You have to wonder why the Harper government bothered with process at all. It’s like there was never any doubt that Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline would get approved. But historians may look back on this moment as the beginning of the end of pipeline politics.
Opposition to Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline is BC’s largest social movement. A large majority of British Columbians are opposed to the pipeline. BC First Nations, who hold the ultimate trump card – the constitutionality of their rights and title, have said no means no. Thousands testified to the Joint Review Panel (and its arguably limited flawed process). Even friend of fossil fuels, Premier Christy Clark, maintains her five conditions for BC’s approval have not been met.
So the betting odds are that this pipeline will never get built. Even the federal decision came at the last minute, without ministerial fanfare, advertising campaign or the term “Harper government” on the media release. Moreover, by igniting a BC-based opposition, the 21 seats the Conservatives hold in BC could be the difference between a renewed majority or not in the 2015 election.
The Harper government’s relentless push to make Canada an energy superpower based on tripling production from the tar sands may now be its undoing. Blame Obama — the US president has had to delay and delay a decision on the unpopular Keystone XL pipeline. This pushed Harper to look to the west, only to find that Western alienation is now about BC not Alberta.
The proposed Kinder-Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline is in similar jeopardy, even as hearings on pipelines, post-Enbridge, have been hobbled. They no longer carry the risk that such large numbers will show up and make reasonable arguments against. I was denied the right to be heard at the upcoming Kinder-Morgan Pipeline hearings, even though I am one of just a few people in the country that has done research on the economic costs and benefits of pipelines.
Not that Enbridge had a stellar track record going into the JRP hearings, either. Enbridge’s poor handling of its Kalamazoo, Michigan pipeline spill was exposed at the same time the JRP hearings were underway (perhaps the three person panel was too busy to notice). Indeed, Enbridge had over 800 oil spills on its North American pipeline network between 1999 and 2010, a total of 27 million litres of hydrocarbons or enough to fill 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
With hearings on, the company promoted maps missing islands along the Northern BC shipping route. It peddled grossly inflated job claims based on shoddy modelling. It made claims of First Nations support that disappeared in the daylight. And yet, after all of these gaffes, in production, communications and science, it is remarkable that their proposal is even being given serious consideration. But even in straight up dollar terms, projected construction costs have soared from $5.5 billion to almost $8 billion.
The Enbridge brand has become mud in BC. Across Canada, the Enbridge Ride for the Cure raises money for cancer research (the solution brought to you by the problem). But in Vancouver, Enbridge’s name is so toxic, it’s just the Ride for the Cure. Promo ads now run for Northern Gateway Pipeline but do not name the proponent.
In the opposition to Enbridge, Keystone and Kinder-Morgan, we are seeing a public response to a fossil fuel industry has gotten too large, its infrastructure causing too much damage. The costs of the carbon economy, local environmental damage due to spills and costs associated with climate change, were recently estimated at $1.2 trillion per year.
Climate change and changing attitudes about addressing it also suggest this pipeline may never happen. It’s been widely noted that two-thirds to four-fifths of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, perhaps much more in Canada. A recent report by Carbon Tracker highlighted the highest cost sources of oil include most projects in Alberta. These are unfeasable in a carbon-constrained world (i.e. one that limits warming to 2 degrees).
These are the dying days of the old fossil fuel empires. The companies want to extract as much profit out of their investments as they can, and stick others with the bill for damages. They have won over political parties of all stripes across the nation, but lack the social license to proceed. In the interim they have shifted to Plan B – rail cars that periodically derail and explode – but the times they are a-changing.
We’ve reached a point now where the economics of renewables, knowledge of better building design and urban planning, “zero waste” approaches to materials, and so forth are transforming our economy even amid political support that is at best wavering and insufficient.
My bold prediction is that when we tell the Enbridge story in the future, it will be of a pivotal moment in how we view our economy and livelihoods, a rejection of dirty energy in favour of clean alternatives, and the collapse of a destructive economic dream.
Marc Lee is a Senior Economic with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office.