to force it through. It just won’t happen,” she said.
Her initial tough rhetoric and now, strange silence, aside, her famous “five conditions” for getting B.C.’s consent remain. As long as they do, they clearly pose huge – and probably insurmountable – obstacles for both the Harper Conservatives and Enbridge:
-Successful completion of the environmental process;
-World-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems for B.C.’s coastline and ocean to manage and mitigate the risks and cost of heavy oil pipelines and shipments;
-World-leading practices for land oil-spill prevention, response and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines;
-Legal requirements regarding Aboriginal and treaty rights are addressed, and First Nations are provided with the opportunities, information and resources necessary to participate in and benefit from a heavy oil project;
-British Columbia receives a fair share of the fiscal and economic benefits of a proposed heavy oil project that reflects the level and nature of the risk borne by the province, the environment and taxpayers.
So far, with the NEB decision expected likely Tuesday or Wednesday this week, not one of Clark’s conditions has even begun to be addressed, let alone met. One in particular – world-leading marine oil spill response, prevention and recovery systems to manage and mitigate the risks and costs of heavy oil pipelines – is particularly fraught given the still-fresh memories, and ongoing everyday realities, of the Exxon Valdez March,1989 catastrophe off the coast of Alaska.
It spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of oil in Prince William Sound, a pristine region for salmon, sea otters, seals and seabirds. The spill eventually covered 2,100 km of coastline and 28,000 square km of ocean. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters of all time.
“The fact is, 100 per cent of the royalties (from Northern Gateway) would stay in Alberta,” states Kai Nagata of Dogwood Initiative. “B.C. would take the all the risk for zero per cent of that reward. “In terms of total tax revenue, the B.C. government calculates it would collect eight per cent of the pie, while 92 per cent went to Alberta, Ottawa and the other provinces.
“The entire contribution of revenues related to Northern Gateway would add up to one percent of the B.C. provincial budget. Yet taxpayers would suffer economic losses in the billions of dollars in the event of a major spill.”
Finally, concludes Nagata, the project, according to Enbridge’s own submission to the Joint Review Panel, “would create exactly 204 long term jobs in our province – though they can’t guarantee they would hire British Columbians. Is that a fair share…?”
The heat and the pressure is building.
British Columbians have a special bond with the stunning and multifaceted beauty of their province. Right after the pipeline was announced in 2012, there was a massive rally drawing many thousands to the lawn of the Legislature in Victoria to voice their opposition.
Numerous grassroots groups such as the Dogwood Initiative have mobilized hundreds of volunteers (in Dogwood’s case, some 75 teams) spread all across the province to urge citizens to fight against the threat to B.C.’s land, sea and waterways.
Finally, is the ultimate and likely insurmountable roadblock – B.C.’s aboriginal communities. Most have never signed treaties with any government and thus hold ultimate power over their ancestral lands and rights.
There is a clear parallel here with the proposed but subsequently defeated 1,200-kilometre Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline in the 1970s. Aboriginal communities along the pipeline’s planned route – also with no signed treaties – mounted the same fierce opposition already growing in B.C. The issue dragged on for years , becoming the subject of a Royal Commission under Mr. Justice Thomas Berger.
During the hearings in August, 1975 at Fort Good Hope in the Northwest Territories, Chief Frank T’Seleie blindsided Robert Blair, president of Foothills Pipe Lines Ltd. of Calgary, one of the contenders to build the pipeline. T’Seleie, one of the young university-educated chiefs, then in his 20s, sat beside Blair at the witness table. When his turn came to testify, he confronted Blair:
“You are like the Pentagon, Mr. Blair, planning the slaughter of innocent Vietnamese. Don’t tell me you are not responsible. You are the 20th-century General Custer. You are coming with your troops to slaughter us and steal land that is rightfully ours. You are coming to destroy a people that have a history of 30,000 years. Why? For 20 years of gas? Are you really that insane?”
T’Seleie left Fort Good Hope, went south, spent time at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., then returned to the North. He became chief again at Fort Good Hope. In his second term and with most land-claim obstacles settled, he became a strong advocate in the new push for a gas pipeline up the Mackenzie.
But that pipeline would not carry anything like the heavy – and environmentally devastating – crude oil destined for the Northern Gateway pipeline. On land, it must be pushed through extremely mountainous and rugged terrain in an active earthquake zone. Then, it must be packed into giant supertankers to navigate the narrow and dangerous channels of the equally mountainous and rugged British Columbia coastline.
All in all, it’s a right-now, ready-made recipe for environmental and ecological catastrophe.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.