The battle over a proposal to export Alberta oil sands crude to Asia is at fever pitch as proponents and opponents square off in what shapes up as a pivotal showdown that will determine how far Canada’s energy horizons extend.
With Enbridge’s planned C$5.54 billion Northern Gateway application to export 525,000 barrels per day now facing environmental, economic and social review before a joint federal and the National Energy Board panel, the struggle over public and political backing is building on a daily basis.
The opposition intensified Dec. 2 when 61 British Columbia First Nations marched on Enbridge’s office in Vancouver, delivering a signed declaration vowing to stop Alberta crude from crossing the province, or entering coastal waters in tankers.
But a spokeswoman for Enbridge said her company does not believe the aboriginal communities have the legal authority to halt the project, arguing that decision will be made by the regulatory panel.
She said Enbridge has signed a protocol with 30 First Nations along the pipeline right of way, but said the identity of those groups is confidential. Enbridge has estimated about 60 percent of aboriginal communities along the route are participating in preliminary studies.
Equity stakeHowever, Enbridge Chief Executive Officer Pat Daniel said Nov. 30 his company is prepared to give First Nations and Metis communities a 10 percent stake in Northern Gateway.
He hopes a deal will be negotiated by mid-December based on an offer that would make the aboriginals “pretty happy.”
A precedent has already been achieved by co-venturers in the Mackenzie Gas Project through access and benefits agreements with three of four First Nations along that pipeline right of way.
The opposition to Northern Gateway also involves environmentalists, landowners, fishing and tourism industries and municipal governments.
The alliance of 61 First Nations has taken out an ad in the Globe and Mail newspaper, paid for by the West Coast Environmental Law Association (funded by various North American foundations and individuals), declaring they will not allow the transport of “tar sands oil” across their lands or watersheds.
“An oil spill in our lands and rivers would destroy our fish, poison our water and devastate out people, our livelihoods and our future,” the alliance said. “We will protect our rivers from Enbridge oil.”
Call for united approachShawn Atleo, national chief of Canada’s Assembly of First Nations, joined the Vancouver protest, calling for a united North American approach to energy development on traditional lands.
“There has to be a paradigm shift on planning for resource development,” he said.
Coastal First Nations Executive Director Art Sterritt said in a separate statement that C$300 million has been invested over recent years to build a sustainable fishing industry.
Gordon Christie, a University of British Columbia professor who specializes in aboriginal law, said he would not characterize actions by the 61 First Nations as a “complete roadblock, but it’s going to put some impediments in place.”
In addition, a letter signed by 15 Members of Parliament from the opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties (none of the 22 governing Conservative legislators from British Columbia added their signatures) urged Prime Minister Stephen Harper to prevent bulk crude tankers from using the “abundant coastal waters of Canada’s Pacific North Coast.”
Longstanding moratoriumCanada’s Transport Minister Chuck Strahl rebuffed some of the groups’ claims, noting a longstanding moratorium is in place to prevent tankers traveling between Alaska and Washington from entering Canadian waters.
Daniel said a ban would be “strange” public policy by depriving local residents of the economic benefits of Northern Gateway.
He said it made no sense to single out the northern British Columbia coast given the movement of ships out of Vancouver, Montreal or “anywhere else.”
Daniel said a trade-oriented country such as Canada should not engage in policy-making related to an “isolated” area.
He said Enbridge will take several measures to reduce the risk of a tanker accident by using only double-hulled vessels (Northern Gateway would involve about 250 supertankers a year), and assigning local pilots and escorts to guide tankers through what some critics rate as some of the world’s roughest waters.